Just after 6 p.m. on a balmy Saturday this March, Stephanie Nantkes parked her Suburban outside the Civic Center in downtown Seward, opened the heavy glass doors and walked inside. She found a few dozen others 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, two local school board candidates. And she found a square-jawed man with silver hair standing near the flag, insisting the forefathers crafted America directly from the word of God.
“Holy crap,” she thought. “I’m in trouble.”
She found a table of fellow teachers. Some retired, like her. Some still at it: grading essays, revising lesson plans and organizing field trips. She greeted them with a nervous smile. “This isn’t gonna be easy,” she whispered. She hadn’t come with them, but now here they were, instinctively drawn together, waiting for a new film called “The Mind Polluters” to begin. A film that would eventually be publicly screened by two groups – Nebraska for Founders’ Values and the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition – roughly two dozen times across Nebraska, from Omaha to Gordon.
The lights were killed. The projector turned on.
“Let me ask you a question…,” Mark Archer, the film’s director and narrator, begins. He’s sitting upright on a wooden stool in jeans and a tight-fitting vest, hands folded across his lap. “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 one speaker after another rifled accusations at “the government schooling systems,” at teachers like herself, she felt, who’d dedicated a lifetime to her students. While others ate popcorn and nodded along, her own table scribbled notes on the leaflets they were issued at the door. Numbers to double check. Claims to counter. Two of the retired teachers left halfway through, unable to stomach any more. Even months later, Nantkes, the mother of former ACLU of Nebraska director Danielle Conrad, struggled to articulate the depths of her bewilderment.
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“How insane is this?” she asked. “There isn’t one fact behind what they were saying. It was a horror film sold and wrapped in the fears of religion.”
She’d hadn’t spent 40 years teaching in Nebraska’s public schools, earned three masters degrees and served two terms on the Seward school board only to be called a sexual predator – to sit idly by while this movie portrayed her life’s pursuit as the work of the Antichrist.
“And that’s the proper definition…,” insists author Alex Newman near the end of the film. “So parents, you have an obligation as a Christian to remove those children from that school.”
She couldn’t muffle her outrage any longer. When the film ended and Penner rose to speak, Nantkes snapped.
“Boo!” she yelled. “Boo! Boo!”
She knew it was a tad “crazy,” but 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 said. “And I will go down fighting for it.”
Leaders of the Nebraskans for Founders’ Values and the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition rejected multiple interview requests for this story, as did current Nebraska Board of Education member Penner and current board candidates Elizabeth Tegtmeier, Marni Hodgen and Sherry Jones, all of whom have been endorsed by the PNCC and participated in at least one showing of the film.
“Any statements attributed to the PNCC or myself will be disavowed,” wrote Sue Greenwald, a retired pediatrician and member of the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition. “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, a candidate for the Learning Community of Douglas and Sarpy Counties’ Coordinating Council, did agree to comment. Brady 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.”
Released in November 2021, “The Mind Polluters” is the second feature-length film produced by the Archers and billed as an investigative documentary. The movie showcases more than a dozen speakers – including Evangelical celebrities like Ken Ham, founder of the Ark Encounter in Kentucky – to allege that “government schools” across the country are “grooming” children for sexual activity through programs like comprehensive sexual education and social-emotional learning, in addition to what they call obscene and pornographic children’s books.
In doing so, they claim, the government is pushing “the radical homosexual agenda,” preaching “the secular religion,” “rewiring” children’s brains and mining “untold amounts of data.”
They’re doing much of it, the film insists, without “parental knowledge or consent.” And they’re “getting away with it” thanks to what it calls the “fraudulent science” of famed sexologist Alfred Kinsey, whom they also consider – without evidence – a pedophile.
“Overcoming the natural inhibitions that children have is the goal of both the sexual predator and the sexual educator,” Amber Archer says in the film. “Breaking down the God-given barriers that children have towards sexual content and behavior is the key: the key to manipulation and ultimately enslavement, whether to a pedophile or to an educational curriculum that will render the child’s natural defense mechanisms useless.”
The film doesn’t feature or 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 teacher’s union – don’t often 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, public information officer at the Nebraska Department of Education. “I think it’s detrimental to the teachers. And I think it’s actually detrimental to society to be making these broad, baseless claims.”
After releasing their first film – about disgraced Indiana doctor and abortion provider George Klopfer – the Archers began praying about their next steps, Amber Archer told Christian author, blogger and podcaster Heidi St. John in April. They knew their second film would be related to pornography, but after watching an episode called “Brainwashed: The radical sex agenda corrupting your kid” on conservative political commentator Glenn Beck’s BlazeTV show, they further refined their focus to comprehensive sexual ed.
Shortly afterward, Amber Archer explained, they attended a conference called “The Sexual Revolution: How We Got Here and How We Overcome” in Nappannee, Indiana, where they met two key voices for the film: Judith Reisman, a writer, who has since died, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center called an “anti-LGBT conspiracy theorist” and Rhonda Miller, president of Purple Parents for Indiana, a group that “informs, advocates, and engages Hoosiers to protect children from harmful agendas saturating the education system.”
“And so we immediately started investigating and researching and just dispelling the myth that this [grooming in public schools] isn’t happening, because so many people that we would run into and talk to were like, ‘Oh, no, that’s not really happening,’” Amber Archer said. “No, really, it is happening.”
Unlike their first film, “The Mind Polluters” was prohibited from release on Amazon. (Amazon could not be reached for comment). And though it currently costs $24.99 to rent on Vimeo, the Archers have waived all licensing fees for any partnering organization interested in screening the film. Instead, Amber Archer explained on St. John’s podcast, they ask groups who show the film to solicit a “love offering” to support their ministry.
“Because, you know, of course we do need funding. But we need everybody to see it,” she said. “No ticket sales. No licensing fee. People just need to come and gather. When we gather together there’s power in that.”
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 statewide early this spring, shortly after the 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 regularly appeared as guest speakers at these events.
Paul Landow, retired political science professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, called the film “complete nonsense offered up by sex-obsessed extremists.” Still, he said, it’s a tested strategy, and one that political scientists often call “stories of decline.”
“You paint a dark, scary picture, and then state or imply that it’s going to get even worse than this,” he said. “And it’s fairly effective if your audience is unwilling to look further into the issue.”
In this case, he says, the “conservative Christian” and “far-right evangelical” movements have weaponized the film to diminish the public school system in favor of private and religious schools. According to US News & World Report, Nebraska currently has the ninth-best public education system in the country.
Despite the sponsors’ equally contentious profiles – the Protect Nebraska Children Coalition is affiliated with Family Watch International, identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an LGBT hate group, and Nebraskans for Founders’ Values last August displayed a banner quoting Hitler at the York County Fair – word of the “The Mind Polluters” in Nebraska quickly spread on social media and eventually bled into local school board meetings across the state.
Amanda Ripley, a nurse in Lincoln and the mother of two small children, first heard about the film from her parents in Kearney, who learned of it themselves from a Nebraskans for Founders’ Values email blast called “Minuteman Alerts.” After streaming it online, Ripley addressed the Lincoln Board of Education, certain the 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 witnessed any of the grooming activities alleged in the film. She called the teachers at her kids’ public school “lovely people” and said she hasn’t hosted screenings of the film herself “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 because at the same time there are teachers doing things that parents are not okay with.”
Jespersen, at the Nebraska Department of Education, said there’s no evidence to support any of the accusations in the film. In fact, he says, Nebraska recently made international headlines when similar “baseless claims” were aired during a televised debate in Legislature. Repeating a rumor that first spread in Nebraska from the PNCC Facebook page, Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard claimed public schools were providing litter boxes to “furries,” or children who identified as cats. Bostelman apologized hours later after multiple school districts discredited the rumor.
“If parents truly believe something’s going on, it should be investigated. We should be having conversations about it. The administration should be told. 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.”
He added that teachers are the single biggest reporters of child abuse each year in Nebraska.
If parents are morally opposed to any part of the curriculum – a health class, lesson plan or even a particular book – they can typically opt their child out, he said. If they believe the material is inappropriate, they can file notice with the school board and the district to initiate a review. And, “there’s a lot of great school choice” in Nebraska, the education department spokesperson said. If parents deem the public system anathema to their faith or worldview, they’re free to homeschool their children or enroll them in a parochial or private school.
“But we’re just not aware of any of these things happening. It’s the exact opposite,” he said. “We think teachers are doing an outstanding job in Nebraska and we applaud them.”
Even as it misleads, the film may have power because, in many ways, the United States has transformed in the past quarter century.
According to a recent Gallup poll, 7.1% of American adults now identify as LGBT, nearly twice as many as a decade ago. The number of LGBT teenagers is also 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.
“Sad to say, but some people find it threatening to suddenly recognize that…we have students among us who need affirmation and support and who deserve it every bit as much as your child does,” said Rita Bennett, former two-term president of the Lincoln Education Association, who opposes the documentary. “And that’s the piece, to me, that’s problematic: in order to support your view, I now have to marginalize a bunch of other people. And to me, that’s my line in the sand.”
Brady, the candidate for the Learning Community’s Coordinating Council, agreed that things are changing, but argued that schools are pushing that change and “trying to mold kids into one shape.”
He said he believes lessons about gender and sexuality taught in schools are often inappropriate and immoral. Any knowledge about sex shouldn’t be taught in schools, he said, but rather by parents.
Citing “The Mind Polluters” as evidence, he also said that schools, through lessons about consent, are teaching children that it’s OK 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 O.K. for them to give permission to have sex, even to older people.”
Jill Brown, a Creighton University professor who teaches “The Psychology of Gender,” testified before the Legislature’s Education Committee in support of the proposed health standards in February.
After viewing “The Mind Polluters,” she said that it does a disservice to “the real work” of preventing sexual abuse, which numerous studies have shown can be significantly reduced when comprehensive sexual ed is taught in schools.
She also called it a disservice to LGBTQ youth, who are four times more likely to commit suicide than their peers.
Many claims made in the film are in fact disproven by the current body of research.
The film says that “every cell in your body testifies to the fact that you’re either male or female.” According to a United Nations report, between .05 and 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 that individuals experiencing gender dysphoria have brain structures more comparable to the gender to which they identify.
The film says that children’s “natural aversion” to sex will alone prevent abuse. But the U.S. government reports that nearly one in four girls and one in 13 boys experience child sexual abuse every year.
At least one aspect of “The Mind Polluters” is true, Brown said: School does rewire childrens’ brains. It’s supposed to.
“That’s how you learn,” she said. “The real point is that they do not want their children using those pathways of tolerance and openness and understanding and questioning.”
She considers this disagreement “the point of departure” between those who promote the film and those who reject it.
“When you have a faith that is teaching you these things, the film is really powerful, because it’s just saying exactly what your fears are.”
After the “Mind Polluters” program in Seward was finished, Nantkes and several others from her table reconvened outside the Civic Center, a constellation of street lights now cutting through the darkness. They were shocked. Angry. One of them, who chose to remain anonymous due to fear of personal and professional reprisal, 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. Any school board candidate peddling this film and these falsehoods, they believe, is unqualified to serve the public. Many of the educators, especially those still employed by the public school, are hesitant to become the face of their opposition. But 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.”
FFP reporter Natalia Alamdari contributed to this story.
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.