North enveloped in national spotlight


Gabe Kolodner

Protesters opposing North’s upcoming drag show rally in Newton Centre Thursday, April 13.

Aaron Spetter-Goldstein, Opinions editor

This April, it was North’s ToBeGLAD Day drag event. Prior to that, it was the rejected Academic Principles Advisory Committee. Before that was the multi-month saga over alleged anti-white discrimination in North’s Lost and Found cabaret and Dover Legacy Scholars (DLS) program. Not to mention the various hit pieces written on Principal Henry Turner in the wake of his email regarding the Rittenhouse verdict.

Controversies at North have recently been coming under a national spotlight at a notable frequency.

Within the months of March and April alone, North was featured in Newsweek, The New York Post, The Daily Mail, and three times in Fox News Digital. In the previous eight years, North was featured in articles on Fox’s website only twice. Then again, most of America’s 10,000 high schools never make the national news at all.

The pattern seems to follow the events of the drag show controversy: an aggrieved parent or teacher hears of an issue directly through their ties to North, they reach out to conservative activists or journalists, and this contact causes a domino effect where adults in and adjacent to the community become inflamed over the issue. From there, Fox News gets contacted, students, teachers and administrators get harassed, and unwanted attention falls on North.

Despite the publicity, the investigation over the complaint filed by Parents Defending Education (PDE) concerning the Lost and Found play was closed by the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, which wrote that, “The Lost and Found cast and production team included white students, and therefore the program was not exclusive to students of color.”

Most recently, North appeared in a Newsweek guest column, written by podcaster Charles Love, covering the attempt by parents to create an Academic Principles Advisory Committee, which would monitor North’s curriculum and the values taught within it.

“I focus on issues nationwide,” said Love. “Whatever we think is interesting, we write about. Someone sent me some background information and then the link to the hearing and that’s how I found out about it.”

Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Tobey Romer, however, sees students as being victimized in the media battle. “I’m deeply concerned when any group uses school and children as pawns in a larger political battle,” said Romer.

Love’s article used North as evidence for his claim that Diversity, Equity, Inclusion (DEI) proponents “create strawman arguments” and call local liberal-leaning citizens “MAGA extremists” for opposing their views. “Children, who should be the focus, are overlooked in deference to the feelings of progressives,” Love wrote.

“You wake up one day because you complained about the school and now you’re a MAGA supporter,” said Love. “I mean I don’t think there’s anything worse to be called in your town,” meaning Newton.

Yet, when referring to the Lost and Found and DLS allegations, Romer said that “some of the most recent attacks involved using civil rights legislation that was designed to stop bias and discrimination against people of color to undermine programs designed to protect the wellness and academic achievement of those people of color.” 

One of the more recent controversies at North covered by national news organizations involved the appearance of drag queen Missy Steaks at a ToBeGLAD day event Friday, April 14.

The story appears to have first come out in an article by self-described “Award-Winning Journalist,” Aidan Kearney, who goes by the alias “Turtleboy”, in an article titled, “Newton North High School Hosting Drag Queen Show During School Hours With Stripper Who Brags About Erections And Taking Anti-Depressants,” on his website TB Daily News.

“Apparently now we can’t have a high school degree without the drag show that comes with it, and I think that’s bizarre and shouldn’t be normalized,” said Kearney during an interview at a protest against the event. 

Kearney was made aware of the drag event after someone sent him a screenshot of an email regarding the ToBeGLAD Day itinerary.

“When my email was sent to Turtleboy, whoever sent it inside the building did not black out my name,” said biology teacher Melanie Pennison, who advises the Gender Sexuality Alliance (GSA). 

The article featured several prominent photos of Pennison’s face as well as a screenshot of the email she sent with her NPS email address unredacted.

“Two weeks before the event, we sent out the itinerary to the teachers and a couple of days after that I got my first hate email,” said Pennison. “Dr. Turner and the administration at the central office became aware that we had been put on blast by a conservative blogger called Turtleboy.”  

Shortly after the publishing of Kearney’s article, on April 7, the right-wing Virginia-based advocacy group Parents Defending Education (PDE) put out its own take on its website titled, Newton North High School hosts panel discussion on ‘intersectionality of religion and queerness’ and ‘allyship’ a drag queen performance during the school day.

“Part of you wants to just do your job,” said Pennison, who has concerns for her own family. “It’s like, why am I putting myself out there? It would be easier to just put my head down…The other half is that you want to dig your heels in and go even deeper and make events that are bigger.” 

She added, “I’m torn between both sides and I will continue to fight and do the good work, but it does make things way more challenging.”

Monday, April 13, Fox News Digital released its own article covering the controversy, “Massachusetts parents plea with high school hosting drag queen Missy Steak: ‘Don’t do this event,’bringing even more attention on a greater national scale to this otherwise local issue, 

this time without mentioning Pennison. The article was written by Alexander Hall in association with Kendall Tietz. Tietz also wrote about North’s Lost and Found controversy this March.

Neither Hall, Teitz, Gabriel Hayz, nor Kelley Klosberg, who have also written articles critical of North for Fox News Digital within the past year, have responded to The Newtonite’s requests for comment.

“When stories run on Fox News and other similar outlets, they generate a significant volume of harassment and often violent communications and emails to members of our community,” said Principal Henry Turner. “I think it can impact teachers wanting to be an adviser for an extracurricular activity. I think educators go into education to help kids and work with students but they don’t want to be the focal point of national organizations.”

Both PDE and Kearney have a history of attacking North and its teachers. Prior to the dust up over the drag show, PDE heavily publicized the Lost and Found and DLS civil rights cases in which it launched the initial complaint. Both incidents were also later covered by Fox News Digital.

“I’ve written about Henry Turner several times,” said Kearney, who went on to accuse Turner of being a “dink” who’s “basically doing apartheid in high school.”

Following the articles written about the drag show, a group of concerned parents decided to go a step further and hold a protest Friday, April 14 at the Newton Centre Green over their concerns.

“I just don’t think it’s age-appropriate,” said Paul Pasquarsa, who attended the protest and lives in Needham but is originally from Newton and heard about the drag show and protest on Facebook.

Approximately twenty people attended the protest, the majority of which, like Paul, did not have children at North. Kearney also attended the protest and live-streamed his interactions there on social media.

“I’m against segregation. I’m against racism. I’m basically an antiracist thought leader,” said Kearney.

Facing the protesters was a group of counter-protesters numbering in the hundreds, consisting of students and parents from North, local teachers, and even a few drag queens. 

“I’m speaking out for more than just students at North. LGBTQ students have to be seen, feel safe, and feel heard,” said Emily Restiro who teaches at Countryside.

“I think it’s important for straight people and all audiences to understand the art of drag, which is really a form of art, which is no more sexual than the Disney Cinderella movies,” said drag queen Mixie, who lives in Jamaica Plain. “The Queer community and Queer activism is really important to me, I really wanted to come out here and show my support.”

The protests drew coverage from several news organizations including NBC 10 and WGBH.

Some of the protesters viewed the counter-protesters with respect. “I don’t think anyone here hates anyone. We have different opinions, that’s all,” said Pasquarsa.

Others, like John Barry who lives in Newton Corner and was yelling that he’d “throw him around like a ragdoll,” in reference to a counter-protester ringing a cowbell, seemed to see things differently.

Despite the harassment they and others at North have faced in the wake of the publication of otherwise local events, Turner and Pension remain optimistic about the future.

“Sometimes it’s these types of incidents that allow for our community to show its core values,” said Turner. “We can always talk about what our core values are, but it’s really in times of tension that a community shows its core values and I’m really impressed.”