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Debatable discourse

School boards become the focal point for new rounds of the culture wars


People demonstrate at an Aug. 30 meeting of the Brevard County (Florida) School Board. Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/Sipa via AP

Debatable discourse
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A recent stroll down the oldest residential street in Satellite Beach, Fla., revealed well-­manicured yards sprinkled with palm trees and Halloween decorations. Motorists smile and wave as they drive down the street. It’s quiet.

But one yard hasn’t been so quiet. The front lawn includes a bumpy patch where protesters cut up a plumeria bush. Around the side of the house, St. Augustine grass grows back where someone wrote a message with grass killer: “F U.” Now a new security camera watches from a nearby tree—in case the vandals come back. 

The home belongs to Jennifer Jenkins, a Brevard County School Board member who won election last year as a Democrat in a county Donald Trump won by 16 points. Conservative protesters have shown up at least twice here in recent months, but neighbors told me what they have observed goes beyond protesting. It includes burning items on the lawn, chanting that Jenkins is a pedophile, and engaging in what neighbors called “vigilante” behavior.

“I don’t care what their problem is, but the way they handled themselves ain’t like adults,” said a neighbor named Brian. “You’re not going to get anyone on your side doing that. … If you don’t like [school board decisions], then homeschool your kids. There are options.”

Brevard County is ground zero for the burgeoning national debate around school boards. Several big issues have embroiled schools in controversy, including LGBT policies, teaching about race, and—most of all—face mask rules. A memo from U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland instructing federal authorities to investigate intimidation—and reaction to the memo—has stoked more fires. Those fires have in some ways obscured the fact that legitimate policy debates have spilled into ugly, personal harassment and even threats in places like Brevard County.

“I don’t reject them standing outside my home,” Jenkins said at an October school board meeting. “I reject them ... following my car around. I reject them saying that they’re coming for me, that I need to beg for mercy.”

Sitting at her natural wood kitchen table in late October, Jenkins said what’s happened goes far beyond disagreement over policy issues.

“People to this day will text me during school board meetings and comment on what I’m wearing,” she told me. “Once during a school board meeting one person texted me and said my straps were too thin.”

Members of the public have Jenkins’ cell phone number because a state lawmaker, GOP Rep. Randy Fine, posted it on his Facebook page and urged people to contact her. Hundreds did.

At Jenkins’ request, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating whether Fine’s action qualifies as illegal cyber intimidation. He has since removed the post, but in an Oct. 5 post he called Brevard County School Board members “tin pot thugs.” Later, during a Legislature committee meeting, he declared “there’s a special place in hell” for Jenkins and two other members who voted for the mask mandate.

Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins in Satellite Beach, Fla..

Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins in Satellite Beach, Fla.. Photo by Craig Litten/Genesis

JENKINS JOINED the Brevard County School Board last November, two months after she pulled off a surprising 9-point win against Republican Tina Descovich. (School board seats are nonpartisan positions, but both made their party affiliations clear.) According to Florida Today, Jenkins’ platform included standard issues such as increasing teacher pay, reducing class sizes, and student discipline, but she also supported mandatory masking in schools, which Descovich opposed.

In January, Descovich and another former school board member co-founded Moms for Liberty, a group “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” The group began advocating for policies and in March seized on a school district guidance document for LGBTQ+ students.

The internal document—reviewed by WORLD—lists federal and state laws and corresponding school policies, including permitting students to use the bathroom and locker room of their choice. ­Descovich said the school board added gender identity to the district’s nondiscrimination policy over parental opposition in 2016, but what she and others objected to this year was the confidentiality provision that prevents parents from knowing if, for example, their child is being treated as a different gender at school.

“Almost the same document is showing up at school boards across the state,” said Descovich, whose group has quickly grown to include more than 60,000 members in 150 chapters across 32 states. “They’re sneaking it in through staff. It’s not a policy that has to have public input and board approval.”

The board did not vote on the document, but Jenkins was openly supportive of it. Soon after, protesters showed up at Jenkins’ home with signs and chants for the first time, led by a man who calls himself “Thomas Jefferson” and drives a red truck with a Donald Trump sticker affixed to his back passenger seat window. Locals said the man, Thomas Rycroft, is affiliated with Brevard County Patriots, but he told Florida Today he and his fellow protesters are “affiliated only with Jesus Christ.”

Another dust-up occurred in the summer when Moms for Liberty activists raised concerns about district anti-bias training they said was influenced by critical race theory. Then in September, the school board extended its mask mandate for students, sparking another protest at Jenkins’ house.

Moms for Liberty publicly denounced the harassment at Jenkins’ home and distanced themselves from Rycroft and another instigator, Janice Crisp—who publicly blasted the group for kicking out her and Rycroft. When Rycroft tried showing up at an October Moms for Liberty meeting, leadership called the sheriff’s office to have him removed.

“We couldn’t separate ourselves more from these other groups than we have,” Descovich said. “We’ve done everything we can to convey to our members that we are joyful warriors. We will continue to stand up for parental rights and for our children in a respectful manner.”

Still, in national interviews Jenkins has continued to point to Moms for Liberty as the source of her harassment, saying the group targeted her and set the stage for fringe activists.

“I believe it all started because of the personal attacks from Moms for Liberty,” she said. “I joked that it was Moms against Jennifer Jenkins.”

Jenkins said Moms for Liberty members have called her a “wicked witch” to her face, used the #jailjenkins hashtag on social media, and circulated rumors of an affair.

“I am the focus of their vitriol,” she said. “Did they denounce what was done at my home? Yes, they did, after they were accused of being part of it. No one was wearing a Moms for Liberty shirt, but [the protesters] think they’re with Moms for Liberty.”

Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich with her dog Coco at home in Indialantic, Fla.

Moms for Liberty co-founder Tina Descovich with her dog Coco at home in Indialantic, Fla. Zack Wittman for The Washington Post

AMID RISING REPORTS of intimidation and threats, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo directing the FBI to work with U.S. attorneys to convene meetings and implement forthcoming “measures designed to address the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel.” The Oct. 4 memo made no mention of limiting debate, but it triggered a strong partisan reaction.

“If this isn’t a deliberate attempt to chill parents from showing up at school board meetings for their elected school boards, then I don’t know what is,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., declared at a Senate hearing on Oct. 5. “I’m not aware of anything like this in American history.”

Lisa Monaco, the deputy attorney general testifying, pushed back.

“As the attorney general’s memorandum made quite clear, spirited debate is welcome—is a hallmark of this country,” Monaco said. “It’s something we all should engage in and be free to engage in.”

Hawley disagreed, saying the memo was not clear and did not clarify what terms like harassment and intimidation meant in the context of school board meetings.

An internet search yields plenty of examples besides Jenkins. In California, a teacher went to the hospital after a confrontation with a parent over mask requirements.

In Williamson County, Tenn., after a school district voted to extend a mask mandate for elementary school students, an angry crowd waited outside for school board members to leave the building, an encounter that was captured on video. “We know who you are,” a man shouts at a school board member in his car. “You will never be allowed in public again!” Another man adds, “We will find you.”

It’s difficult to quantify the extent of such incidents, although media coverage has skyrocketed. FBI offices in Florida and Washington, D.C., declined WORLD requests for comment on the number of incidents it may be investigating or what steps the bureau has taken to carry out Garland’s memo.

Republicans point to a National School Boards Association letter asking President Joe Biden for federal help—which they say was written in coordination with the White House—as evidence that Garland should scrap the memo. The association later apologized for the language in its letter—which said “these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes”—but Garland defended the directive during testimony before Congress.

“The language in the letter that they disavow is language that was never included in my memo and never would have been,” Garland told the Senate Judiciary Committee during an Oct. 27 hearing. “I did not adopt every concern that they had in their letter. I adopted only the concern about violence and threats of violence, and that hasn’t changed.”

Garland resisted repeated calls from Republicans to apologize and retract the memo. He said the purpose is to call the police to assess the problem, and if they can handle it, the federal government wouldn’t need to get involved. “This memo does not say to begin prosecuting anybody. It says to make assessments,” Garland said.

Republicans remain unsatisfied and maintain that it chills free speech. One group of parents has already filed suit to obtain a permanent injunction against the directive.

I asked Moms for Liberty co-founder Descovich why she thought the memo was directed at people like her, since her activists were not the ones demonstrating at Jenkins’ home.

“That’s a really good question,” she said, pausing before answering. “We are watching language be used as a weapon in America today—and the meaning of words literally be changed right before our eyes.”

“One of the problems with our national debate right now is everything conflated to the extremes. … There’s a middle ground between blindly accepting everything and being nasty and over-aggressive.”

WHILE THE FUROR directed at school boards has come mostly from the political right, harassment has also become the norm among some elements of the political left. The day before Garland issued his memo, four liberal activists followed Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., into a bathroom at Arizona State University, where she teaches. They were angry Sinema was blocking her party’s efforts to pass a $3.5 trillion spending bill through an evenly divided Senate.

“We need solutions,” one woman says as she closely follows Sinema to a bathroom stall while holding up a phone. “The Build Back Better plan has those solutions that we need.”

“We knocked on doors for you,” another activist says. “Just how we got you elected we can get you out of office if you don’t support what you promised us.”

The activists continue talking while Sinema uses the restroom, washes her hands, and walks out of the bathroom without saying a word.

“Build Back Better, pass the bill!” the activists shout as she walks down the hallway. The group then stands outside Sinema’s classroom and chants various slogans, including, “We’ll be back!”

University police recommended charges against all four, but it will be up to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to file them.

Jenkins said she rejects that behavior, too. She said in national interviews she has tried to move the conversation to the larger issues at play. “It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s what’s happening across the nation. … Local leaders are dealing with bullying.”

At least in theory, Jenkins and her former opponent agree on that. Descovich—who received a bag of animal excrement in the mail a few months ago from an anonymous sender—says what has happened to Jenkins is “unacceptable” and that finding a path to respectful public discourse is an important conversation for American society.

“You can find common ground with anybody,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to dig a little deeper to find it.”

Daniel Darling, the new director of the Land Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said Garland’s memo likely inflamed tensions more than it reduced them, but a serious problem exists either way.

“One of the problems with our national debate right now is everything conflated to the extremes,” Darling said. He said parents can and should be involved in their children’s education, but there is a right way and wrong way to do it: “There’s a middle ground between blindly accepting everything and being nasty and over-aggressive.”

—J.C. Derrick is the former chief deputy content officer for WORLD and is now publisher of Mainstreet Daily News in Gainesville, Fla.


J.C. Derrick J.C. is a former reporter and editor for WORLD.

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AWAR4598

Very disappointed nothing mentioned about additional memos noting 13 federal charges, including annoying phone calls and using the internet to organize. Doesn't sound like Mr Garland is trying to limit debate to me.

Steve Dossin

More evidence that government should not run schools.