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Chandler Unified defends Turning Point graduation cord
The Chandler Unified School District has responded to some parent criticism about a controversial club being represented on graduation gowns.
Graduating seniors at Perry High School’s May 24 ceremony at Desert Financial Arena were allowed to wear cords representing scholastic honors or club memberships.
Turning Point USA has had a Perry High School chapter for more than a year and was included on Perry’s list of possible cords to be worn at graduation.
Parent criticism of the Turning Point cord has come from social media, though criticism of the Perry chapter and of TPUSA’s actions in general have been at Governing Board meetings, during public input.
“Must be a new one this year,” one parent wrote in a Facebook group. “My daughter graduated from Perry last year and there was no cord for it yet, but (she) clearly remembers Turning Point.”
Another parent said it’s fortunate other CUSD schools don’t have Turning Point chapters.
“Perry does seem to have a vocal MAGA population,” the parent wrote. “I will be so glad when my (child) is done with high school. Thankfully, (the student) isn’t bothered by it.”
CUSD spokesperson Stephanie Ingersoll said each campus site leadership determines which cords it will be giving out each year. She said some of this year’s additions are academic or interest-related.
There are other types of graduation honors not as highly visible as cord or top-of-class honors, such as the Arizona State Seal of Arts Proficiency. The district said 117 graduating seniors received the seal on their diplomas, up from 80 seniors in 2022.
Ingersoll didn’t respond to a question about whether this was the first year Turning Point is on the cord list. She also didn’t address a question about whether there’s been any recent board or administration discussion about changing the number of cords available or restricting it to honors organizations.
However, the cord honors are highly visible, and are historically associated with academic achievement. For example, the new cords for Chandler High School are for Summa Cum Laude, Magna Cum Laude and Cum Laude and career and technical education.
Chandler High School added a hood for International Baccalaureate graduates.
Casteel High School added a bronze cord for students who receive a seal on their diploma. However, Turning Point USA is not an academic honors organization. According to the Perry High School website clubs page, Turning Point USA at Perry High School’s purpose is to “promote patriotism in students all over Perry High School and to educate them on the history of the United States, capitalism, and the ideas that influence the western world.”
Turning Point USA and the Perry High School chapter couldn’t be reached to answer questions for this story.
The Turning Point club at Perry High School has been the point of contention.
Controversy arose at the Feb. 22 CUSD Governing Board meeting over a recent after-school event at Perry High. Multiple people who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting mentioned Turning Point USA as an organization that has no place on a CUSD campus.
Brandy Reese, a parent and the lone Democratic candidate for the Arizona Legislative District 14 House seat in last November’s election, along with Education Association Board President Katie Nash, both spoke at that meeting.
“Turning Point was behind the hate-filled, anti-democracy sign campaign against Clint Smith,” Reese said. Smith was Andy Biggs’ independent challenger in Congressional District 5. Biggs is listed on Turning Point’s website, tpusa.com, as a contributor.
Newly elected board member Kurt Rohrs acknowledged he attended a Feb. 21 Turning Point event on the Perry’s campus.
Rohrs said the Feb. 21 talk was focused on “reaching out to white students to try to make judgments based on some people’s character and behavior rather than skin color, and to reject the divisive rhetoric promoted by outside political agitators.”
He said Turning Point’s objectives appear to align with the socio-economic lessons taught in CUSD classrooms.
Students also spoke at the Feb. 22 meeting, including Corinne Collins, a Perry student who identified as part of Support Equality in Arizona Schools. She said the Feb. 21 event “presented very partisan and questionable information, and as students, this is unacceptable.”
Turning Point at Perry’s written objectives also include “We want to build responsible citizens who will conserve our founding ideas and protect the natural rights of life, liberty, and property.”
Nash said what is most concerning is that CUSD is targeted on a Turning Point “watchlist.” The Turning Point website features a “school board watchlist” that has districts around the country. Under the Arizona tab, most of the Valley’s largest districts are on its list, with 33 districts from around the state included.
The question “What is CRT?” was used atop a flier promoting Davis’ Feb. 21 appearance. CUSD officials have said repeatedly that critical race theory is a law-school concept not taught in most K-12 schools, including Chandler.
In addition to Rohrs, there have been other supporters of Turning Point presence at Perry, including a letter writer to the Chandler Independent.
A member of Turning Point USA who identified as Tiffany Benson of Phoenix came to a the April 26 CUSD Governing Board meeting, saying there are “only two genders, and there is nothing fluid or transitional about this Biblical and biological reality.”
Benson said TPUSA School Board Watchlist recently “exposed” counselors and teachers “telling” students to attend a spring-break CUSD “sex and gender sessions, many led by adults, one of which encouraged students to “create their own queer island utopia.”
“It’s sick and sad to see adults preying upon the vulnerabilities and mental illnesses of children,” Benson said.
Benson said characterizations about what Turning Point is about are mostly false.
“The message that our beloved MAGA Hulk (speaker Stephen Davis) and the rest of us have is not one of bigotry or hate, but of truth and true love,” Benson said. “We care about LGTBQ youth more than those who push their demonic agenda. So let’s see Turning Point on all CUSD campuses. We’re not going anywhere.”
Ben Larrabee, South Central Region manager for Turning Point USA, also spoke at the April 12 board meeting. He said things said about Turning Point at previous meetings were “slanderous” and said he’d like to talk about real threats — emotional and mental health issues, preparation for useless college pursuits and childhood obesity among them.
“Call me a racist,” Larrabee said. “Call me a homophobe. Call me a bigot. But leave our students alone and pick on someone your own size.”