An interaction between a Lititz resident and a Warwick School Board member at a meeting turned testy last week after the board member was accused of meeting with a “hate group.”
Lititz resident James Senft was the last person to address the board at the March 21 Warwick School Board meeting, calling attention to a recent story released by the Bucks County Courier Times in which the author highlighted several school districts across the state challenging questionable books in libraries and the curriculum, including Warwick.
The article focuses in on emails sent in the district regarding a “breakfast meeting” between School Board Member Jim Koelsch and Pennsylvania Family Institute COO and Chief Counsel Randall Wenger on Jan. 27 at the Lititz Family Cupboard. The Pennsylvania Family Institute, a Harrisburg-based nonprofit defending religious liberty, has Lititz resident Wenger as one of its leaders.
In the article, the Pennsylvania Family Institute is listed as a state chapter of the Family Research Council, which the author of the article identified as being “recognized as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.” The author of the article also named School Board Member Emily Zimmerman from the emails asking for a “one-on-one meeting with the institute.”
The institute’s legal arm, the Independence Law Center, was instrumental in helping the Hempfield School District formulate and adopt a policy in July restricting student athletes in the district to participate with sports teams that are the same as their birth sex, effectively keeping male students identifying as transgender from playing on female teams.
At the March 21 meeting, Senft asked the board why some of the members decided to meet with the Pennsylvania Family Institute.
“Why would members of the board invite more extremism and hate into the community and recommend meeting with a group that’s recognized as a hate group?” Senft said. “It’s bananas. I’m asking that members of this board not put targets on the back of a group of students in the district – students whose lives are already challenging enough, students who already get bullied for who they are, not just by some classmates, but even more so recently by adults in the community.”
Senft said the school board is in place to support all students in the district and “not to add to the bullying of marginalized groups,” requesting that members not meet with the institute.
“Let’s return to a time when school boards are nonpartisan entities looking out for the best interests of public education and the community,” Senft said. “Reject the hate, reject the extremism. Let’s show our community what Warwick strong really means.”
While Koelsch and Zimmerman were named in the Bucks County Courier Times article, Senft did not use their names when he addressed the board. Koelsch did not respond to Senft’s comments, but Zimmerman vehemently defended her request for a meeting with the Pennsylvania Family Institute.
Zimmerman said as public officials, it is in their “best interest to seek out information from anywhere that information is possible.”
“It is disheartening to me that individuals in this community feel the need to target school board members without the knowledge of any other conversation that we’ve been having,” Zimmerman said. “You have no idea who any individual on this board has or has not spoken to. You’re looking at a snapshot of something.”
Zimmerman said she is unabashedly conservative, but she is still willing to listen to liberal perspectives because it is her job as an elected official to pay attention to all perspectives on an issue in the community.
“I think it’s really, really unfair that newspapers, media, and people in this community continue to target the individuals that sit up here and give up their time away from our families, away from other obligations that we have, in order to learn,” Zimmerman said. “Our job is to learn from all perspectives. So any individual in this community continuing to target any person appear based on a snapshot is completely inappropriate.”
After Zimmerman spoke, Senft challenged her comments with an accusatory question that elicited reactions from the audience in the board room.
“Would you meet with the American Nazi Party if they asked you for a meeting?” Senft said. “I mean, where’s the line?”
School Board President Todd Rucci interrupted the exchange, saying, “That’s enough.”
Rucci, who for several months has read the board’s policy regarding public comments directed towards board members at the beginning of each meeting after a resident caused a public disturbance at the Nov. 1 Committee of the Whole meeting, said he recognizes that residents in the district “all have different opinions and insights.”
In the policy adopted by the board and read by Rucci at each meeting, “individuals who address the crowd, taunt, or otherwise inflame others in attendance will be asked to sit down and given a warning for the record.” It was not clear whether Senft received a warning for his Nazi comment.
“We are a community that is filled with different views and perspectives, which is a great thing,” Rucci said. “The one tough thing, which we’ve all experienced over the last couple years is, is just learning to listen to one another and do it respectfully. And I think, given the environment of today – and it’s not just isolated here at Warwick – I just think that we’re working through that. So, all I ask is that this community, this board and members who share the passion for our kids, that we conduct ourselves appropriately, and I think we’re moving in that direction.”
After the Meeting
Following last week’s meeting, Senft posted a video to his YouTube account titled “I Asked a Right-Wing School Board Member to Stop Meeting with a Hate Group & She Got Mad,” depicting the interaction between himself and Zimmerman. In the video, several text titles were added, including one at the beginning reading, “How do you trigger your local right-wing extremist school board member? Share the truth about them.”
The video also includes an added meme parodying the original Washington Redskins football logo, showing the face of an angry blond-haired man with golf clubs and a necktie with the text, “The White Thin Skins. ‘Hey!I’m the real victim here!’” The meme is displayed as Zimmerman speaks in the video, while another part of the video shows a name tag sticker posted over Zimmerman that says, “Hello, my name is Victim.”
Senft posted two tweets on social media on March 24 about his interaction with Zimmerman, indicating that he read highlights from the Bucks County Courier Times article.
“One of the board members mentioned in the article for meeting with a hate group (I did not name her) had a hissy fit in response,” Senft said in his tweet. “Note that I was calm and respectful in my delivery. I simply asked the board to not consult with a hate group. In return I was angrily replied to by someone who explained that her job as an elected official is to ‘learn’ and how dare we ‘target’ her when she’s ‘volunteering.’”
Senft was recently featured prominently in an article published in LNP about ties between members of the Warwick School Board and Moms for Liberty, a national parent’s group with local chapters that grew around battling COVID-19 measures implemented at schools like mask mandates. In the LNP article, Senft is categorized as keeping a “running list of what he calls ‘manufactured crises’” by parents at school board meetings.
No stranger to controversy, Senft helped create the Facebook group Fathers Understanding Critical Knowledge, billing itself a group “in support of public education. Pro-science, pro-LGBTQIA+, pro-books, anti-racism.” The group held an event on Oct. 26 at Aaron’s Books in Lititz called “Banned Books & Booze” that included speakers talking about “the recent trend of book challenges.” At least one member of the public was refused entrance to the event after reserving a spot because they had previously challenged some of the books being debated for inclusion at the school library, including the controversial “Gender Queer.”
Senft has been active on social media in debates surrounding issues at Warwick. In an archived Instagram post provided to The Lancaster Patriot, Senft went after a Warwick Middle School student who spoke at a school board meeting about the impacts the mask mandate was having on her mental health.
“‘I don’t hear anyone on the side of individual choice pushing a fear narrative…’ Except for trotting out a crying eighth grader at a public school board meeting to ludicrously claim that masks are making her suicidal,” Senft said in the archived Instagram post.
Senft, who initially denied attacking any students on social media when some parents called out his previous actions, later provided an admission that he made the comment.
“Ah ok I’m sorry, I said that on Instagram,” Senft said in another archived message. “I’ll own that and stand by it. It was gross to see parents trotting out their kid and having her cry at a school board meeting not once, but multiple times. At least I’m not naming the kid the way in which she named a teacher.”
Warwick United Ties
Senft has linked himself in the past to the group Warwick United, a registered nonprofit that bills itself as a “collective that strives to do good and uplift the Lititz community.” The group has organized food and clothes drives in the past but has also been criticized by some in the community for its stance on controversial issues being discussed in the district, including library books.
In the “News” section of Warwick United’s website, several letters to the editor in LNP penned by Senft are linked. In one titled “Christian extremists are being aggressive,” Senft cites decreasing numbers of the U.S. population as identifying as Christian because of “Extremist Christians” and that parents who want their children to have a Christian education should instead send them to Christian schools.
“Personally, I am kind of excited that this brand of Christianity is helping to turn more people off from the harmful effects of religion,” Senft said in the letter to the editor published in LNP. “More people are waking up thanks to these zealots, and we are seemingly getting closer to John Lennon’s dream of no religion and ‘all the people living life in peace.’”
Kayla Cook, a Lititz resident and one of the founders of Warwick United, is also active on social media. On her own Twitter account, Cook liked both of Senft’s tweets he made on March 24 regarding his interaction with Zimmerman.
Comments from Cook were also included in the Bucks County Courier Times article this month in which she challenged emails regarding the library standard the board has been working on for appropriate books, calling actions by parents and other groups as a “playbook” and “frustratingly predictable.”
In the article, Cook said discussions around an “opt-in” policy requiring parents to give permission to their children to access certain library materials deemed questionable and sexual content in books “fizzled out” in October because of the actions of some parents.
“I think the only reason that we were successful was because the (policy supporters) in our community came in so heavy and extreme and flat out like bat[***] crazy that it turned even our conservative board members moderate,” Cook said in the Bucks County Courier Times article.
At the March 21 School meeting, Warwick Superintendent Dr. April Hershey indicated that the district’s library policy is set to be unveiled in April and could receive a board vote for approval by May.