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Parents protest federal interference in local school board business

In this April 13, 2021 file photo Kindergarten students participate in a classroom activity on the first day of in-person learning at Maurice Sendak Elementary School in Los Angeles California Jae C. Hong/Associated Press Photo

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: parents and school boards.

Frustration is boiling over in school board meetings all over the country over covid restrictions, mandates, and critical race theory. You can hear it in this clip, courtesy of Fox news in Tampa Bay, Florida:

AUDIO: These are our kids, not yours! Where are yours? You don’t control our freedom. [more yelling...]

In response, the National School Boards Association sent a letter to President Biden last month, asking for help investigating threats against schools and school officials. The letter described some of the threats as “equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism.”

That prompted a swift backlash. This week, the organization apologized.

NICK EICHER, HOST: But the damage, you might say, is done. After getting the National School Boards Association letter, Attorney General Merrick Garland asked the FBI and U.S. Attorneys Offices to get involved. He wants the federal agencies to strategize with local law enforcement about how to respond.

While some local officials welcome the help, others see it as a dangerous federal overreach—not to mention an over-reaction. WORLD correspondent Lauren Dunn reports.

LAUREN DUNN, REPORTER: Dick Bergstrom served on the school board in Bloomington, Minnesota, from 2012 until January 2020. Most of his term pre-dated debates over critical race theory or COVID-19 prevention measures. But Bergstrom says school officials still had plenty of experience dealing with angry parents.

BERGSTROM: But when you get a lot of passionate people in one room and they're hollering and screaming and I know where you live, and I'm going to boycott your, I'm going to sit in front of your driveway, so you can't take your trash out. You name it, it has happened.

But that tension has spiked in the last 18 months.

On the same day the National School Boards Association sent its letter to President Biden, the California School Boards Association sent a letter of its own to Gov. Gavin Newsom. It asked him to require police officers to enforce mask mandates and be available to “maintain order” at school board meetings.

Troy Flint is the group’s spokesman. He says the organization has seen disruptive protests even in traditionally calmer districts.

FLINT: We've had cases where the meeting was closed to the public, it was only broadcast online, because of COVID restrictions, social distancing, and so forth. And people burst into, they broke into the room, commandeered the room, the board had to leave, and that they, quote, unquote, elected or appointed themselves as the new school board. We've had numerous school boards have to abandon early, and it's created an unsafe environment.

Some schools have even reported violence. A California elementary teacher went to the hospital with bruises and lacerations on his face after a confrontation with a parent upset over mask requirements. It was the first day of class.

Flint says two main issues are fueling the frustration.

FLINT: Far and away, what's driving this is people's differing opinions about COVID-19 mitigation strategies, whether that's masking, whether that’s screening and testing or now in California, we have a vaccine mandate, which will be implemented probably in the next few months here. And then a distant second would be ideas about critical race theory being taught in schools.

Flint says when it comes to kids, he understands why parents are passionate.

FLINT: Ultimately, we're dealing with children, which are the most prized or valuable asset in the community. So tensions are always going to run high when children are involved.

Still, some question whether involving federal authorities is the best answer to a local problem.

Tyson Langhofer heads Alliance Defending Freedom’s Center for Academic Freedom. ADF has asked Garland to withdraw his order due to its concerning implications.

LANGHOFER: One, it vilifies largely peaceful parents who are simply expressing concerns over very radical ideologies that are being pushed at school boards throughout the country. And two, it's going to, you know, unconstitutionally chill, that the speech of parents who are simply voicing concern for the well-being of the children, and for the ideologies that are being taught in our schools.

Langhofer notes the law already defines the difference between a threat and constitutionally protected speech. Healthy conversation about major, controversial topics is important. Langhofer calls silencing one perspective over another “un-American.”

While he agrees that specific threats of violence should be investigated, Langhofer says local threats are best handled by local law enforcement. And, he says they already have the tools they need to do their jobs.

LANGHOFER: To invoke the power of the federal government, the FBI, to come in and investigate parents who are simply expressing concern at local school board meetings. That's a misuse of federal power.

Frustration over school board decisions has prompted parents to do more than yell at elected officials. Some are adding their names to the ballot for the next school board election. Others are working on recall efforts.

Autumn Looijen and Siva Raj learned in January that San Francisco’s middle and high schools would not reopen for the rest of the school year. Raj’s three children are enrolled in San Francisco schools. Looijen’s three children attend school in another district. It reopened for in-person learning. Looijen says her kids’ moods dramatically improved after going back to class.

LOOIJEN: I personally both knew what a difference it made to have in-person schooling and was really frustrated that Siva’s kids weren't getting the same opportunities that mine were.

Looijen and Raj tried to find someone to spearhead a recall effort against the San Francisco school board. They knew many other San Francisco residents shared their concerns, but no one wanted to lead the way.

LOOIJEN: And they'd be like, Well, you know, we're happy to let you do it. And at the end of it, we've just ran out of people to call. And we looked at each other like, well, I guess it's us.

San Francisco schools did reopen for in-person learning this fall. But Looijen and Raj moved forward with their recall drive. According to their website, they’ve collected more than 75,000 signatures for each member they want to recall. The recall election has been set for February 15.

As for the federal government’s involvement in school board business, 19 House Republicans asked Attorney General Merrick Garland to reconsider. And school board associations in Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Ohio, and Missouri have withdrawn from the national group over its request for federal help.

ADF’s Tyson Langhofer says parents need to keep speaking up and finding ways to influence their children’s education.

LANGHOFER: It takes courage to stand up to and and express concern over bad ideas. But it is so important. And I can guarantee you there are many, many other people in your community who have those same concerns. And if you're willing to do it in a in a winsome manner, then then you're going to encourage others to do so as well. And then you're going to galvanize your community and you can make change.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Lauren Dunn.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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