A High School Pulled Its "Right-Wing Propaganda" Summer Reading List After Complaints

"The point of AP is to teach how to think, not what to think."

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After it surfaced online and was accused by students and parents of being too right-wing, administrators at Spanish Fort High School in Alabama pulled an Advanced Placement government class's reading list.

The reading list began circulating after Elizabeth Denham, the mother of a senior in the class, posted a picture of it in a private Facebook group for local progressives.

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The list contains 31 titles, including Liberalism Is a Mental Disorder: Savage Solutions, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism, and a book by Ann Coulter. Students were asked to choose one book to do a report on.

According to members of the school community, the teacher, Gene Ponder, injects his lessons with far right-wing views.

Ponder assigned an identical reading list in 2014, which was available on the school's website until it was taken down on Wednesday afternoon.

Ponder did not respond to multiple requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.

AP classes are college-level courses created by the College Board to prepare high school students for university education.

The College Board did not immediately respond to request for comment on whether Ponder's course material would fit official guidelines.

In an email sent on Wednesday evening and obtained by BuzzFeed News, school principal Brian Williamson told parents and students to "disregard this assignment" as "there is not a current summer reading list that has been approved by the school."

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Baldwin County Superintendent Eddie Tyler, in a statement provided to BuzzFeed News, said the reading list "has not been endorsed by the school system.”

“The list has been removed by the teacher," Tyler said. "Baldwin County Public Schools has a process to vet and approve reading lists so that a variety of sources are used. I expect all employees to follow our processes, procedures and policies.”

Denham said she's grateful for the school administration's swift response, but is concerned about how long the teacher had been assigning the reading list.

"The fact that it sat there for three years, I have a problem with," Denham said. "Nobody complained."

Ponder ran as a Republican in an unsuccessful 2010 campaign for Alabama lieutenant governor.

During the race, Ponder took a radical limited-government stance, and said in an email that he wanted to stop the federal government's "coercion, intimidation and blackmail" of states, according to AL.com.

He proposed that "all compulsory federal legislation that directs states to comply under threat of force by civil or criminal penalties or sanctions ... be prohibited and repealed."

Local politicians on both sides of the aisle criticized Ponder's strong words. His Republican primary opponent, Hank Erwin, said "language like that" bordered on secessionism.

"We're not trying to secede from the Union," Erwin said at the time.

Jennifer, a mother whose son graduated this spring, told BuzzFeed News her son "completely changed" after being exposed to Ponder's "right-wing propaganda."

Jennifer, who asked that her last name not be used, is a Democrat. Still, she said, she always taught her children to do "their own research, their own deciding on things."

But her teenage son hadn't really formed his own political beliefs before meeting Ponder, she said. And when he started the AP government class, his sudden transformation was "scary."

"[My son] asked, 'Why shouldn’t we be friends with Russia?' and 'Maybe dictatorship isn’t so bad,'" said Jennifer. "He was never a racist kid. And he was a science buff."

She said she didn't complain to the school out of fear of retribution, and didn't see the reading list until it was posted online on Wednesday.

"Now he’s really argumentative, so we can’t have good talks," said Jennifer. "I’m never right, he’s never wrong."

"I don’t necessarily mind that he has his own mind, but this was implanted," she said. "This was purposeful by the teacher. It completely changed his ability to think about things on his own."

Jack Morgan, an 18-year-old libertarian who recently graduated from the school, has fervently defended the teacher.

Facebook: thatmorganswag

In a video he posted on Facebook, Morgan said the teacher is "a great Christian and a great human being," and "like a second father" to him.

Morgan supports the reading list, but told BuzzFeed News he thinks it would be better if a few liberal books were added and students were assigned to read one of each — one liberal, one conservative.

"I don't think he purposefully tries to influence opinion, but I find that hard to believe because I actually shifted more left in his class than I originally was," Morgan said. "Before I went into his class I was far-right Republican, but now I am a libertarian. Fiscally conservative, socially liberal."

Julia Coccaro, a 17-year-old senior in the class and the founder of the Spanish Fort High School Democrats, told BuzzFeed News she was "appalled" when she saw the assigned reading.

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"We received it like a month ago, but because I hate summer reading and I’m a huge procrastinator, I didn’t look at it until this morning," she said.

Conservative and Christian values dominate her community — Baldwin County went 77.4% for Trump — which has made her a bit of an outcast, she said.

Coccaro called the reading list "so offensive," and "not even thoughtful or rational."

"The whole thing with AP is that it’s supposed to encourage critical thinking and analytical skills and having an open mind. But this is doing the exact opposite of that," she said. "It’s pushing an agenda and feeding lies. It’s brainwashing and indoctrination."

"It’s a government class in a public school," she said. "The point of AP is to teach how to think, not what to think. I’m going to fight for that."

Julia Reinstein is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Julia Reinstein at julia.reinstein@buzzfeed.com.

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