‘They blew up my life’: Fox News, a hidden camera and threats to an Indiana school administrator
Indiana public school administrator Jenny Oakley. Doug McSchooler / Raw Story

MARTINSVILLE, Ind. — It started April 12, right after Fox News’ Jesse Watters Primetime, one of the most-watched news programs in the country.

A phone call: “You stupid bitch.”

Then an email: “Everyone you ever encounter … should spit in your face, fling their feces at you (with impeccable aim), punch you, knock you down, kick you, piss on you and hold you there for similar treatment by everyone waiting in line for their turn — you despicable sad excuse for a sub-human being.”

And that was just the first 11 minutes for Jenny Oakley, a mid-level public school administrator in Martinsville, Ind., who found herself depicted in a nationally televised secret camera video and thrust suddenly — and, she said, unfairly and inaccurately — into culture war cruelty.

It would get worse.

During sleepless nights, Oakley’s husband Justin took out his guns for the first time in 10 years. Police began patrols outside the Oakleys’ home after they reported harassment. The couple bought a Doberman named Zeus for added protection. Late on a Saturday night in their quiet neighborhood, a burst of sound — Pow-Pow-Pow — startled them and then a louder Boom.

Having previously enjoyed a quiet life, Jenny Oakley found herself in a debilitating new reality, breaking down when people merely asked how she was doing. She enjoyed reading, but now she couldn’t concentrate. She liked watching videos, but a video got her in this situation. Videos triggered dread.

Oakley describes herself as someone who wants to be liked, someone who has “always cared what people think, to a fault.” She said she avoids controversy and isn’t very political. Justin is the opposite. He works for an Indiana teachers union and ran for state Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2012 before dropping out of the race.

But on social media, strangers took off on Jenny’s character, including one who wrote, “I do not believe in any way that she is a good person.”

An email from the night of the program carried the subject line “God Bless You,” but what it said stung Oakley the most. She could handle the heinous screed of some kook. But this cut deep as an educator and mother of a middle schooler.

“You should never be near any children again, including your own…,” the email said.

That middle schooler helped her mother during the difficult days ahead.

Jenny Oakley and Zeus, her family's Doberman. Doug McSchooler / Raw Story

“I don't think she had ever seen me cry except at funerals,” Oakley said. “And I was walking around here like a zombie, basically. And she made out little Bible verses and stuck them all over the house, you know, trying to hold me up.”

And to what end are the Oakleys suffering through this ordeal?

“I just think it's just part of a bigger attack on public education,” Oakley said. “And, you know, that's the ultimate goal. I wasn't the target necessarily, but I'm definitely the collateral damage.”

Hidden camera, open wounds

In an exclusive interview with Raw Story, Oakley recounted her experience as one of seven public educators from different school districts in Indiana who Accuracy in Media recorded on a hidden camera. Fox News used the video for its April 12 segment on Jesse Watters Primetime.

Accuracy in Media, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit, and Fox News alleged that the educators were “stealthily” teaching “principles associated with Critical Race Theory,” a highly controversial front in the culture wars that, at its core, alleges systemic racism in America.

Raw Story last week requested an interview with Accuracy in Media President Adam Guillette. Accuracy in Media responded with an unsigned email requesting Raw Story submit written questions in advance. Raw Story declined to do so, and Accuracy in Media did not respond to subsequent interview requests. Accuracy in Media also did not respond to several emailed questions.

Fox News did not respond to requests for an interview.

The supposed deception of parents, Accuracy in Media argues, reinforces the need for public tax money to go to charter and private schools.

“Our goal is school choice where the money follows the child,” Guillette said on Fox News. “That is the only solution.”

Within the past few months, Accuracy in Media also published hidden-camera video of public educators in Ohio, North Carolina, Texas, and Nebraska. In those states — plus Indiana and several others — such recordings are legal because only one party to a conversation needs to consent.

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Educators were accused, as in Indiana, of sneaking CRT concepts into public school curriculum.

“After this happened, I was like, ‘How in the world did they align what I was talking about to CRT?’” Oakley said. “Because in fact, I couldn't even talk intelligently about CRT at that time.”

Through open records requests to the districts involved, Raw Story obtained Accuracy in Media’s lightly edited video from the Elkhart, Ind., public school district, plus hundreds of pages of emails from all of the districts.

Oakley said she spoke to Raw Story to explain her side, advocate for the teaching profession and to show the human cost of rabid culture war fighting.

She appears for 24 seconds in the Accuracy in Media video.

“We’ve talked about, to our textbook companies that are coming in to do presentations — and I actually prep them a little because I’m like, “We want this in our curriculum, so if you could just not say specifically this, then it won’t cause a red flag with the community,’” Oakley says. “And I hate that we have to do that. But that way, it’s still there. And the community would support it if just the content was there. They just … it’s the title.”

The Fox News story started with a graphic over Watters’ shoulder showing children’s blocks with the letters CRT.

“Children are fed CRT propaganda,” it said on the lower-third of the screen.

Watters started the segment by asserting, “Schools are brainwashing our kids and then lying about it.”

Jenny Oakley is the first educator shown. The Fox News segment cut something Oakley sees as critical from the Accuracy in Media video — the part where she says, “And the community would support it …”

In an interview, Oakley said the red flag she meant was Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), which is sometimes mistakenly conflated with CRT. Teaching SEL is part of Indiana’s state academic standards and is promoted on a flyer from three state agencies.

It equates to skills such as building resiliency, communicating effectively, and goal setting. Indiana schools are required by law to teach SEL concepts, the Plainfield, Ind., school district explained in a Q&A strongly supportive of its administrator who appeared in the Accuracy in Media video.

CRT, however, is another matter. In June, the Metropolitan School District of Martinsville sued Accuracy in Media, saying it defamed the district and presented it in a false light by saying it teaches CRT. In July, the district withdrew its complaint.

The complaint alleged, “MSD of Martinsville believes that AIM has manipulated a surreptitious recording of a School District employee in an effort to falsely claim that the School District is teaching CRT and is lying to School District parents about it."

Superintendent Eric Bowlen declined comment for this story, including why the district dismissed the lawsuit it brought.

Oakley has not seen the unedited version of the video. The school district’s lawsuit said Accuracy in Media initially agreed to provide it and then went silent.

A day after the Fox News segment, a truck with a large screen on the side played the Accuracy in Media video as it rolled around downtown Indianapolis, with the city about to host the National Rifle Association’s annual convention.

It’s unclear who hired the truck, but Accuracy in Media’s tactics were generating attention.

‘Sydney Greenberg’

On a Thursday morning in February, two women who Oakley thought were in their 20s showed up at Martinsville’s administration building unannounced, saying they were looking for a school district for their child in first grade.

Their story, according to an email Oakley wrote later that day to district colleagues: They came from Texas, but Texas was too conservative and they wanted a new community and school. They expressed concern about censored curriculum and book banning.

It was more than two months before the Fox News story.

Oakley wouldn’t normally be the one to talk with school shoppers. That would be her boss, Suzie Lipps, assistant to the superintendent for curriculum, instruction and human resources. But Lipps was working on an issue outside the building, so Oakley, the director of e-learning and literacy, spoke with them. These opportunities are not taken lightly. That’s especially the case with Indiana’s legislature using tax money for a robust voucher program supporting private, usually faith-based, schools.

When Oakley asked the women what part of town they moved to, they named a local church. The conversation lasted five or 10 minutes, Oakley said. She later contacted the principal of the elementary school the child would be attending and suggested inviting the women to a cultural festival at the school that night.

Oakley got a name from one of the women, “Sydney Greenberg,” and a phone number.

Nobody returned the call inviting them to the cultural event. When Raw Story called the number this month, there was a generic message to leave a voicemail.

Martinsville is a conservative town in a red state. It’s not the place one would think of for a couple seeking a community aligned with their progressive politics.

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Nothing came of the women’s visit until an email at 2:39 p.m. on April 12 from Max Kiviat, associate producer for Fox News’ Jesse Watters Primetime. He addressed it to Lipps and copied Oakley.

“Tonight we will be covering a story about an undercover investigation involving your school district,” the email said. “Video shows administrators admitting that the schools are using misleading language to confuse parents into stealthily teaching students principles associated with Critical Race Theory. We wanted to offer the school district a chance to comment on the story. We are going live at 7:30pm ET.”

The email didn’t say what specifically the district was being asked to comment on. Oakley said during ensuing conversations, she, Lipps and Bowlen all wondered if they were the one being targeted.

A little after 5 p.m., after internal discussions and consulting with lawyers, Lipps emailed back to say the district would wait to see the story. Two minutes later, Kiviat sent a link to the video Accuracy in Media had posted.

In their living room at home, Jenny and Justin Oakley watched the video on a laptop. Then Jenny started to hear from friends that her face was being used on Fox News promotions for that night’s Jesse Watters Primetime show.

The attacks on her would start in a few hours.

Oakley did have supporters in the community. Some came to her defense on social media. She sought therapy.

Before a school board meeting, local pastors led a prayer circle outside the building for people with all points of view on the situation. One of the pastors invoked the Gospel of John: “Love one another. Such as my love has been for you, so must your love be for each other. This is how all will know you for my disciples: your love for one another.”

A pastor led a prayer before a school board meeting at Martinsville High School the week after Fox News aired a story about Accuracy in Media video featuring a local school administrator. He invoked the gospel of John to love one another. Photo: Stacey Miers

About a week later, Justin learned his mother had brain cancer. This added to the pressure on their daughter who couldn’t have both of her parents in a prolonged dark place.

“So I had to snap out of it,” Jenny Oakley said. “I had to snap out of it for her, just being strong in the fact that I did not do anything wrong and that it'll be interpreted how it is no matter what.”

Unedited video

Accuracy in Media reported $908,000 in contributions and grants on its latest federal tax filing.

As a federally recognized nonprofit organization, it did not have to detail the source or sources of its money. Accuracy in Media says its mission is to “monitor the accuracy of news reporting activities by the media” and “promote accuracy, fairness and balance in news reporting.”

Guillette, the group’s president, makes $200,000, according to the document.

As part of a public records request, Raw Story obtained what Accuracy in Media described in an email to the Elkhart, Ind., school district as a lightly edited, 15-minute hidden-camera conversation with Brad Sheppard, assistant superintendent of instruction.

The edits, Guillette wrote, were to protect Accuracy in Media’s tactics during an “ongoing investigation.”

In the video, what sounds like a man and a woman gave Sheppard frequent affirmations of his answers — “right on,” “good,” “I love that.” The couple’s full pretense for showing up wasn’t part of the video, but what they said to Sheppard left little doubt about their supposed political views.

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“In Texas, unfortunately, we banned anything that has to do with the 1619 Project,” the woman says, referring to the controversial New York Times project that put slavery at the center of America’s history.

“In Texas, they passed one of those stupid laws banning what they call Critical Race Theory,” the man says.

“We’re really hoping not to get a MAGA version of history, to put it bluntly,” the woman says.

Regarding what’s taught in the classroom, Sheppard emphasized the Indiana state academic standards.

“As long as (teachers) can tie it back to the standards, they’re covered,” he said. “That’s really the bottom line. Are you teaching the academic standards?”

Sheppard was shown in the Fox News video answering what educational material in the district needs to be “relabeled.”

“I think CRT, Social-Emotional Learning are the two biggies,” he says. “We just have to avoid the words. You know? The labels.”

An Accuracy in Media person says, “We can still do the content, just no labels.”

Sheppard says yes, to which the Accuracy in Media person says, “That’s cool.”

Sheppard was placed on paid administrative leave, returned to his same position and retired in June, according to a lawyer for the district.

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Other records obtained by Raw Story show that Sheppard and another administrator in the Fox News story, Laura DelVecchio of the public school district in Plainfield, Ind., received the same email Oakley did suggesting a line of people punch her and urinate on her.

All of them arrived within 15 minutes after Jesse Watters Primetime ended. Attorney Jon Little, who represents the Oakleys, believes that indicates a connection to an organization with all-purpose, pre-written screeds for perceived political enemies.

Trustees from the Plainfield school district received a long, racist email suggesting, amid the talk of CRT, a “Thank You White People Day.” It said, “White people created the very high standard of living all races in the USA enjoy” and “many immigrants don’t want to assimilate.” It claimed discrimination against “heterosexual White males.”

In the weeks that followed, Indiana attorney general Todd Rokita got involved on social media, encouraging journalists to write about the Accuracy in Media video.

When DelVecchio received an interview request from Indiana Public Media, she echoed what Oakley said, although they have never met or communicated.

“The story really isn’t about me,” DelVecchio wrote, “it is about the fate of public education.”

A life, changed

Jenny Oakley recalled with a touch of disbelief how, years ago, her husband used to rave about being an eighth grade teacher.

“He would come home every day and say, ‘I just can't believe I get paid to do this as a job,’” she said. “He would come home. He was so excited about the impact that he was making on kids and his conversations every day and the light bulbs going on and all those things.”

For many, teaching is a calling. Pay is often low, but the rewards are supposed to be great. That perception seems to be changing. Indiana has a teacher shortage.

Young teachers, Oakley said, “turn on their TV or hop on Facebook, and all they're seeing are attacks on their profession. And it's hard to keep up the intrinsic motivation of teaching when you have so many of these negative external factors.”

Many of the attacks come from advocates for private and charter schools.

“I don't think that they're going to be happy until public education just completely crumbles,” Oakley said. “And then they're going to see what kind of pillars of the community we really are, and they'll have to build it back up.”

Among the administrators in the Accuracy in Media video, four are in the same job, one retired, and two districts (Monroe County and Fairfield) did not respond to Raw Story’s inquiry.

Oakley has continued to work. But she said she still can’t be certain about her future in the district.

Oakley still doesn’t know the identity of the women who came to Martinsville. They weren’t asked to sign in. Now the district office uses the same system as its schools, scanning the driver’s license of everyone who comes in.

“Thankfully, they didn't walk in here with a backpack that they left behind,” Oakley said, “but they blew up my life.”