Culture & Society

How Parents Fighting for Better Schools Found Themselves Labeled Domestic Terrorists

Justice Department seizes its chance to clamp down on critics of the Biden administration’s education policies

Families protest potential mask mandates at a Hillsborough County School Board meeting in July 2021 in Tampa, Fla. Image Credit: Octavio Jones/Getty Images News

Two governments are in the news for trying to criminalize the act of insulting public officials. One is the Beijing-controlled Hong Kong legislature, which hopes to protect the feelings of police officers. The other is the U.S. Department of Justice, which hopes to keep parents from insulting school board members.

Of course, Hong Kong doesn’t have a First Amendment, so the China-friendly legislators there had no problem cooking up a law to limit speech. Here in America, the home of free speech, it took just one hair-on-fire letter from a left-wing advocacy group—in this case the National School Boards Association—to get Attorney General Merrick Garland to call in federal law enforcement. His goal: to crack down on free speech as practiced by ticked-off parents of public-school students.

In its Sept. 29 letter to President Biden, the association declared that “America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat.” It added that these “acts of malice, violence, and threats” have increased, and therefore they should be classified as a “form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.” The association called for the deployment of multiple divisions under the auspices of the Justice Department, including the FBI, Homeland Security and the Secret Service. It suggested that the department may want to invoke the Patriot Act, designed to deter and punish terrorist acts in the aftermath of 9/11. In just five days, Garland sprang into action, echoing the association’s call for an all-out response to a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence.”

Turning Out in Droves

No doubt, it has been a raucous few months in School Board Land as COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted and Zoom conferences have given way to in-person meetings. Parents are fired up enough to trek to long meetings, leaving behind kids in need of dinner and homework help, as well as the latest episode of “Dancing With the Stars.” But the association would have Garland believe that the 90,000 board members it represents are under siege from vigilante warriors.

What’s interesting is that the association’s letter doesn’t provide any evidence for this claim. It’s full of footnotes referring to stories of screaming matches and ugly encounters. But it doesn’t mention any specific threats or attacks on board members. And local law enforcement, which has long been on hand at board meetings, certainly doesn’t need intervention from Washington to handle the few miscreants who cross the line.

Yes, some people call board members Nazis and vow to oust them at the next election. In fact, the rare episodes of fighting at meetings have mostly been between factions of parents. Watch the myriad videos online and you’ll see that parents usually save their wrath for each other. Board members always have the option of turning off the lights and disappearing into a back room—though when they did that in Vail, Arizona, the anti-mask crowd that was shut out starting chanting “Robert’s Rules” and voted five of themselves in as a rebel board.

My Own Battle Scars

As a former member of a New Jersey school board, I know how hard it is to motivate residents to show up at meetings. I was often on the losing side of 8-1 votes and wished someone who supported my side would come and speak out. The biggest fights were usually among the board members, especially in closed-door executive sessions. In true Jersey fashion, a fellow member even tried to flip over a conference table at me when I demanded we fire a teacher for an inexcusable breach of conduct. I lost that vote, too. Friends of the other members had no problem making veiled threats against me and my family members or trying to out me as something or other. It never occurred to me to enlist the aid of law enforcement against a posse of mean girls.

Other Beltway lobbying groups can only marvel at the ability of the association, based in Alexandria, Virginia, to issue a statement and get quick action. The trick? The school boards that the Justice Department wants to protect are pushing policies that the Biden administration supports: mandating masks, allowing transgender students on girls sports teams, teaching critical race theory. Last week, for example, the Department of Education’s communications and outreach office hired Precious McKesson, a critical race theory proponent, as a special assistant. A political activist and Biden campaign staffer from Nebraska, McKesson claims that there is “systemic racism that still exists today and permeates our society.”

School boards big and small don’t like being challenged. Before I was elected to my board, I spent years attending monthly meetings. To the consternation of the superintendent, board members, business manager, lawyer and teachers union president, I asked questions about vague agenda items and curious numbers and wrote letters to the editor of the local paper expressing my concerns. Videotapes of the meetings show me screaming a time or two. Any FBI agent who showed up to question me would have gotten an earful about those issues.

Masks, Zoom Classes and X-Rated Books

COVID lockdowns changed the game in many ways. Parents saw what their kids were learning in real time and listened in on Zoom lessons from just off-screen. They didn’t always like what they were hearing and decided to speak up via online board meetings. And as they slowly went crazy at home, they began demanding that schools open for in-person learning. Parents were flabbergasted when they realized how much power the teachers unions had in deciding when schools would reopen. At the same time, parents were discovering sexually explicit passages in school library books and began embarrassing board members by reading the passages aloud at meetings; clips of these episodes collected hundreds of thousands of views online. Finally, as governors enacted mask mandates or bans against mask mandates, tensions exploded.

When children returned en masse to classrooms this fall, it was often with the proviso that they had to be masked all day. That mandate included those 12 and older in middle and high schools who had gotten vaccinated with the understanding that they could forgo masks. According to EducationWeek, as of Sept. 29, nine states have banned school districts from ordering universal mask mandates, but in four of those states, the bans have been blocked or suspended or are not being enforced. Meanwhile, 16 states and the District of Columbia mandate universal masking.

Anti-mask parents are finding ways to fight back. In Clark County, Nevada, where masks are mandated, 14 parents have filed a $200 million lawsuit against the school board and superintendent, arguing that their 18 children should have “the ability to pursue an education without being subjected to health risks that are not offset by any scientifically provable benefits.” A similar lawsuit in the county was filed against the governor and the district, the fifth largest in the nation, on behalf of two parents and three children who objected to wearing masks. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness have been ripped away from law-abiding citizens and their children,” the lawsuit alleges. A lawsuit by parents in Bentonville, Arkansas, led to a judge issuing a ruling that lifted a mask mandate there last week.

Pro-mask parents also have their ways of working the school board. In Indiana, which doesn’t have a mask mandate, the Penn-Harris-Madison school district started the year as mask optional. Then Tamara Kay, a sociology and global affairs professor at the nearby University of Notre Dame, asked her fellow university employees to join her in a protest rally and three-day kids’ “sickout” at the district’s schools. That, plus pressure from the local medical community, seems to have worked.

As the school year began, the board voted to change to a mandatory mask policy. Afterward, Kay tweeted, “WE WON! For 2 weeks we built a campaign from the ground up, built leadership capacity among us, constructed effective strategies that turned our resources into power, & remained committed to the goal & each other. Tomorrow our kids go to ALL @PHMschools masked! Organizing works.” Unfortunately for Kay, she has not been successful in cajoling Notre Dame into imposing a full mask mandate.

Heading To the Ballot Box

Another tactic that’s becoming popular as things get more heated is the recall election. Between 2006 and 2020, Ballotpedia reported an average of 23 recall efforts against an average of 52 school board members each year. So far in 2021, there have been 75 recall efforts against 195 members.

Parents have lately been energized by statements such as the one Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia, made in a recent debate: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” In Sacramento, California, parents went ballistic at a school board meeting after a Project Veritas video revealed that Gabriel Gipe, an Advanced Placement U.S. Government teacher and avowed socialist, was indoctrinating his high school students with his brand of politics. Speaking of his students, Gipe told an undercover reporter that he has “180 days to turn them into revolutionaries” and he does it by “scar[ing] the f— out of them.”

He made kids declare where they stood on the political ideology spectrum and then bragged about how he worked to pull them leftward. He hung an Antifa flag and a Mao poster on his classroom wall and marked students’ papers with rubber stamps with the faces of Castro, Stalin and Kim Jung Un. Photos online showed him bearing a hammer and sickle tattoo on his chest and wearing a “F— the Police” T-shirt. “This is evil. It’s darkness. This is hell,” said one angry dad at the next board meeting. What got Gipe fired, however, were posters on his classroom wall promoting local political issues—they violated his contract.

What’s missing in the Department of Justice response is any recognition of the passion behind the parents’ activism. It acknowledges the notion of “spirited debate” but ignores the fact that parents feel powerless, which tends to make them loud and even obnoxious. Garland needs a reminder that school boards deal with the two things people care about the most: their kids and their taxes.

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