School boards are asking for federal help as they face threats and violence

Sep 30, 2021
Originally published on October 6, 2021 2:11 pm

Confrontations over masks, vaccines and how race is taught in schools have many school board members across the U.S. worried for their safety.

Mobs are yelling obscenities and throwing objects. In one district, a protester brandished a flagpole against a school board official. Other cases have included a protester yelling a Nazi salute, arrests for aggravated battery and disorderly conduct, and numerous death threats against public officials.

School board meetings, usually one of the most mundane examples of local democracy in action, have exploded with vitriol across the country in recent months, and school leaders are scared.

That's according to a letter that the National School Boards Association sent this week to President Biden. It's asking for help from federal law enforcement, including the Justice, Education and Homeland Security departments as well as the FBI, saying: "These heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes."

The letter names incidents that have disrupted school board meetings in California, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

The association mentioned a chaotic school board meeting in Loudoun County, Va., in which one person was arrested and another was injured. A local TV reporter posted video of a portion of it:

In Ohio, a school board member reportedly received a piece of hate mail that said, "We are coming after you and all the members on the ... BoE [Board of Education]. ... You are forcing them to wear maskā€”for no reason in this world other than control. And for that you will pay dearly." Threats have prompted school board members, many of whom are volunteers, to resign.

Turning Point USA, a group closely aligned with former President Donald Trump, maintains a website called School Board Watchlist, which includes the names and photos of members of school boards around the country who have adopted mask mandates or anti-racist curricula. The group maintains a similar website targeting professors for liberal views that has been linked to several incidents of harassment.

Most of the school board protests have been over mask mandates. There have also been disruptions over vaccines, policies toward LGBTQ students and the way race and history are taught in schools, which right-wing activists have misleadingly labeled critical race theory. Critical race theory, as this letter points out, is an advanced topic taught in law schools and undergraduate sociology courses.

Clarification: 10/05/21

An earlier version of this story named an organization that has promoted school board rallies and protests in California, but says it was not involved in the specific incidents in other states mentioned in the story. NPR could not verify such involvement, and that reference in the story has been removed.

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