National school boards group apologizes for requesting probe of threats against local officials

GOP-led Michigan Senate committee passed a resolution condemning the DOJ memo

By: - October 27, 2021 7:23 am

Greg Childress, NC Policy Watch

WASHINGTON — 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 (DOJ) 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 memo 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.

Sen. Lana Theis | Screenshot

The GOP-controlled Michigan Senate Education Committee on Tuesday passed Senate Resolution 86, sponsored by Chair Lana Theis (R-Brighton), condemning the DOJ investigation.

“It is unclear what types of speech may be considered to be ‘intimidation’ or ‘harassment,’ and the uncertainty is likely to have a chilling effect on school board participation. Parents with legitimate concerns about school issues may be hesitant to passionately advocate for their children under the threat of federal intervention,” the resolution said.

Theis was one of two Republicans who on Tuesday voted against legislation eliminating taxes on menstrual products. She said on the floor that she has “received way more interaction from parents who are very, very concerned about the mask mandates and the vaccine mandates and free access to education for their children than they are for taxes on menstrual products.”

The Michigan Education Justice Coalition opposed the resolution, citing comments from Marlena Pavlos-Hackney at a Zeeland School Board meeting that she was ready to call in the Michigan Militia to stop mask mandates. This isn’t the first time Pavlos-Hackney has sought out media attention for opposing COVID-19 health measures; her Holland restaurant was shut down for failing to follow safety orders and she’s appeared on Fox News and other national right-wing media.

“Just days after the Zeeland school board faced a violent threat by a woman who insisted she would contact the Michigan Militia, this committee through SR 86 gave aid and comfort to those who would seek to do violence instead of acting with civility. We are saddened that the Republican-led committee would turn a blind eye toward threats instead of protecting our children,” the group said in a statement. “Instead of playing politics and using young children as pawns, the Republican-led Senate should focus on bills that offer solutions to problems our schools actually face.”

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.

According to its website, NSBA’s Board of Directors includes John Halkias of the Plain Local School District in Ohio, Donald Hubler of Macomb Intermediate School District in Michigan, Steven Chapman of Tolleson Union High School District in Arizona, Kathy Gebhardt of Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, Kathryn Green of Austin Public Schools ISD 492 in Minnesota, Ronald Hopkins of Jefferson City Schools in Georgia and Beverly Slough of St. Johns County School District in Florida, among others.

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.

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.

Advance Editor Susan J. Demas contributed to this story.

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Ariana Figueroa
Ariana Figueroa

Ariana covers the nation's capital for States Newsroom. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy, lobbying, elections and campaign finance. Before joining States Newsroom, Ariana covered public health and chemical policy on Capitol Hill for E&E News. As a Florida native, she's worked for the Miami Herald and her hometown paper, the Tampa Bay Times. Her work has also appeared in the Chicago Tribune and NPR. She is a graduate of the University of Florida.