“A disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers and staff…” Those were the problems the Justice Department cited in a memorandum on Oct. 4 that previewed “a series of measures” in all 14,000 school districts across the country to “discourage these threats, identify them when they occur and prosecute them when appropriate.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the FBI and U.S. attorneys to:
“… convene meetings with federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial leaders in each federal judicial district within 30 days of the issuance of this memorandum. These meetings will facilitate the discussion of strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers and staff, and will open dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment and response.”
The directive comes just days after the National School Boards Association (NSBA) appealed to President Biden for assistance in aletter that claimed incidents of parental opposition to controversial school policies, such as teaching critical race theory to students and imposing mask mandates, “could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”
Parent groups and advocates, meanwhile, say the Justice Department’s announcement represents a big government power grab specifically intended to silence their voices — and a direct threat to the First Amendment right to free speech. They are taking their case to the press and social media and are launching protests and letter-writing campaigns to force the Biden administration to abandon its new mandate.
The following is a compilation of some recent articles authored by parent and policy experts on this topic.
In a piece published by The Federalist, Asra Nomani, of Parents Defending Education, argued that parents, not school board officials, are the ones under assault, writing:
“Since the COVID pandemic shut schools down in the spring of 2020, school board officials have frustrated parents across the country with mixed messages on reopening schools and diverting attention and taxpayer money to virtue signaling, renaming schools and promoting divisive activist causes. We have been muted, silenced and reprimanded.
I know because all of that has happened to me since I first spoke to my school board in early June 2020. As I tried to get the last words of my statement out during public participation this past spring, the school board president yelled at me, ‘Go to your seat!’
It’s now the United States vs. America’s parents. … There is one response parents must have: stand strong in defense of America’s children. Be unapologetic. Reject violence and threats of violence, as you always do. And do not be intimidated, silenced, shamed or bullied.”
For its part, Parents Defending Education has mobilized what Nomani calls a group of “accidental activists” who are “more empowered than probably at any time in America’s history.”
“At Parents Defending Education, we opened an online portal at our website, so parents could send a message to the Justice Department, and parents flooded the portal with 1,508 emails to the Justice Department in the first four hours,” Nomani wrote.
American Enterprise Institute’s Max Eden called the NSBA’s plea to classify actions against public school officials as equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism, dubbing it “The worst civics lesson we could possibly teach the next generation… Unfortunately, this is exactly the lesson that the National School Boards Association is teaching American schoolchildren—by example.”
Eden said the NSBA failed to report attacks or physical threats to the administration, but instead pointed to examples such as an Alabama man “who proclaimed himself as ‘vaccine police’” and “called school administrators while filming himself on Facebook Live,” and another man in Michigan who “prompted the [school board] to call a recess because of his opposition to critical race theory.”
“This would almost be funny,” Eden wrote, “if NSBA wasn’t actually asking the feds to prosecute parents who voice widely held opinions as ‘domestic terrorists.’”
Rather than punish parents, Eden called on state and local officials to take action against the NSBA.
“NSBA is largely funded by dues collected from affiliated state school board associations, paid for by local school boards out of the public coffer,” Eden wrote. He added that unless the NSBA reverses course, “state and local officials should not allow taxpayer money to continue to flow into their hands.”
He also suggested state legislators tell state school board associations to “disaffiliate with, and stop funding, NSBA” or lose taxpayer funding. Parents, meanwhile, “should demand that school boards vote to repudiate NSBA and disaffiliate – and watch carefully as votes are taken.”
The Heritage Foundation’s Jonathan Butcher and Mike Gonzalez wrote a Fox News opinion piece criticizing the NSBA request for “a posse that includes the Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Secret Service, and National Threat Assessment Center,” one that is designed to intimidate parents. The article’s authors predicted the effort ultimately will backfire.
“Censoring parents is sure to end badly. For parents to care about school children in their communities is a healthy, all-American development. Voter turnout for school board elections has been modest for years, hovering around 10%. The new interest should be celebrated, not criminalized.”
Moreover, they wrote:
“According to Axios, more than twice as many board recall elections or campaigns were held or initiated between January and July 2021 than during all of last year. NSBA should not be worried about parents attending meetings—they should be worried about voters headed to the ballot box.”
In American Greatness, Kimberly Hermann, general counsel for the Southeastern Legal Foundation, focused on the potential First Amendment implications of the Justice Department’s memo.
“One of the hallmarks of totalitarian tyranny is the use of the awesome power of government to investigate, stifle and silence criticism. Attorney General Merrick Garland this week added to the mounting evidence that such enforcement is also entirely selective, based on the political agenda of the government in power.”
The order, Hermann said, represents “a direct attack on the First Amendment rights of both parents and teachers.”
Hermann urged parents to continue to speak up, criticize, advocate and go to court, if necessary.
“You have rights and you must protect them. Free speech is the dread of tyrants, so we cannot let tyranny win,” Hermann wrote. “The most important battleground in the struggle to save our American republic is the public schools.”
Philanthropy Roundtable will continue to track the work of parent-advocate organizations that oppose the Justice Department directive and will update readers on this topic.