The Child Soldiers of the Culture War

In New York City, adult activists use teenagers as human shields

Teens Take Charge protesters at a June 2019 rally / Twitter screenshot
May 25, 2021

Last October, a group of New York City parents gathered outside City Hall to defend accelerated academic programs. The city’s Department of Education had been chipping away at those programs for over two years—part of its "equity"-oriented agenda—and the predominantly Asian crowd was fed up. "Keep SHSAT," many signs read, a reference to the Specialized High School Admissions Test that by law determines admission to the city’s top public schools.

The rally was proceeding without a hitch—until a group of student activists shoved their way into the middle of it, blocking speakers and unfurling a large banner that read "Unscreen Our Schools." The 16- to 17-year-old activists belonged to a group called Teens Take Charge, which argues selective public schools are a form of modern-day "segregation." Amid the ensuing tumult, one parent pushed the banner aside, while others threatened to call the police.

The skirmish was an especially bitter episode in the ongoing debate over New York City’s elite public schools, where standardized tests are an important factor in admissions. Those tests, the city’s education department has argued, are systemically racist, since very few black and Latino students do well enough on them to be admitted to top schools like Stuyvesant or Bronx Science.

On the other side of the debate are parents—particularly low-income Asian parents—who see the tests as engines of upward mobility and oppose efforts to eliminate them. Public opinion is on their side; an April poll found that a majority of New Yorkers support keeping gifted and talented programs for younger students, while a plurality oppose eliminating the admissions test for specialized high schools.

But the education department has a potent cudgel against that opposition: the high school students of Teens Take Charge, who have been weaponized as child soldiers in the culture war. The fracas at the rally was part of a pattern, nearly a dozen parents said, in which adult activists sic students on anyone who challenges the department’s anti-test agenda.

At the adults’ direction, members of Teens Take Charge launch smear campaigns against supporters of merit-based admissions, branding them as "racists" and "segregationists." If the targeted parents push back, they are accused of attacking kids—making it difficult to avoid reputational ruin.

After the rally last October, for example, Teens Take Charge claimed that the parents had physically assaulted children. "These are students you guys are attacking," Kevin Beckford, who was chaperoning the activists, said in a video taken at the rally. "@TeensTakeCharge & it’s [sic] adult allies were verbally & physically assaulted & threatened," Teens Take Charge program manager Tajh Sutton tweeted after the fact. Footage of the rally does not support these claims and its organizers deny them. Asked for evidence of the alleged assaults, Sutton didn’t reply.

"It’s like what Hamas does with human shields," one parent born in China said. "Immigrants recognize in Teens Take Charge the Soviet Youth and the Chinese Red Guard."

The result has been a feeling of powerlessness among parents and administrators, who fear that going against the youth group could jeopardize their careers. "You can’t debate children," Deborah Alexander, a Queens parent-leader, told the Washington Free Beacon. "Nobody wants to attack a child."

It isn’t children who are setting the agenda, though; it’s adults plugged into the education department.

Teens Take Charge is run by an organization called The Bell, whose cofounder, Taylor McGraw, is part of a "youth-adult Student Voice Working Group with the Department of Education." Under McGraw’s auspices, Teens Take Charge has set up regular meetings with top department officials, including former schools chancellor Richard Carranza, who tried and failed to eliminate the Specialized High School Admission Test. Sutton, the group’s program manager, is also well-connected: She is the president of her district’s Community Education Council, an elected "policy advisory" group that serves as a liaison between the department and district parents.

At these adults' behest, members of Teens Take Charge use a variety of tactics to intimidate their political enemies. The group has falsely accused parents of doxxing students and harassed a city council candidate who criticized Carranza. Sometimes, it lodges an allegation so absurd it baits parents into responding to their teenage tormentors, who promptly play the victim and claim they’ve been harassed. And if the Department of Education gets wind of those claims—having been alerted by the students or their adult handlers—it invariably takes the students’ side.

Yiatin Chu learned that the hard way, after a member of Teens Take Charge alleged she had doxxed him.

Like Sutton, Chu sits on her district’s Community Education Council, where she is an outspoken advocate of competitive admissions. One Teens Take Charge student, William Diep, had given an interview to the New York Daily News in which he expressed support for eliminating the Specialized High School Admissions Test—even though the article identified him as a senior at Brooklyn Latin, one of the specialized high schools that uses the test to screen students. When Chu screenshotted the interview on Twitter to point out the hypocrisy, Diep emailed Naomi Peña, the president of Chu’s education council, saying Chu had doxxed him.

What followed was a public struggle session and behind-the-scenes coverup that strategically exploited Diep’s age. Peña invited Diep to the next council meeting and ambushed Chu without warning, sympathetically relaying his allegation.

"It was an outright public attack," Chu told the Free Beacon. When Chu formally requested a video of the meeting for her own files, Peña used the fact that Diep was under 18 to stonewall the request, asking the Education Department whether releasing footage of a minor could land her in trouble. It couldn’t—the meeting had been open to the public and was subject to New York’s Freedom of Information Law—but the Education Department never completed Chu’s public records request.

Parents who are more outspoken than Chu have faced correspondingly more harassment. Maud Maron is a candidate for city council and the cofounder of PLACE NYC, a group that supports competitive admissions to public schools. Like Chu, she also sits on her district’s Community Education Council. After Maron criticized the "simplistic narrative" of "white privilege" being peddled by the Department of Education under Carranza, a group of Teens Take Charge students demanded she "release a public apology" for her comments by 5 p.m. the following Monday. "If you do not," their email went on, "we will start a petition calling for your resignation from [the council]."

Teens Take Charge made good on the threat and then some. Maron wouldn’t apologize but did offer to host "an open dialogue" with the students. They didn’t take her up on it. Instead, they posted a petition—"Tell Maud Maron to resign from Community Education Council 2"—that falsely claimed she hadn’t responded to their email and accused her of "disregarding the safety" of students in her district. Since then, Maron says, members of Teens Take Charge have shown up to almost every public meeting and event she’s spoken at, asking pointed questions about why she supports "segregation."

"I’ve never seen such liberal bigotism in my life," said Sarah El-Batanouny, who described watching in horror as Teens Take Charge accosted Maron at a city council forum. "It shocked me."

Teens Take Charge did not respond to a request for comment.

Maron told the Free Beacon that the group had been sending a message to other parents: "If you dare to speak up, we’ll do to you what we did to Maud."

It may also have been trying to elicit from her the sort of outburst it elicited from Tom Wrocklage, a white education council member whom a fellow parent accused of racism for holding a friend’s black baby on his lap. When some members of Teens Take Charge amplified the accusation over social media, Wrocklage got into a heated back and forth with them, demanding they explain how his conduct was racist. Sutton seized on the back and forth to argue Wrocklage was "stalking students," while Adrienne Austin, the Education Department’s deputy schools chancellor, told Wrocklage in an email, "We do not attack children."

The friendly interplay between Teens Take Charge and the Department of Education has made some parents wonder if the groups are coordinating. On paper, it is the former that’s lobbying the latter. But in practice, Teens Take Charge seems to do the department’s bidding rather than the other way around. Leaked emails show that the department has encouraged groups opposed to competitive admissions to "get louder," the New York Post reported last May, and the department has sponsored and promoted rallies hosted by Teens Take Charge.

It has also given the group preferential access to admissions data, which are cherry-picked to support its anti-test narrative. The department completed a public-records request filed by Teens Take Charge in just four months but has yet to complete similar requests filed by journalists and outside researchers, some of whom have been waiting years for the data. The data the department made available through Teens Take Charge only includes the racial breakdown of competitive high schools, not their socioeconomic makeup, making it seem as though the Specialized High School Admissions Test is biased toward the privileged.

In fact the opposite is true: Not only do Asian Americans, who score best on the test, have the highest poverty rate in New York City; the students trying to eliminate the test are often the rich kids who couldn’t ace it.

Some of the most active members of Teens Take Charge attend Beacon High School, where a plurality of students are white. Unlike New York City’s eight specialized high schools, which only consider an applicant’s test scores, Beacon also uses interviews, essays, and other intangibles to determine who can attend—gauntlets that are notoriously easy for the wealthy to game. Two Beacon students—both white—say as much in separate testimonials published on Teens Take Charge’s website. "We had someone to help us practice our interviews, parents that would help us with our portfolios and advocate for us," one of them reads. "[K]ids like me ... needed less support."

That would explain why students at Stuyvesant, the top specialized high school in New York City, score hundreds of points higher on the SAT than students at Beacon, despite coming from much poorer families. It would also explain why rich student activists are turning against standardized tests: They’re being outscored by working-class Asian immigrants.

Some of those immigrants are now pushing back. "More parents are realizing they have to speak out," said Lucas Liu, one of the speakers at the October rally, who acknowledged he was making himself a target by opposing Teens Take Charge. "Hopefully it’s not too late."