ST. GEORGE — At a recent Washington County School Board meeting, local moms took to the podium and urged the board to assure parents their voices are valued. The women asked the district to make a clear statement disavowing a letter the National School Board Association sent earlier in the year to President Joe Biden, which critics say conflates involved parents with domestic terrorists.
“Support the parents, defend the parents and also defend just American values,” Erika Hodges said at the Dec. 14 meeting. “What the NSBA did was uncalled for. And I think you could make an impact in Utah by coming out, regardless of the USBA (Utah School Board Association) … in defiance of what happened.”
Hodges was referring to the letter the NSBA sent to Biden on Sept. 29. It begins by warning, “America’s public schools and education leaders are under an immediate threat.” The organization requested federal law enforcement be used “to deal with the growing number of threats and acts of intimidation occurring across the nation” and suggested that employing the Patriot Act might be a potential method for addressing the alleged danger.
The NSBA letter said COVID-19 policies and critical race theory are hot-button issues causing tensions to rise. It cited several incidents at recent school board meetings as examples of the worrisome trend.
Some of the clashes have occurred in Utah. While they weren’t cited in the NSBA letter, they are indicative of a deteriorating state of parent-district discourse.
In May, 30-40 protestors started chanting “No more masks” at a meeting of the School Board in Granite, a suburb of Salt Lake City. The parents, who were already upset about the mask mandate placed on their kids, were also frustrated by the board’s public comment policy, which allows for only three speakers per meeting.
Public comment in that meeting began with a mom against masking kids. “One size does not fit all and adults who have higher risk should not project their fears or expect the youth to carry the burden of those fears,” she said to vigorous applause.
Next up, an educator took to the podium to praise the board for its efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19. Her comments were drowned out by the chants of parents. The protestors also shouted down state Sen. Kathleen Riebe, who was on the agenda to make laudatory remarks about educators in conjunction with Teacher Appreciation Week.
Afterwards, a man approached the dais, waving papers he said were a medical report emphasizing the low risk COVID-19 poses to children and yelling hoarsely. “What they’re telling you now is a lie! … This is wrong! You all know it!” he shouted at the board. A woman then commandeered the podium, leading the crowd in another round of the “No more masks” slogan.
The board voted to adjourn the meeting early in order to deescalate the situation. The parents continued to hold forth for some minutes after the meeting’s end, with the same man saying, “Since they’re going to leave, we’re going to take the floor.”
Four police officers from South Salt Lake and the Granite District were in attendance at the meeting providing security. In the wake of the chaotic gathering, 11 people were charged with disrupting a public meeting, a misdemeanor punishable by a $2,500 fine and up to a year in jail.
“As these acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes,” the NSBA letter reads. “As such, NSBA requests a joint expedited review by the U.S. Departments of Justice, Education and Homeland Security, along with the appropriate training, coordination and enforcement mechanisms from the FBI, including any technical assistance necessary from, and state and local coordination with, its National Security Branch and Counterterrorism Division, as well as any other federal agency with relevant jurisdictional authority and oversight.”
The letter, which was co-signed by NSBA President Viola Garcia and the organization’s interim director/CEO Chip Slaven – concluded by saying, “We stand ready to work with you.”
Emails later emerged showing the NSBA was in communication with the White House for weeks prior to the issuance of the letter, alerting the federal government to the purported crisis. The board of directors of the NSBA say they were not informed about the letter in advance, and many members have criticized its contents.
Letter sparks action
The NSBA’s letter bore fruit. On Oct. 4, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo to FBI director Christopher Wray about the spike in “harassment, intimidation and threats of violence” on the part of parents against school administrators, board members, teachers and staff.
“While spirited debate about policy members is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views,” Garland wrote. “The department takes these incidents seriously, and is committed to using its authority and resources to discourage these threats, identify them when they occur, and prosecute them when appropriate.”
In an Oct. 20 email revealed by a DOJ whistleblower, it’s shown that Timothy Langan, assistant director of the Counterterrorism Division of the FBI, was engaged in a direct response to Garland’s memo. Langan emailed FBI agents across the country, appraising them of the escalation in parent discontent and its potential dangers. He noted that the threat tag “Eduofficial” had been created to help track and, if necessary, prosecute parents who make elected school officials, school administrators, teachers staff feel unsafe.
“This was not a one-off. This was a coordinated effort,” Dana McCabe, a parent of a student in the Washington County School District, said during public comment at the Dec. 14 meeting. “So I think the board should understand when we have the DOJ involved, the FBI director involved and the senate judiciary committee, that it is a serious matter. And we definitely need to take a stronger stance here in Washington County.”
McCabe said the Utah State Board of Education doesn’t hold membership in the NSBA but still said it’s important the local district distance itself from the organization.
“It’s uncalled for, for the FBI to be called out for parents at a school board meeting,” she said.
NSBA faces backlash
On Oct. 22, the National School Board Association issued a memorandum to members, apologizing for the letter.
“To be clear, the safety of school board members, other public school officials and educators, and students is our top priority, and there remains important work to be done on this issue. However, there was no justification for some of the language included in the letter,” the memo read.
“As we’ve reiterated since the letter was sent, we deeply value not only the work of local school boards that make important contributions in our communities, but also the voices of parents, who should and must continue to be heard when it comes to decisions about their children’s health, education and safety. We are going to do better going forward.”
The retraction has done little in the form of damage control. The response to the NSBA letter has been fast and, in some cases, furious.
The venerable organization founded in 1940 represented 47 state school board associations at the time the letter was written. Since then, 17 state school board associations and local districts have withdrawn their membership, participation or dues. This defection represents a net loss of 42 percent of the nonprofit’s dues.
Some of the organizations who’ve left are floating the idea of using an alternate national education group or organizing one themselves.
The Utah School Board Association has not made a statement condemning the NSBA letter, though Utah Sen. Mike Lee joined House Republicans in penning a Dec. 6 letter to Garland, calling for the attorney general to rescind his memo. The opening salvo of the senators’ letter is the question, “Are concerned parents domestic terrorists or not?” The letter goes on to defend the rights of “parents and other citizens who get impassioned at school board meetings.”
So far, the Washington County School Board, which is not a member of the association, has not made a statement addressing parents about the district’s stance on the NSBA letter.
“I hope to see this on the agenda,” Harmony Vanderhorst said in a phone interview with St. George News after the meeting. “I do think it would be a positive thing. I think it would be good. It creates unity with school board and the parents, and we need that. There needs to be a reciprocity of respect on both sides.”
Administrators with the Washington County School District could not be reached for comment by the time of this report’s publication.
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