Facing off with parents
Conservatives say the Biden administration’s effort to involve the FBI in investigating parents over school board meetings is a step too far
Frustrated parents have confronted school boards in noteworthy numbers this year, often sharing their concerns about critical race theory, police officers in schools, or COVID-19 restrictions and closures. Officials in some districts have ended or postponed meetings due to unmasked attendees or screaming audience members.
Some schools have even reported violence: On the first day of classes at an elementary school in Amador County, Calif., this year, a teacher went to the hospital with bruises and lacerations on his face after a confrontation escalated into a fight with a parent upset over mask requirements.
On Sept. 29, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking him to direct federal authorities to help investigate threats against schools and school officials. The letter proposed that some of the threats “could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism.” Attorney General Merrick Garland on Oct. 4 issued a memo instructing the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as U.S. Attorneys offices, to strategize with local leaders across the country about how to handle such threats.
School board decisions have long attracted the ire of parents. While school board meetings have seen increased tensions in recent months, many question federal involvement, saying local authorities are capable of handling threats or altercations.
Dick Bergstrom, 61, served on the school board in Bloomington, Minn., from 2012 to January 2020. Although his term ended before the U.S. COVID-19 outbreak, he said it wasn’t uncommon for board members to leave meetings and find their tires deflated or their cars egged. “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 sit in front of your driveway, so you can’t take your trash out’—you name it, it has happened.”
The California School Boards Association represents over 900 school boards. Spokesman Troy Flint admitted that “raucous” meetings have long been common in some California districts. But he added that even usually quiet school districts have seen increased protests recently, often over COVID-19 prevention measures. In a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom sent the same day as the NSBA’s letter to Biden, the California group referenced school board meetings that ended early due to protests. In September, school officials ended a livestream-only meeting in San Diego County after, they said, protesters forced their way into the district office and refused to leave.
Still, some say the Biden administration’s FBI response is overblown. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., described the memo as “ominous rhetoric” that “doesn’t reflect … reality.” Kristen Waggoner, an attorney with the legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, wrote that Garland’s order vilifies concerned parents and chills constitutionally protected speech.
Tyson Langhofer, director of ADF’s Center for Academic Freedom, said local authorities already have the necessary resources for investigating threats. “Getting involved with local school board issues is not a federal issue,” he said. “It’s a local issue, and it’s best left to be dealt with by local law enforcement.”
Langhofer agreed that specific threats of violence should be investigated. “True threats are not protected speech,” he noted. “But there’s a difference between being angry, and maybe raising your voice … and a true threat.”
He encouraged parents to keep voicing their concerns or run for their local school board: Those who do so in a winsome manner will attract the support of other parents who share their concerns.
Some parents have indeed found more productive ways to elicit change in their school district. One California couple is pressing for change by petitioning to recall existing board members.
Autumn Looijen, 44, and Siva Raj, 49, were frustrated after learning from a January 2021 school e-newsletter that San Francisco Unified School District middle schools and high schools would not reopen until at least fall. Two of the couple’s five children are enrolled in San Francisco schools.
“We got to see the difference in our own family,” Looijen said, adding that for her three children not in San Francisco schools, their moods improved dramatically when they were able to return to class and their friends. “I personally both knew what a difference it made to have in-person schooling.”
Looijen and Raj tried to find someone who would consider spearheading a petition to recall school board members, but while other residents agreed with the couple’s concerns, no one seemed ready to lead the effort. “We looked at each other like, ‘Well, I guess it’s us,’” Looijen said.
San Francisco schools have opened for in-person learning this fall, but Looijen and Raj have more concerns with their school board, including fiscal matters. According to its website, the recall group collected more than 75,000 signatures for each school board member. The group anticipates a recall election in February.