Another Sign Of Our Uncivil Society
A Drop of Ink
By Reed Anfinson
Civility is not a tactic or a sentiment. It is the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos.
President George Bush
As voters in Minnesota went to the polls Tuesday to cast ballots in local elections, an unprecedented number of those ballots included candidates for school boards.
These weren’t candidates seeking election to seats of members whose terms had expired. Many were running to fill the seats left vacant by resignations.
“According to the Minnesota School Boards Association, nearly 70 board members have resigned their positions this year, triple the number of resignations in a regular year,” the Associated Press reported.
Why so many resignations? Service on school boards has become dangerous in some places, or at least so stressful, that a growing number of board members who once found their service rewarding now find it emotionally exhausting.
At the heart of the most inflammatory meetings are policies on mask requirements, vaccination requirements, policies implemented in consideration of LGBTQ students, and on critical race theory.
Critical race theory seeks to educate students to see America’s development with an awareness of the role racism played in its shaping. These courses are not taught in high schools but rather reserved for law schools and colleges. If a student brings up the subject in a high school class, how should a teacher respond? In some districts, responding might get the teacher suspended.
Threats are screamed by those attending heated school board meetings, and are sent through letters, emails, and social media. Some school board members have been targeted at their homes. In Ohio, school board members in one district were told, “You have become our enemies and you will be removed one way or the other.” A Florida school member was told, “We are coming for you.” Physical fights have broken out at meetings.
In response to the growing concerns for school board member safety as well as the safety of school faculty, the National School Board Association sent a letter to the Biden Administration seeking help.
“America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat,” the letter signed by NSBA President Viola M. Garcia and NSBA interim Executive Director and CEO Chip Slaven states. “The National School Boards Association respectfully asks for federal law enforcement and other assistance to deal with the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation occurring across the nation.”
The school boards association asked the federal government to “investigate, intercept, and prevent the current threats and acts of violence against public school officials … to ensure the safety of our children and educators.” It asked for the assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Secret Service and its National Threat Assessment Center.
What got the association in hot water with some of its members as well as Republicans, was the following statement: “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.”
While seeking federal help, the national association said it recognized that hearing from members of the community is important. Such feedback “is at the heart of good school board governance and promotion of free speech,” it acknowledged.
The association has now apologized for sending the letter but that apology did not come before U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland acted on the request.
In his Oct. 4 letter, Garland directs the country’s U.S. attorneys and representatives of the FBI to meet with local law enforcement agencies to address how they will deal with the threats. Their November meetings were to create “dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment, and response.
“Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values,” Garland wrote. “Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.”
Republicans have jumped on the letters from the school boards association and Garland. They say the Biden Administration aims to intimidate parents out of voicing their concerns at public meetings.
“The full force of the F.B.I. is now something a parent has to think about before they go before a school board meeting to express their concerns,” Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina said.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis accused Garland of “using the FBI to pursue concerned parents and silence them through intimidation.” Garland went too far when he ordered federal law enforcement officials to meet with local authorities, they say.
In their complaints, Republicans choose to ignore the specific wording of Garland’s memo where he recognizes the rights of parents to question school board members. “Spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution,” Garland wrote. But he adds, “that protection does not extend to threats of violence.”
Garland, whose nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court was blocked by Republicans, also pointed out that the Court’s past rulings have established that speech, even when “very heated,” is protected by the First Amendment. He stressed that his memo was only meant to address the threats public officials face.
You have the absolute right to attend a public school board meeting. You have the right to address the body during its citizen comments period or if there is a public hearing. That right doesn’t include threatening a person with physical harm. It doesn’t include assaulting a person who disagrees with you.
What is happening at these meetings is just another sign of how we are being manipulated into warring tribes by social media and the extreme fringes of our media culture today. It is another sign of how uncivil our society is becoming.