Any parent who has a kid in Little League Baseball is familiar with the agreement they sign that governs parental conduct at games and that reminds them to be a role model for their kids. If only such agreements applied to school board meetings.
Violent threats — even death threats — against school board members have become increasingly common as school boards across the nation meet to consider mask mandates, vaccine requirements and how to teach topics that include the history of race and its impact on our society. The hostility directed at its members has led the National School Boards Association to call upon President Joe Biden to help protect them as they go about trying to serve their communities.
No one who volunteers to serve on their local school board — often an unpaid position — should have to endure death threats and physical intimidation.
On Thursday, Pfizer and BioNTech said they are seeking emergency use authorization for their Covid-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11. While that’s good news for our children, it may increase the risk to school board members and school officials around the country as they decide whether to mandate the vaccine for young students — as California has already announced it will.
No one who volunteers to serve on their local school board — often an unpaid position — should have to endure death threats and physical intimidation. Yet, that’s precisely what is happening. As a result, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has instructed the FBI to engage with school boards throughout the country to educate them on threat awareness and to help them explore their legal options to counter the growing threat of violent extremism against local school boards.
This kind of FBI involvement in local school board security hasn’t been seen since the civil rights movement and the infamous opposition to school integration in such places as Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957 and New Orleans in 1960. The FBI played a role then in part because the federal courts declared segregated schools unconstitutional. Now, federal courts across America are striking down state governors' attempts to ban mask mandates. Someone has to enforce those federal court decisions.
The feds are getting involved for other reasons as well. First, and sadly, they may not be able to count on local police to do their jobs. Some local law enforcement leaders have publicly refused to enforce mask mandates issued by their state or local governments, and presumably this would include mandates in school settings in places like Douglas County, Oregon, and Los Angeles County, where sheriffs have seemed to be putting a desire to be re-elected over their commitment to public safety.
Second, federal agencies such as the FBI have a global intelligence perspective on the violent extremist groups including QAnon that may be strategically planning to infiltrate and disrupt the peaceful governance of the education process.
Third, the FBI and Department of Justice are also experienced at educating groups on security planning and deconfliction and teaching them how to recognize, assess and report credible threats of violence.
Lastly, it’s quite possible that certain violent threats against school board members or meetings may constitute federal violations related to civil rights, cyberstalking or interstate threats to life.
The far right was quick to jump on Garland’s order and characterize it as an attempt to suppress free speech and as an attack on parents. The truth is quite different.
Free speech doesn’t extend to threats of violence or to attempts to intimidate and harass people for expressing their opinions.
The attorney general’s memo explained what we should all already know: Free speech doesn’t extend to threats of violence or to attempts to intimidate and harass people for expressing their opinions.
“In recent months, there has been a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff who participate in the vital work of running our nation's public schools. While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views. Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation's core values.” (Emphasis mine.)
“In the coming days, the Department will announce a series of measures designed to address the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel.” (Emphasis mine.)
A DOJ press release further explained: "Those efforts are expected to include the creation of a task force, consisting of representatives from the department’s Criminal Division, National Security Division, Civil Rights Division, the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, the FBI, the Community Relations Service and the Office of Justice Programs, to determine how federal enforcement tools can be used to prosecute these crimes, and ways to assist state, Tribal, territorial and local law enforcement where threats of violence may not constitute federal crimes."
The attorney general isn’t proposing any new laws. He isn’t telling parents they can’t express their views at school board meetings. He’s simply reminding us what every Little League parent already knows: It’s not OK to threaten violence against other people. It’s not OK to intimidate public servants to the point where they can’t fulfill their duties. And, if you do those things, law enforcement will remind you of what it means to be a responsible citizen and parent.