Minds polluted? New film making rounds in Nebraska is filled with falsehoods, education experts say

By: - July 18, 2022 5:00 am

(Jeffrey Koterba for the Flatwater Free Press)

On a Saturday this March, Stephanie Nantkes walked into the Civic Center in downtown Seward and found a few dozen people gathered in the meeting room downstairs, heads bowed in prayer. She found Kirk Penner, running for re-election to the Nebraska State Board of Education. She found Jessie Bremer and Jacob Bierbaum, local school board candidates. 

She found a table of fellow teachers. Some retired, like her. Some still at it: grading essays, revising lesson plans and organizing field trips. 

Together, they waited for a new film called “The Mind Polluters” to begin – a film that would eventually be publicly screened by Nebraska for Founders’ Values and the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition roughly two dozen times across the state, from Omaha to Gordon. 

The lights were dimmed. The projector turned on. 

“Let me ask you a question…,” Mark Archer, the film’s director and narrator, begins. “What if I told you that your child was being not only sexually harassed, but shown pornography in an effort to groom them for sexual activity? What if they were being groomed for homosexual activity? What if they were being groomed for sex with pedophiles….”

He speaks slowly, softly. Concerned.

“Now here’s the big question: What if I told you all these things were happening to your child in their school classroom?”

Nantkes watched as speakers rifled accusations at “government schooling systems” — at teachers like herself, she felt. 

Stephanie Nantkes (Courtesy of Flatwater Free Press)

Months later, Nantkes, mother of former ACLU of Nebraska director Danielle Conrad, struggled to articulate the depths of her bewilderment.

“A horror film,” she called it. 

“How insane is this?” she asked. “There isn’t one fact behind what they were saying.”

She hadn’t spent 40 years teaching in Nebraska’s public schools and served two terms on the Seward school board only to have her life’s pursuit portrayed as the work of the Antichrist.

“And that’s the proper definition…,” insists author Alex Newman near the film’s end. “So parents, you have an obligation as a Christian to remove those children from that school.”

When the film ended and Penner rose to speak, Nantkes snapped.

“Boo!” she yelled. “Boo! Boo!”

She kept at it until the hosts tried — and failed — to usher her from the building. She dared them to call the police. They backed down. 

“They were telling people lies about what I’ve loved my entire life,” she says. “And I will go down fighting for it.”

Leaders of the Nebraskans for Founders’ Values and the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition rejected interview requests for this story, as did Nebraska Board of Education member Penner and state board candidates Elizabeth Tegtmeier, Marni Hodgen and Sherry Jones, who have been endorsed by the PNCC and participated in a showing of the film.

Any statements attributed to the PNCC or myself will be disavowed,” wrote Sue Greenwald, retired pediatrician and Protect Nebraska Children Coalition member. “If you would like to talk about the film, I would suggest you talk to the producers.”

Mark and Amber Archer, the Indiana-based husband-wife filmmaking duo who produced the film, also declined to comment. 

Doug Brady, candidate for the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties’ Coordinating Council, hosted an April viewing of “The Mind Polluters” in Bellevue. 

“A real eye opener,” he said. A movie that “tells a lot about what’s actually going on in our school districts around here.”

***

“The Mind Polluters” is the second feature-length film produced by the Archers. The movie alleges that “government schools” are “grooming” children through programs like comprehensive sex-ed and social-emotional learning, in addition to what speakers call pornographic children’s books. 

“Overcoming the natural inhibitions that children have is the goal of both the sexual predator and the sexual educator,” Amber Archer says. “Breaking down the God-given barriers that children have towards sexual content and behavior is the key: the key to manipulation and ultimately enslavement…”

The film doesn’t interview any active public school teachers, administrators, academics or experts in public health or child psychological development. 

The Nebraska Department of Education and the Nebraska State Education Association — the teachers’ union —  don’t always see eye to eye. 

Both agree that “The Mind Polluters” has no basis in reality. 

“This movie is pure propaganda,” wrote NSEA President Jenni Benson in an email. 

“I think it’s detrimental to the schools,” said David Jespersen, the Nebraska Department of Education’s public information officer. “I think it’s detrimental to the teachers. And I think it’s actually detrimental to society to be making these broad, baseless claims.”

Unlike the couple’s first film — about disgraced Indiana doctor and abortion provider George Klopfer — “The Mind Polluters” was prohibited from release on Amazon. (Amazon could not be reached for comment). It costs $24.99 to rent on Vimeo.

The Nebraskans for Founders’ Values (whose director, Mark Bonkiewicz, also stars in the film) and the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition began jointly screening “The Mind Polluters” in churches, libraries and community centers this spring, shortly after the Nebraska Board of Education voted to indefinitely postpone the state’s first-ever health education standards.

State and local school board candidates endorsed by the groups appeared as guest speakers at these events. 

Word of the “The Mind Polluters” quickly spread on social media and bled into local school board meetings. 

Amanda Ripley, a Lincoln nurse and mother of two, streamed the movie online. She then publicly addressed the Lincoln Board of Education, certain the state’s proposed health standards would soon inch their way back into consideration.

“It would almost be negligent for anyone to vote yes or no on the proposed health standards without seeing this very comprehensive and well-sourced documentary,” she told the school board in February. 

In a follow-up interview, Ripley said she hasn’t personally seen any of the grooming activities alleged in “Mind Polluters.” She called the teachers at her kids’ public school “lovely people” and said she hasn’t hosted a screening of the film “because this does seem super extreme for Lincoln, Nebraska.”

“It does seem … to paint teachers in a bad light,” she said. “So if I were a teacher, would I be happy with that? No. But then prove yourself. Prove that you’re better and can be trusted with our kids…”

Jespersen, at the Nebraska Department of Education, said there’s no evidence to support the film’s accusations. He said Nebraska recently made headlines when similar “baseless claims” were aired in the Legislature. 

Repeating a rumor that spread from the PNCC Facebook page, Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard claimed public schools were providing litter boxes to “furries,” or children identifying as cats. Multiple school districts discredited the rumor. Bostelman apologized.

“If parents truly believe something’s going on, it should be investigated…. And if you think the administration is pushing it, then the Department of Education should get involved,” Jespersen said. “But we don’t have those claims.”

Teachers are the single biggest reporters of child abuse each year in Nebraska, he said.

If parents are morally opposed to part of the curriculum, they can typically opt their child out, he said. If they believe material is inappropriate, they can file notice with the school board and district for review.

“But we’re just not aware of any of these things happening,” he said. 

Even as it misleads, the film may have power because, in many ways, the United States has transformed. According to a recent Gallup poll, 7.1% of American adults who now identify as LGBT, nearly twice as many as a decade ago. The number of LGBT teenagers is rising sharply. The country’s multiracial population is growing at an unprecedented rate. The percentage of white Americans is shrinking and so, too, is the percentage of self-identifying Christians.

“The world is becoming a frightening place to many because it is changing,” said Rita Bennett, former Lincoln Education Association president, who opposes the documentary.

Brady, candidate for the Learning Community’s Coordinating Council, agrees that things are changing. He said schools are pushing that change.

He said lessons about gender and sexuality taught in schools are often inappropriate. Any knowledge about sex should be taught by parents, he said.

Citing “The Mind Polluters” as evidence, he said schools are teaching children that it’s acceptable to have sex with adults.

“The big thing they always say is ‘No means no and yes means yes,’” Brady said. “They’re telling a young child that is is OK for them to give permission to have sex, even to older people.”

Jill Brown, Creighton University professor who teaches “The Psychology of Gender,” testified before the Legislature’s Education Committee supporting the proposed health standards in February

She said “Mind Polluters” does a disservice to “the real work” of preventing sexual abuse, which many studies have shown can be significantly reduced when comprehensive sexual education is taught in schools. 

Many claims made in the film are disproven by current research.

The film says “every cell in your body testifies to the fact that you’re either male or female.” According to a United Nations report, up to 1.7-percent of the world’s population is born with intersex traits.

The film says transgenderism is the result of trauma, confusion or whimsy. But numerous studies have shown otherwise.

The film says children’s “natural aversion” to sex will prevent abuse.  But the U.S. government reports nearly one in four girls and one in 13 boys experience sexual abuse every year.

***

After the “Mind Polluters” program in Seward was finished, Nantkes and other teachers from her table reconvened outside the Civic Center. They were shocked. Angry. One of them later compared it to stepping off a roller coaster. “Your back is up against the wall, and they have you get out, and you’re just wobbling around like, ‘What just happened here?’

But they were also filled with conviction. All of them, Nantkes said, are “hellbent” on damning the flow of disinformation.

It’s a frustration shared by the Nebraska Department of Education.

“People see films like this and they wonder why teachers are having a hard time right now. This definitely contributes,” Jespersen said. “With everything that we’re asking of teachers, we should be celebrating them, not using baseless claims to bring them down.”

Flatwater Free Press reporter Natalia Alamdari contributed to this story. 

This first appeared in The Flatwater Free Press, Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

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Carson Vaughan
Carson Vaughan

Carson Vaughan is a freelance journalist from central Nebraska with a focus on the Great Plains. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker (online), The Atlantic, The Guardian, The Paris Review Daily, Outside, Pacific Standard, VICE, In These Times, and more. Most recently, he was awarded the 2018 John M. Collier Award for Forest History Journalism from the Forest History Society for his Weather Channel feature, “Uprooting FDR’s ‘Great Wall of Trees.’” He was also a recipient of a 2018 Individual Artist Fellowship from the Nebraska Arts Council.

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