School boards ask for federal help as tensions rise over Covid-19 policies
In a letter to President Biden Thursday, the National School Boards Association pointed to more than 20 instances of threats, harassment and acts of intimidation toward school board members, students, and district staff and leaders. The upheaval stems largely from opposition to Covid-19 rules such as mask-wearing and to critical race theory, according to association leaders.
The group compared the threats to domestic terrorism or hate crimes and said local law enforcement in some parts of the country need federal assistance in handling and preventing threats as they grow more common.
“It’s growing to a point where it is a real concern now,” said Chip Slaven, NSBA interim executive director and chief executive. He said a rise in incidents over the past several weeks as the new school year gets under way prompted the organization to seek assistance.
Opponents of mask mandates have disrupted school board meetings, and some people have sent threats of violence through the mail to school board members, the group said. Some have targeted students who have spoken at board meetings, according to the letter. The harassment has prompted some school board members, who are often volunteers serving in nonpartisan roles, to resign or leave their positions at the end of their terms.
At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic 19 months ago, more than 50 million children were sent home for in-person learning. The debate over reopening for in-person instruction was one of the most divisive battles of the pandemic, with vastly different approaches and safety protocols engaged across the nation’s more than 13,000 school districts.
School board members and district leaders were often tasked with making these decisions, and many followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation for universal indoor masking for both students and staff, regardless of vaccination status. At the same time, governors in states including Arizona, Florida, South Carolina and Oklahoma barred mask mandates in schools, saying the choice should fall to parents. Lawsuits challenged many of those actions, and the Education Department opened investigations into five states that banned mask mandates after parents, including those with children who have disabilities and medical conditions, raised concerns. Advocates of the bans say they protect the rights of citizens to make their own health decisions.
At the start of the summer, there was a sense of optimism among some educators, district leaders and parents that the 2021-22 academic year would be similar to those before the pandemic. Covid-19 vaccines that help prevent severe illness were widely available for educators and students ages 12 and older.
Many of the districts that were closed for in-person learning for most of the past year reopened. But the highly transmissible Delta variant, lower-than-average vaccine rates in some parts of the country and the fact that no vaccine has been authorized for use in children under the age of 12 left districts scrambling to readjust their Covid-19 safety protocols as students returned to classrooms.
The vitriol faced by district leaders has intensified because of face-mask requirements and vaccine mandates, said Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association. That has led to the highest turnover in superintendents across the nation’s school districts he has seen in his career, he said.
“It never rose to the level of violence that we see now,” said Mr. Domenech, whose organization released a statement with the NSBA about the issue last week. “It is ugly,” he said.
The NSBA is specifically asking federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, the Secret Service and National Threat Assessment Center for help. Mr. Slaven said agencies could use their resources to gather information and analyze threats in coordination with local law-enforcement officials.
The association is also asking the U.S. Postal Service to monitor threats sent by mail to students, educators, board members and other school staff.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a briefing Thursday the administration takes threats to school board members seriously.
“We’re continuing to explore what more can be done from across the administration,” Ms. Psaki said. “But, again, a lot of this will be local law enforcement and how they can help ensure these school board members feel protected.”
A spokesperson for the Education Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Mr. Slaven said the department and White House staff acknowledged the letter Thursday.
Mr. Slaven said he hoped the group’s letter would encourage those who disagree with school board positions moving forward to express their disapproval appropriately.
“Whatever your opinions are on these things, our children are paying attention right now to what the adults are doing,” he said. “We need to treat each other civilly.”
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