Political Radicalism Class Challenges Worthington Students to Explore Differing Viewpoints

For nearly 50 years, Worthington has invited extremists from the left and right to speak to high school seniors in a political radicalism course. The class is beloved by students and the community.

Joel Oliphint
Columbus Monthly
Political radicalism teachers Pete Studebaker (seated) and Jonathan Duffy in the course classroom at Thomas Worthington High School

In the fall of 1975, North Side native Tom Molnar was a year removed from his studies at Ohio State University. He had some substitute teaching under his belt, including long-term assignments at Worthington High School, where he eventually managed to secure a part-time position teaching world history, a subject he knew well.

Then, two weeks before the new school year began, Molnar learned he’d also be teaching a course on political radicalism. “My reaction was, ‘What the hell is that?’” says Molnar, who discovered the course was in its second year and had no textbook, handouts or readings. Looking for advice, he called the previous year’s teacher—a football coach who didn’t have time to talk until the end of the season.

“I was completely panic-stricken,” Molnar says. “So, doing what a novice teacher would do, I just walked in the first day and said, ‘Why did you sign up for the course? What do you want to learn in here?’” The 18 students began brainstorming ideas, which Molnar organized into categories on the chalkboard. From those ideas, the class researched five topics and presented them in groups. But that only bought Molnar some time. Next, the students wanted him to teach about modern-day extremists. It was the era of left-wing terrorist groups, such as the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army, which had kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst in 1974. Then there were the groups on the other side of the political spectrum: neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.

With limited resources about present-day radical movements, Molnar was unsure about what to do until one student in the back of the room raised his hand. “He goes, ‘I got an idea. Why don’t we invite all those groups in?’” Molnar recalls. “And I said, ‘That’s absurd. In conservative Worthington, you’re going to tell me that your parents and the community are going to allow extremists, radicals, communists, Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis in the classroom?’ They go, ‘Yeah!’ The whole class demanded that I ask the principal if we could do that.”

So Molnar walked across the hall, expecting principal David Cavanaugh to laugh in his face. After the young teacher sheepishly presented the student’s idea, Cavanaugh paused, then responded, “That’s brilliant.”

In the decades since, thousands of Worthington seniors taking American Political Thought and Radicalism—often shortened to “poli-rad”—have listened to extremist speakers: robed KKK leaders, Bill Ayers of former militant group the Weather Underground, flat Earth conspiracy theorists, white nationalist Richard Spencer, Black Panther leaders, militant communists, climate change deniers and many others.

Every so often, a controversial speaker sparks a firestorm. In the early days of the course, the Anti-Defamation League and the Moral Majority both called for Molnar’s head. More recently, in 2011, Worthington Kilbourne High School invited the Westboro Baptist Church to speak, and while the hate group was in town, its members decided to protest outside of Hilliard Darby High School, drawing all sorts of media coverage, not to mention the ire of Hilliard parents. Last fall, Kilbourne’s poli-rad class again drew unwanted attention by hosting Elizabeth Blackburn, who spoke about her experience volunteering at Camp Shameless, a former encampment for unhoused community members on the East Side. A couple of days after Blackburn spoke, Libs of TikTok, a right-wing Twitter account with a huge following, pounced on the district after finding a social media account Blackburn uses for online sex work. Libs of TikTok’s inflammatory post was retweeted thousands of times and led to coverage on Fox News and the Daily Caller. Blackburn suffered horrific, terrifying harassment, and Worthington Schools superintendent Trent Bowers dealt with outraged online commenters demanding an explanation. But just as it had done during every other poli-rad dustup from the past few decades, the school district backed the course and the teachers, making no apology for bringing in Blackburn.

Worthington parents, some of whom took poli-rad in high school, are rarely the source of the outrage. After 47 years, most of them know all about the course. “In my nine years as superintendent, I’ve not heard from a single Worthington family concerned about poli-rad,” Bowers says. “People read on a blog or Twitter feed that the school is bringing in a speaker, and they see that as an endorsement. They don’t take the time to really look and say, ‘What is this course and who takes it?’”

While this affluent suburb continues to support the course, discussions around education and curriculum have become increasingly politicized. Last year, Ohio legislators introduced House Bill 616, which would regulate “divisive concepts,” including critical race theory and “diversity, equity and inclusion learning outcomes.” More recently, the legislature took aim at higher education curriculum with the introduction of Senate Bill 83. And Worthington itself is not immune from the politicization of its local schools. In a contentious 2021 school board election, a dark money group launched a smear campaign against Worthington Board of Education vice president Nikki Hudson, complete with threatening letters and attack ads on billboards.

Given America’s polarization and the scarcity of civil discourse around controversial issues, not to mention the internet’s knack for disseminating false and harmful ideas, current and former poli-rad teachers at Thomas Worthington and Worthington Kilbourne high schools argue the class is needed now more than ever. (Kilbourne was added in 1991, at which point Worthington High was renamed Thomas Worthington.) They claim that as poli-rad students interrogate and process radical ideas across the spectrum, many kids move closer to the middle rather than the fringes. In fact, Molnar says in his very first poli-rad class, 17 of the 18 students initially identified as communists, but by the end of the course, the student makeup was a 50-50 split between liberals and conservatives.

“I can honestly say, of probably several thousand kids I had go through the course, I never heard of any of them going over the edge on either end,” says Judi Galasso, a former Thomas Worthington poli-rad teacher. Recently, Galasso heard from a poli-rad alum who now lives in Nashville. “Someone had hung swastika banners off of an overpass in Nashville, and she got her big grass clippers out and was going to go cut it down. She said, ‘Mrs. G, not enough people take poli-rad.’”

Guest Speakers Represent Diverse Viewpoints

Jonathan Duffy’s poli-rad class at Thomas Worthington is held in the same room previously used by Molnar, and some of the décor dates back to those early days. Republican and Democratic presidential campaign posters reference Jimmy Carter, George W. Bush, Andrew Yang, John Kasich, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump. Everywhere you look, political slogans and imagery battle for attention. A Planned Parenthood poster argues “Abortion is Health Care,” while a Students for Life placard declares, “I Am the Pro-Life Generation.” A red “Make America Great Again” sign abuts another that reads, “We Stand with Immigrants and Asylum Seekers.”

Evidence of Molnar’s years teaching Native American Studies lines the back walls in the form of big, colorful murals with American Indian imagery. Spanning the length of the classroom’s front wall, behind a bright yellow podium painted with a red, raised fist, is an old saying associated with Native American cultures: “It is a great day to die.”

In late March, Duffy, along with fellow Thomas poli-rad teacher Pete Studebaker, hosted speakers on opposing sides of issues around policing: Sgt. Brian Steel, executive vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Capital City Lodge No. 9, which represents the Columbus Division of Police and other local law enforcement agencies, and Jim McNamara, a longtime Columbus civil rights attorney who has represented more than 2,000 victims of alleged police abuse and has spoken to poli-rad classes since the beginning of the course. Like many invited guests, neither of these speakers self-identifies as extremist or radical; it’s up to the students to decide whether the shoe fits.

Regardless of a speaker’s views, students are instructed to challenge ideas without attacking the person. Showing hospitality to guests is one of several ground rules Molnar’s principal, Cavanaugh, established for him that first year. The rest of those guidelines remain in effect, as well, including: teachers should never divulge their personal politics, nor should they censor a speaker; the class should balance speakers from the right and the left as much as possible; students should have the ability to question the speaker; and any speaker session must be followed by an in-class debrief, during which teachers facilitate the discussion without offering their own opinions.

From the beginning, poli-rad has been an elective class for seniors only, and it requires permission from parents, who are welcome to attend at any time. That stipulation alone has gone a long way in extinguishing the occasional fires. “What I hear from families who have concerns about public schools is, they want to make sure that parents have a voice and that the schools aren’t doing something that the parents don’t approve of. And that shouldn’t be a concern with poli-rad,” Bowers says. “Nothing is being forced on them or their children.”

While the controversial speakers have made headlines, poli-rad teachers say the most important part of the course is the debrief, when students process what they heard without speakers in the room. During debriefs of the sessions on policing, poli-rad students at Thomas discussed the speakers’ presentation styles and rhetorical devices as much as their ideas. The FOP’s Steel, who also made an unsuccessful bid for the Worthington school board in 2021, used slides packed with data to argue that police brutality isn’t the problem, but rather violence in communities. McNamara, on the other hand, stood at the podium and mostly told stories about former clients who suffered from police misconduct, leaving little time for questions.

In Studebaker’s classroom debrief, students placed Steel, who identified as center-right politically, in different spots along a political spectrum from extreme left to extreme right. Some thought he shaded further left, others further right. In both classes, some found his data convincing. “It felt like the truth,” one student said. Others saw his presentation as a strategic deflection from police brutality incidents. “What he said was true, but it was dismissive of the issue,” another student commented. Some preferred the storytelling style of McNamara. Eventually, after Duffy and Studebaker peppered their classes with questions (“Did he establish credibility?” “What was his main point?” “Did he have your attention?”), the students found their way to the heart of the contentious issue. Steel, they said, believes police brutality is overblown, with just a few bad apples here and there; the real problem is in the streets. McNamara believes police abuse of power is widespread, systemic and disproportionately harms Black residents.

Some speakers, like 2011 Thomas grad Ethan Stupka, realize students respond well to profanity. Stupka is a frequent guest speaker on the topic of Libertarianism, a political philosophy he says he adopted after taking poli-rad and rethinking some of his far-right beliefs. Stupka uses slides but fills them with internet memes and slogans, keeping the presentation short and leaving plenty of time for rapid-fire Q&As. Another former speaker at Thomas used songs and poetry to make his point. “There would be times where students were crying at the end of this poem,” says Duffy, who discussed this “emotionally charged tactic” during debriefs.

Molnar recalls poli-rad speakers who arrived ready to put on a show, like leaders of the Revolutionary Communist Party, who wore military regalia and waved Soviet Union flags while marching down the hallways yelling, “Death to capitalism! Death to capitalists!” On that day in the mid-1980s, two students’ mothers happened to be sitting in on the class, and the speakers began the presentation by saying, “When the revolution starts, we’re going to start by killing rich Worthington b------ like the two of you sitting there.”

Molnar always encouraged his students to separate showmanship from the content. “Try to get at their core ideas and core messages. How well did they defend it? Can they only defend it by putting on a show and screaming and shouting?” Molnar says, remembering one KKK grand dragon who, after three years of speaking, decided not to return. “He said, ‘I’m not going to come in again until I can do more homework. I cannot be challenged by the students without a response.’ They kind of shut him down intellectually.”

Sometimes speakers adjust their presentations in real time. Peter LaBarbera from Americans for Truth about Homosexuality, a group “devoted exclusively to exposing and countering the homosexual activist agenda,” visited teacher Dave Strausbaugh’s back-to-back poli-rad classes at Kilbourne soon after the students heard from four Kilbourne LGBTQ+ alumni. In the first class, LaBarbera spent time denouncing drag queen story hours and LGBTQ+ indoctrination, but he lingered awhile on a slide about some pedophiles’ attempts to rebrand themselves as “minor-attracted persons,” arguing America is headed in that direction. Students spent most of the Q&A portion attacking LaBarbera’s slippery-slope argument, which distracted from his larger point. In the next class, LaBarbera skipped that slide, which led to less-contentious questioning. When the bell rang, some students clapped politely.

It’s not lost on poli-rad teachers that every student’s experience in poli-rad will be unique to them, and some will find it more challenging than others. Certain students, because of where their beliefs fall, won’t hear many people railing against their values. Others will hear speakers attack ideas they hold dear. And then other students will have to patiently listen as speakers challenge their identity as a person. “When you have a speaker in the room who’s saying trans people have a mental illness and they are not real, and there are two or three trans kids or nonbinary kids in the room who that speaker misgenders, that is a drastically, drastically different experience,” Duffy says. “There are moments where a speaker says something, and [Studebaker] and I will make eyes and know, like, OK, we’re going to monitor this kiddo.”

Discussions regarding race bring up similar challenges in Worthington, which the 2020 census found to be 91 percent white and 3 percent Black. During poli-rad classes I attended at Kilbourne and Thomas this year, I never saw more than a few students of color in the classroom. At Thomas, Black students remained mostly silent during debriefs on policing as their white peers discussed “Black-on-Black crime.”

“I tell students, ‘We are not in a lab, but we are often playing with fire in here,’” Duffy says.

Teachers Provide Safe Space for Discussion

Superintendent Bowers credits poli-rad’s teachers for the course’s longevity and success, and those teachers can all be traced back to Molnar, who left Thomas Worthington in 2005. Molnar trained Galasso and taught poli-rad with her for about 18 years. Galasso, who retired two years ago, trained and taught with Duffy, who now splits poli-rad duties with Studebaker. When Kilbourne opened, Nancy Charlton, who also learned from Molnar, brought poli-rad to the new high school. Strausbaugh arrived in 1999 and a few years later began team-teaching poli-rad with another now-retired social studies teacher, Pat Forward.

Every so often, Strausbaugh, Duffy and Studebaker field requests from teachers in other districts who want to start a poli-rad course, but it rarely (if ever) comes to fruition. As much as teachers and administrators praise poli-rad, they also acknowledge that launching the course in 2023 would be extremely difficult, perhaps impossible. Strausbaugh laughs when he imagines the elevator pitch for poli-rad: “We’re going to talk about everything you’re not supposed to talk about, and we might get on the news, and you guys are going to have to bail us out.”

Today’s poli-rad teachers see themselves as stewards of the course, and while they take comfort in the community’s steadfast support, they also worry about forces beyond their control, particularly the state legislature, which lately has been seeking more control over public education. “The biggest fear for me is a statewide directive where certain things could not be discussed in class,” Duffy says.

Poli-rad’s classroom model challenges the notion of a safe space. The course is not the least bit safe if your definition of educational safety involves protecting high school students from harmful or offensive ideas. But it is safe in the sense that when those difficult subjects arise, just as they eventually will in students’ future workplaces and neighborhoods, these Worthington teens have a place to process them with their peers and a trained teacher. It’s a structured space, a controlled environment with boundaries and guidelines, but ideally with enough extremism to prepare teens for an increasingly online real world—one that’s dominated by digital spaces built with algorithms engineered to leave enticing bread crumb trails that can lead unsuspecting users to radical ideologies.

The class is one potential solution for preparing 18-year-olds to engage in a polarized, conspiracy-hungry political landscape with a disappearing center. In the summer of 2017, when white nationalists marched in the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Duffy took some comfort in “knowing that the students who had just finished poli-rad were among the most equipped in the entire country to process what happened there.” The day before the Proud Boys protested a Clintonville school’s “Holi-Drag Storytime” in December, poli-rad students at Thomas listened in class to the Proud Boys leader who organized the protest.

Poli-rad students hear despicable, scary, provocative, laughable, inspiring, confusing ideas straight from the source. But perhaps just as important, these soon-to-be-adults hear those ideas coming from the mouths of people they appreciate and sometimes enjoy. Three Kilbourne students I spoke with—seniors Cee Costello, Olivia Dudash and Kennedy O’Brien—found LaBarbera from Americans for Truth about Homosexuality to be closed-minded and dismissive of their differing views. “But I honestly thought it was nice to hear him speak,” Dudash says. Costello concurred: “I really didn’t agree with his opinions, but he seemed really nice.”

O’Brien says poli-rad has also given her permission to hold political beliefs with fluidity, and to reject the idea that rigid adherence to opinions is admirable. “I’ve definitely had times where I listened to the speaker and thought one way, and then we did the debrief and I had changed my mind again,” she says. “Anytime someone changes their mind, it’s seen as the weak thing to do, like you don’t know what you believe. But I think at the end of the day, I mean, everyone’s growing and changing all the time. You learn new things every day. And so if your mind changes, I think that’s OK.”

Thoughtful, inquisitive students—that’s what sticks with Elizabeth Blackburn, even more than the hateful online messages and trolling she endured after speaking to Kilbourne students about working with unhoused people at Camp Shameless. “It was amazing,” she says. “They were so engaged and interested, and I got so many wonderful questions that really did make me think.”

Maybe, Blackburn says, the class is a template for finding common ground. “[Poli-rad] could get canceled by the left as easily as it could get canceled by the right. But I believe that we owe it to the kids to let them hear everything. Let them make a decision for themselves. When they have a variety of viewpoints in front of them, optimistically, I think that a lot of times we’re going to agree on things,” she says. “Maybe we’d be on the same page if we all understood what the class was about.”

This story is from the May 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.