The superintendent of Conejo Valley schools is blaming “inaccurate” and “inflammatory” reporting by conservative media outlets for a death threat he received last week.
Randell Graham, 44, of Goleta was taken into custody Oct. 15, one day after Mark McLaughlin received a voicemail stating “we’re going to put a bullet through your (expletive) skull.”
Graham, who has no apparent connection to Thousand Oaks or the Conejo Valley Unified School District, placed the call Oct. 13, police said.
The profanity-laced message, which was played for the Acorn, begins “Hey, hey, Mark. Congratulations. You officially have a hit on you. You’ve been marked.
“I wouldn’t get caught (expletive) in public,” the caller states. “I wouldn’t get caught going to work. We’re going to put a bullet through your (expletive) skull, you grooming piece of (expletive).”
Grooming is a term popularized over the last year that has been used to criticize public schools for allegedly teaching sexual content to young children. CVUSD only offers sexual health lessons to seventh- and ninth-graders, and parents have the right to opt their children out of all or some of the lessons.
Upon hearing the message the morning of Oct. 14, the superintendent said, he immediately contacted the police department and canceled the rest of his day.
“At first we thought it was a number from back in New York, so I was less concerned. But then they went through their steps and realized it was fairly local, and that was upsetting,” he said.
In his ninth year with the district (fifth as superintendent), McLaughlin said this is the first time he’s received a death threat. Asked if he had seen or heard Graham’s name before last Saturday, he said, “Nope, never.”
According to jail records, Graham was arrested around 10:40 p.m. Oct. 15 and booked into Ventura County jail just before 12:30 a.m. Oct. 16.
He was released from custody Oct. 17 after posting bond, according to the jail website.
T.O. Police Chief Jeremy Paris said the department is working to determine what triggered Graham, a maintenance worker in Santa Barbara, to threaten McLaughlin. Graham’s Instagram includes a post where he criticizes a list of strategies to make the workplace more LGBTQ inclusive.
“This stuff has got to go,” he writes in the June 13 post. “It’s ruining the workplace and people are overly sensitive.”
Graham is due in court Oct. 31.
If convicted of the felony, Graham would be looking at a maximum penalty of three years in prison.
McLaughlin said he believes the threat is tied to recent national media attention given the district by outlets like the Daily Wire, which published an article Oct. 12 with the headline “Southern California Superintendent Defends 7th-Grade Boy Masturbating In Front of Classmates.”
The story was also featured last Friday on “Watters’ World” on Fox News.
School board president Karen Sylvester came to the same conclusion.
“I am not going to point fingers and assign blame to specific individuals for this vicious and hate-filled death threat. However, I have to believe that there is a link between this threat and the recent biased and offensive national coverage of our school board meetings,” Sylvester said in an email.
The coverage was prompted by a heavily edited video posted to social media two weeks ago by the owner of VC Defense, a Thousand Oaks gun store, showing a mother addressing the school board at its Sept. 20 meeting about her daughter seeing a male student masturbating in class last May.
That parent suggested the boy’s behavior was caused by the district’s lack of a dress code and by its new sexual health curriculum, Teen Talk.
“It does not take an expert to figure out what happens to a 13-year-old boy when he’s staring at mostly naked girls wearing underwear at school, and being exposed to concepts like oral and anal sex in seventh grade,” she said.
The video posted by VC Defense begins with the mother stating: “On May 17, my seventh grade daughter along with every other classmate watched a boy in her class masturbate . . .” then cuts to a clip of McLaughlin saying: “I don’t think that this is anything outside the norm.”
The superintendent’s full comments were: “As someone who’s been an elementary and middle school principal, I would say that at least once a year this comes up for both male and females within a school setting, and so I don’t think that this is anything outside the norm.
“When we have a student that may be touching themselves in their jeans, in their pants, pocket or whatever, this is usually an issue that is discussed with the parent at home, if they’re aware of it,” he continued. “There’s also other emotional issues and psychological issues that students are working through. It’s a sensitive subject.”
What’s more, McLaughlin said this week, an investigation into the parent’s statement found nothing to support the assertion.
“No school or district or personnel confirmed the events of May 17, 2022,” he said. “Nor has any other student or parent come forward with the claim that the student was masturbating in class.”
The parent in question has said she knows the story is true because her daughter told her about it after she picked her up from class “saying her friends were disturbed, traumatized and scared.”
McLaughlin questioned why, if the incident occurred in May, the parent did not come forward until September.
“That is four public meetings and a district office meeting about Teen Talk in late May where the family never brought it up to district staff,” he said.
The superintendent said he was working with attorneys on a “defamation claim” because of the suggestion made in the media that he would have approved of such behavior.
“This is my career. This is my reputation. I have a wife and kids,” he said.