HiTOPS, the Princeton-based nonprofit that provides sex education and LGTBQ+ programs for young people in schools in New Jersey, is the latest target of Project Veritas, the right-wing activist group that uses heavily edited secret recordings to discredit organizations and individuals.
After Project Veritas posted a story and video on Sept. 13 that claims that HiTOPS uses covert tactics to introduce a “radical” sex curriculum into schools through backdoor channels without parental consent, the organization started receiving threatening emails and phone calls that made staff members concerned for their safety and the safety of the young people they work with. Leaders of HiTOPS told Planet Princeton they had to reach out to the police Wednesday due to the threats.
“Project Veritas has used deceptive, unethical methods to manipulate public perception and misrepresent HiTOPS’ work,” reads a statement to Planet Princeton from HiTOPS. “Their defamatory video incited threatening communications directed at us, which have created fear and anxiety for the safety of our team and the young people we work with. HiTOPS has reached out to the Princeton Police Department, which is investigating the situation.”
Project Veritas works to generate bad publicity for its targets and often spreads disinformation and conspiracies in its videos, which are frequently filmed secretly without the subject’s knowledge by people who misrepresent themselves to gain access to their subjects at conferences and other events. Project Veritas targets have included Democratic Congressional campaigns, labor groups, Planned Parenthood, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, NPR, CNN, and The Washington Post. Project Veritas has received large donations from the conservative Koch-related Donors Trust and other supporters, including the Donald J. Trump Foundation.
The group has a lengthy history of targeting teachers’ unions and educators across the country in its campaigns in an attempt to build distrust in public education systems and spark culture wars in schools. Representatives of the group record subjects during meals and conference sessions where their targets make off-the-cuff comments about how to approach gender and sexuality in schools. In Natomas, California, a teacher received death threats and was harassed at his home after being featured in a Project Veritas video.
In the HiTOPS video posted by Project Veritas on Sept. 13, two HiTOPS staff members who were recorded without their knowledge are asked about their curriculum in schools. Staff members are asked about how the organization sometimes presents educational programs as part of racial justice and inclusivity curriculums in schools that parents do not have the option to opt out of. One staff member says HiTOPS is doing more work in the area of gender-affirming language because of the increased demand for programs in that area. Staff members say the goal is to create a safe, open space to talk about identity issues. One HiTOPS staff member also talks about how teachers can use Google Forms to survey students occasionally about what name they prefer to use and which pronouns. The staff person says some schools have backed out of contracts with HiTOPS for fear of backlash from conservative parental rights groups.
Project Veritas frames what HiTOPS is doing as finding back doors and exploiting loopholes and computer technology to advance radical sexual education without parental knowledge or consent.
HiTOPS has worked with young people and their families for more than 37 years and is considered a trusted expert in the state for youth-focused sex education and support. The organization provides programming to school districts in the Princeton region and beyond, including in the Princeton and Trenton public schools. The organization also offers training online to schools in other states.
Representatives from HiTOPS said the organization openly and proudly works to empower all young people through sex education, LGBTQ+ support, and creating environments that affirm young people of all gender identities and sexual orientations.
“HiTOPS has been targeted by an ultra-rightwing, conservative hate group, Project Veritas, who misrepresented themselves to our staff, surreptitiously videoed conversations, and edited them such that it appears that HiTOPS circumvents parental involvement and promotes secrecy between parents and their children. This is not true,” representatives from HiTOPS said in a statement to Planet Princeton.
“Our goal is that all students have access to developmentally appropriate, positive, and medically accurate sex education. We respect a parent’s right to opt their child out of a class or activity. We hope that they won’t, but we respect their right to do so,” reads the statement. “We value parent involvement such that our flagship education program features multiple educational presentations for parents and various opportunities for them to be engaged and involved in our work in schools.”
Representatives for HiTOPS said Project Veritas falsely stated that HiTOPS staff assumes a student’s preferred pronouns based on visual observations of the student.
“This also is not true. Our goal is to create a sense of safety and trust so that students who want to, feel comfortable talking with HITOPS staff openly and honestly,” reads the HiTOPS statement. “Project Veritas accused HITOPS of misusing school computers to avoid parental involvement. Again, not true. The schools have sanctioned the use of these computers for the distribution of surveys and questionnaires on a variety of topics.”