Georgia school boards respond to federal plan to investigate threats

Protesters opposed to Fulton County Schools' mask requirement hold up signs outside of the board's Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, meeting. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC FILE PHOTO

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Protesters opposed to Fulton County Schools' mask requirement hold up signs outside of the board's Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, meeting. VANESSA McCRAY/AJC FILE PHOTO

Several members of metro Atlanta school boards facing political strife applauded a federal pledge to address threats and harassment against officials and employees in public schools nationwide.

This week’s announcement is a response to a letter the National School Boards Association sent President Joe Biden that cited a May meeting of the Gwinnett County Board of Education as an example of disruptions happening across the country.

“Any sort of national strategy that we can put together to keep kids safe, and stay focused on academic recovery and learning, is going to help our boards stay productive,” said Everton Blair, chairman of the Gwinnett school board. “Most folks support the work that we’re doing, and there’s a silent majority that just wants the noise to stop so we can keep going and serve their kids.”

The school boards organization requested help in tamping down “the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation occurring across the nation” made by individuals or “hate groups.”

The U.S. Department of Justice’s work is expected to include a new task force that will discuss how to assist local and state law enforcement and how to federally prosecute crimes.

About 100 people filled the Gwinnett board room during the May meeting and refused to wear masks or leave as required. The meeting was suspended for about 40 minutes and school police broke up two escalating verbal confrontations between audience members.

“It’s not just the elected officials that are challenged by the disruption in the board meetings — and you just never know what could happen,” said Vice Chair Karen Watkins.

The national association’s letter also referenced an arrest for aggravated battery during an Illinois school board meeting and outbursts in Michigan, including one in which an “individual yelled a Nazi salute.” Such chaos, the letter said, is happening across the country as part of the opposition to COVID-19 regulations and critical race theory.

Scores of audience members refused to wear masks or leave the Gwinnett County Board of Education meeting on May 20, 2021. (Alia Malik / AJC)

Credit: Alia Malik

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Credit: Alia Malik

Georgia School Boards Association spokesman Justin Pauly said “some awareness from a federal perspective” of issues facing school boards could be useful but that local law enforcement have been able to handle incidents.

“The local control piece is important,” he said.

Pauly acknowledged a “boiling level of frustration all over the state” but said he hasn’t heard of widespread threats to Georgia school board members.

“We are not aware of specific instances where it’s gone too far. We’ve just heard there’s lots of people showing up at school board meetings to talk and vent their frustrations,” he said. “I think you need to be careful when you begin to put labels on people, because parents are a very important part of the public education process.”

At an August meeting of the Fulton County school board, mask-mandate protesters banged on the meeting room windows. They were quickly told to stop by the district’s security team and fellow protesters.

Fulton school board President Julia Bernath described the district as “fortunate to have such an engaged and supportive community.” But, she added, “in recent months, frustrations relating to the pandemic have resulted in limited but highly inappropriate conduct toward district staff and board members.”

Bernath did not reference a specific incident.

In a written statement, she said: “The superintendent and I welcome additional support from federal and state agencies to monitor, investigate and respond to violations of law. However, the board has not discussed this issue formally and there is acknowledged disagreement on this matter.”

210819-Marietta-People in favor of and against a mask mandate for Cobb County schools gather and protest ahead of the school board meeting Thursday evening, Aug. 19, 2021 in Marietta. Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

In Cobb County, protesters carrying signs both favoring and opposing mask mandates are common outside of board of education meetings. In August, school police officers escorted a man out of the meeting when he yelled at the chairman for rejecting a request to discuss pandemic safety protocols.

Board member Jaha Howard said in a written statement he was pleased with the federal announcement.

“The rise of aggressive behavior toward school board members further undermines the already fragile trust between the people and the government,” Howard said.

Leroy Tre’ Hutchins, another board member, said the federal government could help school boards by exerting more authority over spending and COVID-19 protocols that are causing discord — but not by increasing law enforcement.

“People have the right to speak their minds as long as they don’t break the law,” he said. “Board meetings being disrupted and stuff like that, I think that is part of the process, and elections have consequences and I think we have a system in place to address all these concerns.”

Board Chair Randy Scamihorn said the federal government had no role in school board security and listed all the other agencies that could intervene instead: school district police, local police, state troopers and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

“I see no role for the federal government,” he said. “That’s why we have local police.”

Atlanta school board member Michelle Olympiadis said those who serve on school boards are among the most accessible public officials, well-known in their neighborhood and schools. She said the comments directed at her have been political, with people telling her they will or will not vote for her in the November election.

“That’s fine. We live in a democracy,” said Olympiadis, who is running unopposed.

Tarece Johnson, an outspoken Gwinnett school board member who is a self-described anti-racist and Black Lives Matter advocate, has faced vitriol in meetings and online. She said she filed reports with local police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation but was told they couldn’t do anything because there were no explicit death threats.

She said she bought a full security system for her house — and a gun. Johnson said she doesn’t know whether she would have run for school board if she’d foreseen all the hate directed at her.

But, she added: “I know that my purpose is for these children and to make the world a better place.”

This story has been updated.