by Ariana Figueroa, Nevada Current
October 27, 2021
The National School Boards Association is walking back its letter to President Joe Biden asking for federal help for school board members who have been harassed and threatened over masking requirements and discussions of race in public schools.
The shift came after Republican members of Congress led by Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley raised strong objections to a Department of Justice investigation that was launched in response to the association’s letter.
GOP senators said that the government was trying to police the speech of parents, and it was “entirely inappropriate” for the association to ask for a review of whether crimes are being committed by parents or others under various statutes including the PATRIOT Act, which is aimed at deterring terrorism.
Some conservative groups and local school boards also sharply criticized the DOJ investigation and the national association. The Ohio School Boards Association announced Tuesday it would end its affiliation with the national group, saying it had no input into the original letter.
In a memorandum dated Friday and provided to States Newsroom, NSBA’s Board of Directors wrote to its members that “we regret and apologize for the letter.” NSBA did not answer questions about the specific language the organization regretted.
“As we’ve reiterated since the letter was sent, we deeply value not only the work of local school boards that make important contributions within our communities, but also the voices of parents, who should and must continue to be heard when it comes to decisions about their children’s education, health, and safety,” according to the memo.
The six-page Sept. 29 NSBA letter to Biden asked for federal assistance and detailed, at length, threats and harassment that school board officials and teachers across the country are facing. It was signed by Viola M. Garcia, association president, and Chip Slaven, the interim executive director and CEO.
“As these acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes,” the letter said.
The vitriol stems from schools starting to incorporate race into teachings as well as requirements for students and staff to wear masks to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19.
“When these behaviors are ignored, when there’s no accountability for these actions, they become normalized and acceptable, and they get reinforced.”
Tensions high across Nevada
In Nevada, an Oct. 20 meeting of the Elko County School Board was rescheduled “in response to recent threats of violence and concerns for public safety,” according to a district press release. An Oct. 12 meeting was adjourned minutes after it began because audience members refused to properly wear masks, which is a violation of district and state emergency directives.
“The acts of disorderly conduct at previous board meetings and threats to our board are coinciding with an already difficult time faced by our community,” said Interim Superintendent Jeff Zander in an Oct. 20 statement.
The Elko County School Board is currently down to two members after five members resigned within a month. The five departing members have not publicly specified their reasons for resigning, according to local media coverage, but the board has been heavily criticized by parents and community members for following the state mask mandates and requiring children exposed to COVID-19 to quarantine.
Clark County School Board President Linda Cavazos in September said she received death threats after the trustees voted to move forward with mandating vaccines for its 40,000 employees.
Over the past year, the Clark County School Board has taken additional safety measures, including relocating some meetings to the more secure Clark County Commission chambers.
Washoe County School Board Trustee Kurt Thigpen, who was sworn into office two days after the Jan. 6 insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, announced in late May he would resign as soon as a replacement could be found. In a July ThisIsReno op-ed explaining his decision, Thigpen said he received “endless emails, texts, phone calls, and social media messages with all sorts of hateful things…well beyond what is to be expected from the role of a public servant.”
“I had many conversations with district staff about safety,” he wrote. “It reminded me of preparing for active shooter drills. At every school board board meeting since, the threat level only got higher, school police presence got higher, and the vitriol, hate, harassment, intimidation and abuse by some members of the public only got worse as time went on.”
Thigpen said the stress led to physical and mental health problems, including suicidal ideations and panic attacks.
In the last year, conservative activists and some parents have targeted school board meetings, protesting “critical race theory,” which generally is not taught at the K-12 level and is instead an academic theory of the intersection of race and U.S. law that is studied in college.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the FBI earlier this month to meet with local law enforcement officials to strategize how to deal with the threats.
Garland is also set to appear before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday during a hearing about the oversight of the Justice Department, where he will likely be asked questions about the DOJ and FBI’s handling of threats to school board officials.
The memo from NSBA did not ask the Justice Department to end its investigation into threats.
The NSBA had praised the decision to begin the investigation in an Oct. 4 press release. “The U.S. Department of Justice’s swift action in response to NSBA’s request is a strong message to individuals with violent intent who are focused on causing chaos, disrupting our public schools, and driving wedges between school boards and the parents, students, and communities they serve,” the association said in a statement.
But Republicans in Congress criticized Garland’s decision to have the FBI look into the threats and called the move an attack on parents for exercising their right to free speech.
“Violence and true threats of violence should have no place in our civic discourse, but parents should absolutely be involved in public debates over what and how our public schools teach their children, even if those discussions get heated,” according to a letter led by Grassley, the top Republican on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
NSBA in its original letter cited disruptions at school board meetings in Georgia, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Nevada.
For example, in Florida, the Florida Phoenix reported that several school board members detailed threatening text messages, vandalism and harassment they continue to face over masking requirements amid the pandemic.
“When these behaviors are ignored, when there’s no accountability for these actions, they become normalized and acceptable, and they get reinforced,” Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins said during a Monday Zoom conference, the Phoenix reported.
Jenkins also detailed in a Washington Post opinion piece how someone outlined the letters “FU” in weedkiller on her front lawn and she said that someone falsified a report accusing her of abusing her child.
“My 5-year-old daughter was on a play date last month when an investigator from the Florida Department of Children and Families sat at my kitchen table to question me about how I disciplined her, then accompanied me to the play date to check for nonexistent burn marks beneath her clothes,” Jenkins wrote.
“Someone had falsely reported that I abused my child. The report was quickly dismissed, but this was the low point in the short time I have been a Brevard County School Board member.”
The NSBA said in its Friday memo that it would “do better going forward” and review its policies and procedures.
“To be clear, the safety of school board members, other public school officials and educators, and students is our top priority, and there remains important work to be done on this issue. However, there was no justification for some of the language included in the letter. We should have had a better process in place to allow for consultation on a communication of this significance. We apologize also for the strain and stress this situation has caused you and your organizations,” the memo said.
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