Opinion: School boards under siege

Parents protest the mask mandate in Gwinnett County Public Schools at the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center in Suwanee on July 30, 2021. (Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Parents protest the mask mandate in Gwinnett County Public Schools at the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Support Center in Suwanee on July 30, 2021. (Rebecca Wright for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Credit: Rebecca Wright

Critical race theory and mandatory masks provoke crowds and challenges

I used to bring a book to school board meetings to read during the lulls and the long presentations on the new boiler system. Now, I feel like I ought to pack riot gear.

School board meetings are typically contained public gatherings — unless the topic is redistricting. Two new issues have emerged this year that are overflowing the school board sessions with angry crowds: masks in schools and the mistaken assertion that critical race theory is taught in K-12 schools. Irate attendees are denouncing board members, jeering at speakers with opposing views and ignoring entreaties by police to mask up or leave.

Last week, a Gwinnett school board meeting ended early after several audience members removed their mandatory masks and defied requests to put them on. Audience members chanted “Unmask our children,” prompting the board to change meeting rooms and then adjourn.

At a Gwinnett board meeting in May, 100 attendees refused to wear masks, and outnumbered district employees couldn’t get them to comply or disperse. The proceedings paused for 40 minutes, and police had to intervene in two verbal confrontations between audience members. From that point, Gwinnett County Public Schools increased security at board meetings.

Gwinnett is not alone. Several counties, including Forsyth, Cobb and Cherokee, have witnessed raucous board meetings over critical race theory, a legal concept that is not taught in K-12 schools but has been effectively harnessed to panic white parents and deepen political divides just in time for an election year. Gov. Brian Kemp jumped on CRT — “This dangerous, anti-American ideology has no place in Georgia classrooms” — despite zero evidence the theory is taught in any public school in the state.

In some states, the rancor is escalating beyond bad behavior at board meetings. Brevard County, Florida, school board member Jennifer D. Jenkins recently had false child abuse allegations made about her to the Florida Department of Children and Families. Protesters have surrounded her home and threatened, “If you thought Jan. 6 was bad, wait until you see what we have for you!”

The National School Boards Association wrote a letter to President Joe Biden asking for federal help to deal with the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation to its members. The letter’s depiction of these rising acts of violence, malice and threats as the “equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes” sparked outrage among conservatives.

ExploreGeorgia school boards respond to federal plan to investigate threats

On Wednesday, Attorney General Merrick Garland rebuffed accusations by Republican senators that a Justice Department memo condemning attacks on school board members would dissuade parents from speaking out.

Responding to Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Garland said, “The memo is only about violence and threats of violence. It makes absolutely clear in the first paragraph that spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution. That includes debate by parents criticizing school boards. That is welcome,” said Garland. “The only thing we’re concerned about, senator, is violence and threats of violence against school officials, schoolteachers, school staff, just like we’re concerned about those kinds of threats against senators, members of Congress, election officials.”

Georgia school board members have yet to experience the blatant threats of violence occurring in other states, but there has been a worrisome increase in tensions and tempers at meetings.

Valarie Wilson, executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association, does not agree the parents overflowing these meetings are domestic terrorists. A former Decatur school board member and chair, Wilson understands that parents can get passionate.

However, Wilson said she hasn’t witnessed this level of incivility, ugliness and hostility since she was a child and schools in her hometown of Swainsboro integrated.

“We have had instances in Georgia where superintendents and board members have had to be escorted to their homes out of board meetings because they have received threatening comments,” said Wilson. “They have had police cars sit out in front of their homes for a period of time because people GPSed their homes and knew where they lived.”

A Fayette County Board of Education member since 2011, Leonard Presberg said, “The meetings have been crazy, and people have said things during meetings such as ‘We know where you live’ or ‘We’re coming for you.’ Other than that, it has not, thankfully, been people coming to our houses or anything like that.”

Presberg served on the Fayette board during redistricting and school closings. “People were just as passionate then,” he said, “but the hostility and meanness and aggressiveness wasn’t the level it is now.”

Wilson called school board members the hardest-working elected officials and the ones closest to the community because they’re responsible for people’s children. “My heart breaks because we have allowed other issues to distract us from the critical work that ought to be happening in our school districts,” she said.

Whether a school board or a legislative hearing, the process only works when everyone agrees that government meetings should be places that follow the rule of law, said Robert “Buddy” Costley, executive director of the Georgia Association of Educational Leaders. “But when they don’t, no one knows better than educators that our children are watching the adults in our communities and learning what is acceptable behavior.”

Presberg hopes the animus will decrease, but says critical race theory remains a flashpoint, no matter that Fayette, like other Georgia districts, does not teach it and never has. “At least with the mask issue, it’s an actual issue we can discuss and there are different points of view,” he said. Critical race theory is far more amorphous with even opponents unable to define what it is.

“People are angry at this undefinable thing, and it’s not really clear what we as elected officials are supposed to do to stop it,” Presberg said. “We say we are not doing it and they still are angry.”

Costley said it’s important to remember that most parents seek to model good citizenship and civility to their kids, adding, “I have faith in our country and great state that those ideals of mutual respect will prevail.”

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