Outspoken member of State Board of Education draws criticism over controversial comments

btb 4.PNG
Lisa Cummins, an outspoken member of the Utah State Board of Education, has drawn criticism with controversial comments during her tenure.

(KUTV) — An outspoken member of the State Board of Education is drawing criticism over her controversial comments in board meetings and on social media.

Lisa Cummins, elected in 2016, represents District 11, which includes the Jordan School District and parts of Salt Lake School District. District 11 encompasses Herriman High School, which last year became synonymous with Utah’s alarming teen suicide rate. Seven mothers lost children who attended Herriman to suicide in 2017.

In a board meeting last May, one such mother, Catherine Voutaz, pleaded for the board to direct resources to the prevention of such tragedies. She also called for suicide response plans at each school district.

“You all have the ability to make a difference,” Voutaz said.

Minutes later, an emotional Cummins turned on her microphone’s light, indicating she had something to say.

“Where are the organizations of parents who need to step up and accept accountability and responsibility?” Cummins said.

To many listeners in the room, including the parent whose son died by suicide, it sounded as if Cummins was shifting blame back to the very people pleading with the board to take action.

Longtime observers of the state school board’s current roster are accustomed to such clumsy comments. Even before she was on the board, Cummins would regularly testify in the public comment periods, bemoaning the lack of God in schools, of too many standardized tests, and that teaching science and technology is overstressed in public education. She and several other current board members regularly rail against the Common Core educational standards as a governmental infringement on “parents’ rights.”

Chris Jones, with the new 2News franchise Beyond the Books, scheduled an interview with Cummins last month. She abruptly cancelled. On the day of the interview, Cummins refused to answer Jones’ questions when he knocked on the door of her Herriman home.

But on social media, Cummins has plenty to say.

On Facebook, Cummins posts a dozen times a day, often sharing videos and web stories on leaders of the “new right” like Gavin McInnes, founder of the Proud Boys, who were linked to the deadly 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally.

Her re-posts frequently proclaim that global warming is a myth, that vaccines are a form of population control, and that the LGBTQ+ movement wants to normalize pedophilia.

Katie Matheson of Alliance for a Better Utah, a political watchdog group, sent this statement to 2News' Beyond the Books:

Lisa Cummins seems to have the inability to distinguish fact from conspiracy theory. Media literacy is an incredibly important part of education in this day and age, and to see a member of the state school board pass around half-truths or all-out fantasies on social media should be alarming to any Utahn who cares about quality education. While we encourage diversity of opinion and thought, the personal posts that Lisa Cummins shares on her social media call into question the appropriateness of her serving in a supervisory role over the education of our children. Of particular concern is her spreading conspiracy theories that vaccines may be unsafe. Vaccinations are critical to the health and safety of students-- especially those who are medically unable to receive them. By spreading false narratives about the safety of vaccines, she is putting the health and education of Utah students at risk.

A Beyond the Books investigation scoured the minutes and videos of over 40 board meetings from the past two years to see whether Cummins’ extreme views affected her performance as a state school board member.

We found that Cummins was willing to risk $123 million in funding for the most at-risk students, advocating for the state to ignore key requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. She was out-voted.

Cummins was also an opponent of the state’s attempt to mitigate the spike in teen suicides.

SafeUT is a smartphone app and tip line created to help link students — anonymously — to mental health professionals, and to report threats of school violence or self-harm.

Board documents provided to each board member clearly lay out the privacy safeguards built into the program. At the meeting where an extension of the program was discussed, Lillian Tsosie-Jensen, a coordinator with the state’s Student Advocacy Services, assured Cummins that SafeUT doesn’t track students’ location or collect identifying information.

“We have had over 70,000 tips about school attacks” since the app’s launch, Tsosie-Jensen said. “Lives have been saved.”

Cummins voted against the measure to keep SafeUT up and running. The measure passed, 14-1.

Cummins agreed to, and then cancelled, a second scheduled meeting with Beyond the Books. She requested that Jones send her a list of questions, which she did not answer.

Cummins submitted the following statement to KUTV before the story aired:

KUTV and reporter Chris Jones have used abuse and dishonesty to try to attack and vilify me because as an elected member of the State School Board I always work for the best interest of parents and students. KUTV and Chris Jones are working in league with others to promote an anti-family agenda that will oppose local control of education in Utah.

RELATED: State school board member Lisa Cummins publicly criticized by Down syndrome advocacy group

RELATED: Cummins votes against letting rural, low income kids watch 'Hamilton'