The criminal threats committed against the Conejo Valley Unified School District and its superintendent last year didn’t happen in a vacuum, according to prosecutors and district officials.
Public comment sessions at CVUSD board meetings have become increasingly contentious in recent years, district officials said, with many speakers traveling from outside Ventura County to voice strong opinions on hot-button issues including sex education and transgender student athletes. Videos of speakers harshly criticizing district leaders are shared widely on the Internet.
Investigators believe Goleta resident Randall Earl Graham became upset with district leaders even though he had no direct connection to schools in Thousand Oaks. Ventura County Deputy District Attorney Brandon Yeaton told the Ventura County Reporter that Graham, 45, called CVUSD headquarters on Oct. 13, 2022 and left two voicemail messages threatening to kill Superintendent Mark McLaughlin.
“In the second voicemail he mentioned that everyone there, and I take that as meaning at the superintendent’s office, that, ‘If you guys don’t stop grooming children, we’re going to put a bullet through every single one of you, you demented f***ing people. Here’s a warning. It’s not a threat. It’s a fact. Somebody is going to f***ing shoot you.’ So that was the verbiage of the second threat,” Yeaton said.
Authorities took the threat seriously and launched a manhunt for Graham by tracing his cell phone, Yeaton said, before finally arresting him in Santa Barbara County two days later.
“Given the history with the Conejo Valley School District, this one [threat] probably was taken a little bit more seriously. We didn’t want to have another shooting tragedy in Ventura County,” Yeaton said.
It was frightening to all the workers in the superintendent’s office who heard the death threats and especially for McLaughlin, Yeaton said.
“I know that he was scared on a personal level, as one would be when he’s named specifically, that there’s a hit on his head, that he shouldn’t be caught in public, things like that,” the prosecutor said. “I know he was worried both for his staff, himself and his family. You know, it’s kind of scary for someone in the public light like that to receive such significant threats.”
Defendant pleads guilty to felony
Graham pleaded guilty on April 4 to making a criminal threat and admitted a special allegation that his actions involved a threat of great bodily harm. The felony counts as a strike under California’s three strikes law.
After Graham was arrested last October, Yeaton convinced a judge to hold the defendant in custody without bail because of the potential danger he posed. As prosecutors learned more about the case, the defendant’s mental stability became an issue since Graham had suffered a brain injury in the past, Yeaton said.
Before Graham pleaded guilty, his attorneys with the Ventura County Public Defender’s Office tried unsuccessfully to convince a judge to approve Graham for the county’s Mental Health Court that can steer certain defendants towards treatment instead of more punitive measures. Graham’s lawyers did not respond to interview requests from the VCReporter.
The crime Graham pleaded guilty to carries up to three years in state prison and Yeaton said he initially thought Graham’s actions warranted a prison sentence. But Graham’s mental health issues are one reason Yeaton agreed to recommend a one-year county jail sentence and formal probation.
“His mental health was a mitigating factor that sometimes brings out his anger a little bit more, I guess. It makes him less inhibited. And so he is getting treatment for that,” Yeaton said.
Graham’s sentencing is set for May 5. Due to the amount of time he’s already spent in custody, it is expected that he will be released from jail following the hearing.
Shifting political tides roil distric
CVUSD Board of Trustees President Lauren Gill told the VCReporter that politics has played an outsized role in the district for many years compared to similar local districts.
Gill said the board had a conservative majority between 2016 and November of 2018, when three of what Gill described as “good governance” candidates were elected, noting that these individuals spoke out against positions taken by the conservative majority. Gill said in 2020 she and another good governance candidate were elected — forcing the last conservatives off the board — and then public comments at the meetings became even more heated, especially leading up to the November 2022 election.
“Raising issues that were not on the agenda, in some cases issues that had been resolved even years before,” she explained, “like the adoption of a comprehensive sexual health education curriculum that was really settled business and was raised again as an issue in a very incendiary way by individuals who didn’t necessarily have any students here in the district.”
When asked by the VCReporter why her district has become such a flashpoint, she immediately pointed to Godspeak Calvary Chapel Pastor and former Thousand Oaks Mayor Rob McCoy, who has become a national figure in conservative politics.
“Pastor Rob McCoy was a part of the American Renewal Project that was funded and founded by David Lane with an emphasis on getting reactionary evangelical folks into public office where they could influence public policy,” the school board president said, adding that McCoy is also a leader of Turning Point USA, a conservative group that added CVUSD to a “school board watchlist” of “radical” districts on their website.
Gill said she believes the criminal threats case may have stemmed from negative publicity about the district.
“I do think it’s directly related to the inflammatory rhetoric. I think that you can draw a fairly straight line from the disinformation,” she said. “I would say that there have been many inflammatory things said that do not match the reality of what is happening day to day in our schools.”
Gill is hoping the resolution of the criminal threats case helps to calm down the rhetoric.
“Sharing out disinformation breaks the bonds of trust in a community, and that’s really damaging. It’s damaging to our public schools,” Gill said. “I’m hoping that people will understand there are real consequences, that real people can be harmed by the spreading of disinformation.”
Pastor McCoy defends opposition to CVUSD
Speaking to the VCReporter, McCoy called the threats
made by Graham against the district “awful.”
“I’m glad the guy got prosecuted. You should never do that,” McCoy said. “I don’t know the man. He wasn’t involved in anything we do. Just like any other threat in society, it’s troublesome and it’s concerning.”
McCoy said it’s not the first time his opponents have unfairly accused him of being involved in a crime in some way.
“It’s kind of like when the Planned Parenthood was burned, they blamed me and it ended up being a disgruntled boyfriend of an employee,” McCoy said. “Everybody needs a target, I guess. Because we stand in defiance of the policies of the school district, we somehow incite rage? And we’re guilty of that? I don’t understand that.”
McCoy said he plans to continue speaking out against the district.
“I mean, we’re still going to continue standing in opposition to many of their policies. We would hope that what they do would be transparent for the parents and the families,” McCoy said. “That would go a long way in helping bring clarity and understanding.”