Families protest any potential mask mandates at schools. (Octavio Jones/Getty Images).
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 investigation that was launched in response to the association’s letter. The Ohio School Boards Association (OSBA) announced Tuesday it would end its affiliation with the national group, saying it had no input into the original 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’s) decision to terminate membership and affiliation with the NSBA Association is a direct result of the letter sent by you to President Joe Biden late last month,” the Ohio board informed the national group in a letter Monday. “The letter purported to be sent on behalf of state associations and school board members across the nation. This assertion could not be further from the truth. OSBA was not notified of the letter, nor were we asked for our thoughts on the matter. If we had been consulted, we would have strongly disagreed with NSBA’s decision to request federal intervention as well as your claims of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”
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 controversy surrounding teaching about the history of racism 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 OSBA said in a news release Tuesday morning that the association believes in the value of parental and community discussion at school board meetings, and “there is tremendous value in allowing and encouraging the public to have meaningful input into the decision-making process.”
“However, that participation should not come at the expense of interfering with the board’s ability to conduct its business or subjecting individual board members to threats of violence, abuse, or harassment,” said OSBA Chief Executive Officer Rick Lewis. “But dealing with such interference should be dealt with at the local level, not by federal officials.”
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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