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Parents, GOP accuse DOJ of treating school protesters like 'domestic terrorists'

FILE - In this Aug. 12, 2021 file photo, protesters against a COVID-19 mandate gesture as they are escorted out of the Clark County School Board meeting at the Clark County Government Center, in Las Vegas. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 12, 2021 file photo, protesters against a COVID-19 mandate gesture as they are escorted out of the Clark County School Board meeting at the Clark County Government Center, in Las Vegas. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal via AP, File)
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As political and cultural fissures deepen nationwide on a range of issues, those conflicts are increasingly playing out in heated confrontations between parents and educators, and a Department of Justice memo indicating some of those incidents could constitute federal crimes has sparked a new wave of controversy.

One such clash came Thursday night in Fairfax County, Virginia, where irate parents marched into a school board meeting wearing shirts that read, “Parents Are Not Domestic Terrorists.” Parents, board members, and students proceeded to argue passionately over racial education and library books promoting LGBTQ themes.

The shirts referred to recent claims by the National School Boards Association that violence and threats against school officials could be “equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.” Earlier this week, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the DOJ and FBI would establish a task force to probe a “disturbing spike” in threats against school personnel – a move that drew fierce criticism from Republicans.

“When you start to criminalize dissent, when the head of the federal government, through the president, through the Department of Justice, is saying you might be a domestic terrorist if you raise your voice, I think that’s appalling and is chilling and is very, very dangerous,” said Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

The grievances vary by school district – COVID-19 restrictions, critical race theory, school safety, transgender rights, sexual content in library books – but tensions are unmistakably rising on a broad scale. While most parents express their objections peacefully, Democrats say some conduct has simply gone too far.

Watching some of the behavior of adults at these meetings kind of turns my stomach a little bit,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., sent a letter to Garland Friday seeking clarification regarding what the DOJ considers “harassment” and “intimidation” of school officials. He questioned whether efforts to recall and remove school board members would be considered imitation, and he noted reports of school boards retaliating against parents.

“Your memorandum’s ominous rhetoric doesn’t reflect the reality of what we have seen,” McConnell wrote.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki stressed the suggestion that threats against school officials might constitute “terrorism” came from the National School Boards Association. Garland’s memo made no mention of it, and DOJ officials this week defended the rights of parents to engage in peaceful protest and “spirited debate.”

These were threats against public servants, threats against members of the school board,” Psaki said Wednesday. “Regardless of the reasoning, threats and violence against public servants is illegal.

A six-page letter to President Joe Biden from the NSBA cited nearly two dozen incidents across the country in which school board members, educators, or administrators faced threats, harassment, or outright violence in recent months. A few of those instances led to arrests, but others did not involve clear violations of the law.

“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,” said Chip Slaven, NSBA interim executive director and CEO.

Critics argue school administrators are overstating the danger and blurring the lines between legitimate protests and threats of violence, and they dispute the need for federal interference in what are traditionally local law enforcement matters. Former FBI official Kevin Brock called Garland’s response “wildly disproportionate” to the level of threats school boards are really facing.

“Some of the examples cited by the NSBA could merit a limited local police inquiry into whether a potentially threatening person has the intent and capability to follow through with a violent act,” Brock wrote in an op-ed for The Hill.

The practical implications of the memo are uncertain. Beyond setting up working groups and training sessions, Garland prescribed few concrete steps, and federal jurisdiction is limited.

“The DOJ is certainly tasked with addressing threats of violence against public officials,” said Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. “As long as the involvement stays within those bounds and doesn’t harass people who are merely voicing their political views, it’s appropriate.”

Education policy experts say much of the current drama appears to be driven by the unique circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, its effects on schools, and the strain it has put on parents. Protests first flared up last year over lengthy school closures, and they have continued as districts navigate policies surrounding masks, vaccines, and quarantines.

These pressures are unusual and unprecedented,” said William Mathis, a former vice-chair of the Vermont State Board of Education and current local school board member. “School people are quite good at dealing with individual crises and problems. However, the current crises reflect a greater change than we have ever faced in the very nature and existence of society as we know it.

However, historians believe the underlying dynamics at play are familiar. In previous periods of social change, school boards have become venues for parents to speak out against the government on issues like immigration, civil rights, and communism, even if they have little connection to a district’s policies.

“None of this is new,” said Campbell Scribner, a professor at the University of Maryland and author of “The Fight for Local Control: Schools, Suburbs, and American Democracy.” “It’s sort of a cyclical thing, where school boards have always been the most accessible government institution... They become these sort of pressure cookers for political controversies that might be only incidental to what they actually do.”

According to Adam Laats, an expert on the history of American education at Binghamton University, the latest spate of protests echoes a century-long tradition of school board meetings serving as a proxy for broader culture war debates. Since children are involved, emotions tend to run high on all sides.

“Protesters have often used school board meeting open mics to make angry speeches about creeping socialist subversion, or the dangers of secular schools, or the ‘threat’ of anti-racist curriculum,” Laats said.

At a school board meeting in Buncombe County, North Carolina Thursday, Chair Ann Franklin said members had felt “threatened, very personally and collectively” amid disputes over mask policies. Angry crowds have gathered at recent meetings, including parents accusing the board of acting like “dictators” for requiring masks in schools.

A school board in Rockland, Maine shifted its meeting this week from in-person to virtual after an anti-mask Facebook group encouraged its members to attend. According to WGME, there were no threats of physical violence, but tensions have been high across the state.

In California, protesters against the state’s vaccine mandate accosted parents and children outside an elementary school in Beverly Hills Wednesday. Some harsh words were exchanged, but police said no citations were issued.

In Louisville, Kentucky, a school board meeting was shut down early by police Tuesday after repeated disruptions from supporters and opponents of school resource officers. Jefferson County Public Schools eliminated the officers in 2019, but many parents are demanding they be brought back due to safety concerns.

After police were called to clear out a meeting of the Prince William County School Board in Manassas, Virginia last month, the board held a contentious but more orderly discussion Wednesday. Several parents voiced vehement objections to the district’s social justice policies, but another denounced the “manufactured controversy.”

The current uproar is very much about the current culture war, where some Americans see other Americans as true enemies, not just fellow citizens with different political views,” Welner said.

Some of the most high-profile clashes have come in Northern Virginia as conservative parents push back against school COVID-19 policies, racial equity initiatives, and other controversial positions. The issue has been thrust into the center of the state’s gubernatorial race, with Republican Glenn Youngkin’s ads hammering Democrat Terry McAuliffe for suggesting at a recent debate that parents should not dictate school curriculums.

Recent polls suggest that race is nearly tied, with Youngkin making gains in Northern Virginia suburbs that had been trending Democratic. An Emerson College survey conducted earlier this month found 52% of likely Virginia voters believe parents should have more influence than school boards in what their children learn.

The Associated Press reported Republicans are watching the Virginia race closely to see how potent Youngkin’s education stance is with swing voters. If he becomes the first GOP candidate to win statewide in over a decade, the party is likely to redouble its efforts to mobilize opposition to liberal-leaning school boards heading into 2022.

“Glenn Youngkin is harnessing the energy of parents that are frustrated and fed up,” a Youngkin representative said.

School districts have often found themselves ensnared in larger political battles this year. Several school boards in Florida are facing competing pressure from the state Board of Education and the federal government over Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to fine districts that impose mask mandates.

Scribner said questions of health policy and education policy are not always clear-cut, and different responses in different areas are normal. There have been some instances of administrative mismanagement during the pandemic, but school district policies typically reflect the consensus of their communities.

I think, generally, we’re seeing democracy in action,” he said.

According to Laats, the executive branch has ventured into school board battles in the past, but in the 1970s and 1980s, it often sided with conservative protesters. Garland’s memo was relatively mild, but it made clear where the Biden administration stands today.

The memo will not send FBI agents storming into school board meetings to arrest anyone,” Laats said. “But it does signal Biden administration opposition to anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-Critical Race Theory protesters who trash civil norms to disrupt meetings and threaten their neighbors.

Republicans maintain protesters who disrupt school board proceedings often have genuine concerns about decisions that affect their children. Sen. Paul said it is “a really sad state of affairs” that the federal government might try to intervene instead of leaving any necessary investigations in the hands of local police.

“If you’re at a school board meeting and you push somebody, touch somebody, if you start screaming, there are local ordinances, there are rules,” Paul said Thursday.

The White House and its allies insist President Biden supports the right to protest, but they believe recent events raise serious safety concerns that could merit a federal response. They insist law-abiding parents have nothing to fear, though.

“Go to a city council or school board meeting and express dissent... but when it starts to get violent and people on these boards start to get threats, sadly, we have to protect them,” Sen. Kaine said.

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