At a recent Board of Education meeting in the town of Jericho, New York, an agitated mother took the mic to address the administrators and trustees seated at the dais. “Are children in the middle school and high school asked what their pronouns are?” Julianna Feigenbaum inquired. “He? She? They? It? Unicorn?”
Everyone in the room knew why she was asking: the Project Veritas video.
Over the last few years, the humble school board meeting has gone from a space to discuss sundry budgetary issues and school superlatives to the front line of this country’s culture war. A sustained conservative crusade over the supposed inclusion of “critical race theory” in elementary, middle and high school curricula has set the stage for attacks on other topics pertaining to diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI — namely, sexuality and gender identity.
And thanks to at least three undercover videos released by the right-wing organization Project Veritas, all of which show, without any context, Long Island public school staff members discussing gender and sexuality, multiple administrators and teachers are facing professional consequences — and finding that many parents have decided they can no longer be trusted to work with their children.
Perhaps you haven’t heard of Project Veritas by name, but you might be familiar with its work. Remember the 2009 takedown of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a collection of advocacy groups for low-income families connected to President Barack Obama? Project Veritas was behind that, with founder James O’Keefe posing as a pimp. Or how about the videos promoted by Donald Trump’s campaign and its surrogates in 2020 that erroneously accused Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) of ballot harvesting? Yup, that was Project Veritas, too.
The Project Veritas attacks go beyond these stunts, causing real-life suffering to their subjects. ACORN was stripped of its federal funding after the sting. Omar, who had already been threatened as one of two Muslim women in Congress, became even more of a conservative target thanks to what a spokesperson at the time called “a coordinated right wing effort to delegitimize a free and fair election.”
In February, Project Veritas’ board ousted O’Keefe from the organization over alleged financial malfeasance, leaving some to wonder if the group would be able to make it without its highly visible and theatrical leader. “Without him, I don’t think they exist,” Ryan Girdusky, a former Project Veritas employee and founder of a PAC focused on electing conservatives to school boards, told the conservative blog RedState shortly after O’Keefe’s departure. “It would be like having a White Stripes concert without Jack White.”
But just a month later, the organization was stirring up controversies in New York — having set its sights on DEI efforts at Jericho, East Williston, Manhasset and East Meadow public schools. Troubled GOP Rep. George Santos, who represents three of the four towns in Congress, added fuel to the fire.
The videos were an escalation of the group’s prior attacks on two private schools: In September, Trinity School in Manhattan put an administrator on leave after an undercover clip of her discussing her liberal “agenda” was published; the school later announced she was “no longer employed.” And in December, a dean at a private school in Chicago found himself in the eye of a right-wing media firestorm when a Project Veritas operative released an undercover video of him talking about LGBTQ-inclusive sex education. After the video’s release, the K-12 school had to be evacuated due to a bomb threat.
There is a nationwide conservative effort to keep kids from learning about different genders, sexualities, races and religions — anything that threatens the white Christian status quo — and the involvement of Project Veritas, a group with a long record of producing misleading videos, in this fight signals conservatives’ willingness to do whatever it takes to win the culture war.
It’s evident from watching the videos that the Long Island educators were likely filmed without their knowledge. The shots are poorly framed and filmed from below, indicating that whoever was filming was attempting to hide their recording device. They catch the subjects during meals and conference sessions where they make off-the-cuff comments about their evolving views on how to approach gender and sexuality in schools when they know they’re under a microscope from parents and media.
The first such video Project Veritas released features Dave Casamento, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at East Meadow School District, apparently answering a question about hiring for the district.
“I think I said this before, but people don’t give up power, you have to take it from them. … You stop hiring those types of people,” Casamento says, apparently referring to conservatives. “We created a whole rubric for hiring in light of DEI.”
“It’s all secret,” he continues. “So, I would rank them [conservatives] so low [in their interview process] that their score couldn’t possibly raise them up to the level of moving on.” He also shared that, as an out gay man, “My sexual identity was always a part of my work because I believe in making connections with kids.”
Casamento did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment about the video.
“I particularly love working with families and helping them … through their children’s journey of sexuality and gender.”
– Elisa Waters, a middle school teacher, in a Project Veritas video
Two of the videos appear to have been filmed during an event hosted by LGBTeach, an organization that provides teachers with resources to better connect with their LGBTQ+ students.
One was about six and a half minutes long and featured several teachers, including Mike Smith, an American Sign Language teacher at East Meadow. In the video, he discusses gender-affirming care for trans teens, including the potential benefits of hormone blockers.
Smith did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. A district spokesperson for East Meadow declined to comment on Smith’s employment status; it is not clear if he has been punished.
Santos tweeted the video on March 9 and wrote: “They always say it’s not a ‘coordinated effort’ then what is this? #ProtectOurChildren.” The lawmaker’s office did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Four days later, Project Veritas released another video from the LGBTeach event. In it, LGBTeach founder Elisa Waters, a middle school Spanish teacher in Jericho, talks about supporting LGBTQ+ kids.
“I particularly love working with families and helping them, you know, practicing, you know, affirmation through their children’s journey of sexuality and gender,” she says in the recording.
Waters also seems to acknowledge that it can be risky for new teachers, who don’t have the job security of tenure, to openly express their views. “I always tell untenured teachers, ‘You’re going to have more longevity making change if you maybe play it a little safer for a little longer’… Lean on your tenured colleagues to do some of this [DEI] work because we need you,” she says. Waters declined to speak to HuffPost while the investigation is underway.
In a post about the video on the group’s website, Project Veritas characterized Waters’ comments as “grooming,” a derogatory term conservatives often use to ostracize LGBTQ+ people and their allies.
Donald Gately, the assistant superintendent of Manhasset schools, and Joseph Wiener, principal of the East Williston school district’s high school, were briefly featured conversing elsewhere in the same video. (Gately is married to Danielle Gately, the superintendent of the East Williston school district.)
“If you’re a teacher now, you’ve got kids with parents, some of whom are extremely conservative and right-wing,” Donald Gately says in the video. “Now you’re gonna make people make — they’re gonna connect politics to DEI work. And the purity that you feel about DEI work now gets complicated and fraught, and pushed back on. … I have to calibrate my approach to diversity, equity and inclusion through that lens.”
Wiener defends bringing in speakers to his school to speak about anti-racism.
“There’s no in-between,” he says. “If you’re not doing anti-racist work, then you are contributing to racial divide.”
Santos tweeted out that video as well, writing: “This is in #NY03 seems like a good reason to get back out there and remind teachers that their job is to EDUCATE not Indoctrinate.”
Many of the people featured in the videos have faced significant backlash, with board meetings growing tense and some parents calling for repercussions — and succeeding.
The Manhasset school district’s Board of Education meeting on March 16 erupted into a debate about Donald Gately’s appearance in the video. Project Veritas operatives even seemed to be in attendance, as one parent addressed the group directly and the organization later released a video of an interaction at the meeting.
One mother who said “We don’t want DEI in our schools” claimed that students weren’t learning core subjects like English and math because of a disproportionate emphasis on social justice, gender and sexuality. “Where is the color representation of heterosexuals on the Pride flag?” she asked the board.
Manhasset alumna Nicole Kipperlove spoke out against what she characterized as “the blatant, shameless, brutal indoctrination of kids in different school districts.” Kipperlove also happens to be chief of staff to Republican New York City Councilmember Vickie Paladino and has a leadership position with the New York Young Republicans Club, a group that has embraced and hosted events featuring conspiracy theorists and white nationalists.
“I actually want to thank Project Veritas for exposing this corruption of our kids throughout different school districts and encouraging parents to speak up in order to protect their kids,” Kipperlove said, raising her voice. “There is nothing wrong with that!”
A group identifying themselves only as “Manhasset Parents” went on to email administrators on March 29, indicating they were eager for Donald Gately to suffer consequences.
“We request that the Board of Trustees promptly place Dr. Gately on leave until the investigation is complete,” the parents wrote. “As you know, the board has a legal and fiduciary obligation to investigate this matter and we therefore respectfully request your immediate attention.”
Donald Gately did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
When reached for comment, an external spokesperson for the Manhasset school district — the same used by the East Meadow and East Williston districts — referred HuffPost to an email Manhasset Superintendent Gaurav Passi had previously sent to the community.
“The videos are concerning because they suggest that Districts on Long Island conspire in their hiring practices to root out candidates based on their political beliefs and that Districts are covertly pushing a particular agenda into both hiring practices and curriculum,” Passi wrote. “If this were true about Manhasset, it would certainly be cause for concern. Let me assure you, it is not.”
“Please don’t get confused by a Project Veritas report if all you have to do is Google ‘Project Veritas’ and take a look at all the different ways they’ve been sued for misinformation.”
– Mike Harnett, high school teacher
In Jericho, an outside attorney is investigating Waters’ conduct — which Superintendent Henry Grishman confirmed at the March 30 Board of Education meeting where some community members butted heads with educators. Grishman said attendees wouldn’t be allowed to discuss Waters by name.
“I have four children in this district and I don’t feel comfortable sending them to class because I don’t think, in the spirit of transparency, you guys know what the teachers are teaching,” said Feigenbaum, the parent who asked about pronouns.
Grishman’s reply to that remark is one many administrators nationwide could use to defend their staff.
“For 18 months, we were teaching our kids in your living rooms,” he said, referring to the remote learning that took place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. “You heard every statement and every lesson that our teachers shared with our students. Kindergarten through 12th grade. You had an opportunity … to watch the quality of instruction that our teachers deliver to our kids.”
There were no complaints about how discussions of gender or sexuality were incorporated into class time, he said.
Mike Harnett, a teacher at Jericho High School for more than 30 years, echoed Grishman.
“Parents have never been shy about complaining in the school district,” he said. “I will hear about everything. I have not heard about this. Please don’t get confused by a Project Veritas report if all you have to do is Google ‘Project Veritas’ and take a look at all the different ways they’ve been sued for misinformation.” (The organization has faced myriad legal troubles. Just this past September, it lost a lawsuit brought by a Democratic consulting firm that said Project Veritas had used deceptive recording practices that harmed its business.)
Casamento, the assistant superintendent in East Meadow, has been “administratively reassigned” and will not be present in any school buildings while an investigation is conducted, according to a letter the Board of Education president, Alisa Baroukh, sent to the community on March 10.
Asked about the status of Casamento’s employment and whether the district has any plans to protect staff and students from possible future Project Veritas confrontations, East Meadow Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Card replied through an external spokesperson: “The district does not discuss ongoing personnel matters. The safety procedures in place are consistent with our district safety plan and building emergency response plans.”
Danielle Gately, the superintendent of the East Williston school district who is married to Donald Gately, was the only administrator to explicitly and publicly condemn Project Veritas’ tactics. In a March 14 letter to the community, she addressed East Williston principal Wiener’s appearance in the video.
“He was filmed without his knowledge or permission while answering questions about experiences with a diversity, equity, and inclusion situation at his former district,” she wrote. “The organization edited the video and altered the context of the conversation.”
East Williston has not announced an investigation into Wiener and has resisted calls to investigate Casamento, who previously worked for the district.
Some parents have demanded a retroactive investigation into Casamento’s hiring practices and have continued to push culture wars further.
On March 15, two days after the Project Veritas video featuring Wiener was released, the school district’s Board of Education announced that the book “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe would be “temporarily removed from circulation to allow for further clarification with respect to the appropriate audience for the book.” The memoir about exploring sexuality and gender identity is one of the most banned books in the country.
A group of East Williston parents has also created a petition calling for “parental transparency,” a copy of which was shared with HuffPost. In the document, they demand that students not be “exposed to curricula or content related to gender ideology, sex acts (outside of approved sex-ed), sex orientation, racial superiority/privilege, skin color comparisons, restorative justice & active social/political issues without an explicit opt-in from a parent or guardian,” and that “school personnel shall limit expressions (ex: verbal, clothing) regarding the above categories while on duty, on school premises or on social media accounts associated or identifying with” the schools.
The loud opposition isn’t, however, representative of all parents in the district.
In a WhatsApp group, some East Williston parents are pushing back on those who are celebrating the removal of “Gender Queer” from the school library.
“You are just doing what you seem to be best at, which is jump to conclusions, spread your version of what you think is going on and brow beat anyone who questions your opinion or thoughts,” one wrote in response to a message arguing that the book “provides validity and normality to something that is not normal.”
And at school board meetings, some parents have supported the educators in the videos.
Paula Geslani, the parent of a Jericho High School student, told HuffPost she sees Waters’ comments as an effort to bring “humanity” to students who are struggling. And she takes issue with the way this one video has, for some people, completely wiped out core truths about Jericho’s schools.
“What concerned me was the parents that were getting up and saying that the quality of our teachers is no longer there,” Geslani said after the meeting. “The people that live in Jericho, I would say 80% of them have moved to this district for the school and the teachers, and it is the same quality of teachers it’s always been. They have the same commitment they always have.”
In Manhasset, parent Vasu Krishnamurthy stood to address Project Veritas directly.
“Their laughable brand of fakery and cynical fanning of division is not welcome in Manhasset,” he said. “Please pack your circus and get out, and stay out.”