Whether or not the Johnston School Board should approve a petition to start a Turning Point USA chapter in the district was the biggest talking point during Monday’s meeting, continuing the months-long debate on the matter.
The request was brought by Johnston seniors Lucas Gorsh and Gavin Gallagher. Gorsh presented to the school board and answered its questions. Gorsh wants to affiliate with Turning Point USA because of the resources and backing the national organization has.
He also said he was approached by parents in the district to specifically start a Turning Point USA chapter.
Before the presentation and during public comment, multiple speakers objected to Turning Point USA being allowed at Johnston.
“On the surface, Turning Point USA is viewed as your average neoconservative nonprofit that simply advocates for preserving freedom and liberty, but there is a very unsettling extremist narrative that lies beneath,” said Sofia Bristow, a Johnston sophomore. “I am not arguing against a conservative group in this district. I am very much so, arguing specifically against Turning Point USA being executed in the school district.”
She listed the national group’s funding by right-wing figures and foundations. Bristow also cited the way the group purposely stokes outrage to direct discussions and shut down nuance about complicated issues.
Turning Point is classified as a right-wing, Trumpist organization by the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism.
The group is generally anti-government and critical of many aspects of higher education. It runs watchlists naming professors and school board members who they claim are silencing conservative voices.
Turning Point leaders and some chapters have also long been connected to hate speech, white nationalists, and former-president Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the election, including the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.
In Iowa, the Turning Point chapter at Iowa State University claimed partial responsibility for inviting Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist who was at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” Rally, to speak.
Waverly Zhao, a Johnston junior, said the group being at the school would only divide the student body because of the ideas Turning Point’s leaders promote.
“In order for us to make progress moving forward, we must make room for different ideologies in a safe and appropriate way for a public school. Turning Point USA and its current form should not and will not be a part of that,” she said. “I want to reiterate that we are not against having a conservative club at Johnston just as long as Turning Point has no affiliation with it.”
Gallagher and Gorsh argued the club was necessary to give conservatives a safe place to talk about their ideas because they risked being shut down everywhere else.
“And we are not racist, homophobic. We’re not pushing any sort of national agenda,” Gallagher said. “We’re working together with our classmates and our peers trying to accomplish what we want to accomplish in life. And it’s really a great support group.”
When Gorsh presented, he said he wanted the group to have a chance because he thinks conservative students don’t have the space to talk about their viewpoints.
“Our biggest need to bring Turning Point USA to Johnston High School stems from a lack of communication on both sides and all sides,” he said. “Our group is aiming to bridge the gap and promote civil discussion on topics which might be seen as polarizing, as well as give a voice to students who agree in the same things as us. Our group will not discriminate, but rather encourage those with differing viewpoints to also get and be involved.”
School board members asked about the national organization and how much influence it and its ideas would have in Johnston.
Student school board representative Jenna Woodsmall voiced concerns about Turning Point USA’s reputation for extremism, its rhetoric about minority groups, and what it promotes online. She also said she’d listened to Gorsh’s podcast—Grand Ole Podcast—and had concerns about some of his viewpoints being shared in the school.
Some episode titles of Gorsh’s podcast include “Poopy Pants Biden,” “Let’s Go Brandon,” and “Transgender is a Problem.”
Gorsh said the Johnston group would be independent and based on the needs of Johnston students.
“There’s a lot of organizations out there that have done weird things, corrupt things on a national base. It’d be unfair to hold every single organization of Turning Point accountable for the things that nationally it is done,” he said. “At Johnston, we seriously need that communication, and it’s going to start with Turning Point USA.”
Because he graduates this year, and the earliest the club would be approved is April, Gorsh told the board his involvement is mainly in getting the club set up. He said there are underclassmen in place to take over leadership when he’s gone.
The board will officially vote on Turning Point becoming a club at its April 11 meeting.