Turning Point Club Sparks School-wide Debate

Faculty advisor Sue Ikenberry and attendees of TPUSA’s Wednesday meeting pose for a photo. Photo by Aliza Lubitz ’21.

On the night of Monday, January 13, senior Viraj Prakash sent an all-school email notifying students that the conservative political discussion club Turning Point (TP)—of which he is the head—would be convening its first meeting of the calendar year, and its third total, on Wednesday during lunch. Those interested in attending would be led in a discussion covering Cardi B’s move to Nigeria, the conflict between the U.S. and Iran and other recent stories, he wrote. Pizza would be provided.

By Wednesday afternoon, 76 all-school emails—visible to the entire high school student body and a few faculty members—had been sent in response. Some were fiercely anti-TP; others defended the right of the club to meet, standing up for “diversity in thought” or “political diversity.” For three days, students scrolled through the memes, arguments and confused queries, discussing the controversy; conversations on the topic at school remained mostly casual, but at times turned passionate and heated. In a flury, issues like “cancel culture,” free speech and political polarization were elevated to the forefront of the GDS conversation. 

The TP club had its first meeting last fall and was created by Prakash in association with the national organization, which has provided him with merchandise and resources to share at club meetings. Prakash had been in contact with the national organization before getting club approval from administrators. For a time, the GDS high school was listed on Turning Point USA’s website as a chapter but was later removed as a result of a request by GDS administrators and is currently not listed. If a GDS chapter of Turning Point was verified, the national organization would finance any GDS student’s trip to one of their conferences. 

The national Turning Point USA organization was founded in 2012. Its mission—as it is described on its website—is to “identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote freedom.” It casts itself as a grassroots movement promoting conservative values such as limited government, free markets and rebuking what it deems as “liberal intolerance.”

TPUSA boasts more than 1,000 campus chapters. Its founder, Charlie Kirk, has a Twitter following of over one million, and calls President Donald Trump “the greatest president of our lifetime.” Last year, he created Turning Point Action, a 501(c)(4) used to campaign against Democrats during the 2020 election season. He also hosts some of the largest youth conservative conferences around—speakers include Nikki Haley, former US ambassador to the UN; Dana Loesch of the National Rifle Association and President Trump. 

Though they flew below the radar of controversy for their first few years, Kirk and his team have attracted attention for recent scandals. In 2017, texts by Crystal Clanton, the group’s former national field director, were exposed in a New Yorker article: “I HATE BLACK PEOPLE. Like fuck them all.” A few months later, the Huffington Post reported that Shialee Grooman, one of Clanton’s replacements, had tweeted: “I love making racist jokes,” after using the n-word in another tweet—as had former TPUSA midwest regional field director Timon Prax. In 2018, the organization defended Marshall DeRosa, a professor serving as a faculty advisor for Florida Atlantic University’s chapter, who was clearly tied to a white-nationalist group called League of the South. Progressive watchdog groups argue that the organization funnels students into the alt-right and is more of a personality cult around Trump than an organization that promotes traditionally conservative principles. 

School policy prohibits student-led clubs from associating with national organizations. Because of this rule, Marlo Thomas, head of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Office at the high school, says “the club should not be called TPUSA.” Thomas, who adamantly encourages intellectually challenging political discussions in school, also points to the national organization’s troubling reputation on race as a reason the GDS club should not be officially tied to the national group. Perhaps the name “TPGDS” would be allowed, she added, but she couldn’t clarify—the school policy is not that specific. Prakash still refers to his club with the same name as the national organization, TPUSA. 

Prakash condemns all Tweets and hateful messages from TPUSA employees, saying that not everyone associated with the organization should be held accountable for the statements of the ousted staffers. 

“We obviously stand against all forms of bigotry,” he said in a recent interview with the Augur Bit. And for the remainder of this school year he ensured, he would be clear that the club “stands against hate.” He additionally asserted that any Turning Point speakers who come to talk at GDS will be screened for hateful remarks or ties to the alt-right. He called the alt-right movement and its supporters a “garbage group.”

The goal of the club, as Prakash sees it, is to spread conservative principles—“freedom, free markets and limited government” are the pillars, he said—and to talk to people you disagree with, to debate. Though there are less than five consistent members of the club, all GDS students—pro-TP or not, conservative or liberal—are invited to club meetings. “We invite people who disagree with us,” he offered. 

The first few responses to Prakash’s email in January were anti-TP memes—pictures of Charlie Kirk with fake, mocking quotes. Junior Lauren Hogg sent the first such response: “If marine life is really going extinct, why is crabfest back at Red Lobster’s.” 

Senior Emily Axlerod—a head of the Student Voices club—sent another: “I’m a professional quote maker whose only qualification is founding a mediocre propaganda factory. A photo of me looking smug definitely gives my meaningless assertions more weight.”

Longer arguments were made by some students like senior Ian Partman—one of the roughly 30 students who contributed responses to the email chain. “Shaming members of our community for expressing disdain or disagreement with TP through ‘non-offensive memes,’” he wrote, “isn’t peace-making—it’s concessionary to a white supremacist normal that shapes and contorts itself through the silencing and admonishment of non-regulated and non-approved dissent.”

A few days later, Partman said that “the principles, dialogue and intentions of the organization are in misalignment with the core values of GDS and with the core identities, especially with marginalized communities at GDS.”

Juniors Aliza Lubitz and Jonah Sachs—writing on the email chain—rebutted. “If the school prides itself on its diversity,” Lubitz wrote, “that should include diversity of thought and political opinion.” Sachs sent a meme in which a man, representing “GDS Students,” slaps tape, representing “all-school email chains,” over a leak in a water tank—the leak being “political disparity.”

Some students see the pushback against Prakash and GDS’ association with TP as hyper-sensitive, overwrought and dangerous attempts at cancel culture, something Prakash asserts he has experienced, defined as the ostracization of someone or a group based on objectionable opinions or actions. Others think the outcry is appropriate, and in line with GDS’ message of inclusion. Some do not particularly care about the controversy—others are aware of it but remain indifferent. Prakash said that he “loves the passion” that the email chain expresses.

When the lunch bell rang on Wednesday, January 15, more students than usual were waiting outside the classroom where the TP meetings take place. Some were there to ask questions, some to debate, some just to listen. Many were liberals—more than ever before. “I think they got a lot out of it,” Prakash said. “I actually think this email chain is helping us educate people on conservative principles.”

He said he wished “people came out to [most] meetings” like they did that day. “It goes both ways,” he said—he can share his views, and he can hear other people share theirs. “I love that. I get to listen, too.” 

Prakash’s conciliatory tone is not embraced by all. Although Ian Partman believes that “there should be a space for conservative viewpoints,” he does not “think that an organization that has had such a long, detailed history of interaction with the alt-right and white nationalist organizations outside of GDS should be allowed to take place within the GDS community.”  

Prakash remains unwilling to distance himself from the Turning Point organization and its message and change the name to, for example, Young Republicans Club or Conservative Club. He believes that terms like “conservative” and “Republican” are too vague; with Turning Point comes clear and specific principles.

Prakash plans to apply to be a TPUSA ambassador soon. His club, he said, is here to stay.

Nick Penniman ’22

Seth Riker ’22 contributed reporting.