In Sarasota, Fla., people who attend school board meetings must be screened by a handheld metal detector, a measure implemented after a few boisterous meetings in 2020 about pandemic masking policies.
The district is one of a growing number that have bulked up security at school board meetings following unruly meetings in recent years.
Once stopgap measures, many districts have decided to make metal detectors, security guards or police stationed in the meeting room, and mandatory bag checks permanent in an effort to dissuade and quickly address disruptive behavior.
While the measures aim to make board meetings safer, experts warn that they could send the opposite message, and continue to fuel the mistrust among community members that led to increased tensions in the first place.
The Sarasota district declined to comment, but said in a statement that the board “cited general security concerns as well as the fact that other local government and public entities either already had—or were planning to implement—similar measures as rationale for the changes,” which will remain in place “until the School Board changes or discontinues them.”
When the Stamford, Conn., board of education returned to in-person meetings in 2022, it began having a police officer present to help with crowd management and promote safety, according to local news reports. The officer’s presence was implemented as a proactive measure, even though discussions about controversial issues never reached the same boiling point seen elsewhere.
And in Richland, Wash., the school district hired a private company to provide a security guard for its meetings after an altercation at a meeting last year. The district’s spokesperson told local reporters that community members did “not feel safe coming to board meetings” after the incident and felt “there are people who are intimidating people who don’t agree with them.”
The spokesperson, Ty Beaver, declined to make administrators available for an interview with Education Week, but said in a statement: “This was done at the request of school board leadership. We are committed to ensuring productive environments for our community to engage with the board and district staff and will continue to take steps as needed to accomplish that goal.”
Additional security could strain community relationships
Historically an often-overlooked local government proceeding, school board meetings have become a focal point of tensions involving topics such as masking and pandemic school closures; academic recovery efforts; and race, gender, and cultural issues.
The additional security personnel, police, or metal detectors school boards have instituted in response are intended to improve at least the perception of safety, but some experts say the measures could continue to damage relationships with community members.
“It’s more of the fueling of this feeling that school boards are up to no good, or are on opposing sides, even as both groups are trying to work toward calm,” said Rebecca Jacobsen, a professor of education policy and politics at Michigan State University.
It could also inadvertently raise anxiety levels, creating a perception that meetings aren’t safe, added Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
“If we want parents to come to school board meetings and to raise concerns and the like, then there are other things that would be less likely to create an impression of an armed state or create an impression that public officials are afraid of voters in their community,” Henig said.
National response to threats
That’s not to say school board members don’t have real reasons to be concerned for their safety.
A report by Reuters in February 2022 found more than 200 examples of school board members being harassed or threatened. Some even received death threats targeting them or family members.
When dysfunctional meetings were at their peak in 2021, the National School Boards Association asked President Joe Biden for federal help to stop the “growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation.” The group said the threats, harassment, and violence targeting school officials could be “the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland said the FBI would discuss how to counter those threats, but that only fueled the problem, with some claiming it was a move to censor free speech. House Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said Garland’s efforts amounted to “a snitch line on parents.”
More than a dozen state school board associations withdrew from the national organization in response. The NSBA ultimately apologized, saying “there was no justification for some of the language included in the letter. We should have had a better process in place to allow for consultation on a communication of this significance.”
Through spokesperson Jason Amos, the NSBA declined an interview request.
While the call for a federal response to the threats was tensely debated, there’s no doubt that districts across the country faced threats and disruptions.
Loudoun County, Va., board meetings were repeatedly interrupted in 2021 and 2022 by people upset about pandemic protections, anti-racism efforts, and student gender policies. There, in June 2021, one person was arrested during a public comment period about proposed rules for transgender students. The public comment period ended early as the board could not regain control of the meeting. The district enrolls about 80,000 students.
Police were called to a Hillsborough, N.J., school board meeting in February 2022 and adjourned early amid discussions about masking requirements.
A Dearborn, Michigan, school board meeting was abruptly ended in October 2022 when a crowd objected to how the district reviews library books.
In Stillman Valley, Ill., a district of about 1,500 students, Superintendent PJ Caposey said he had items thrown at him in the grocery store during a stretch of particularly tumultuous school board meetings.
Tensions can linger
While experts warn school boards to be wary of pitches from school security companies, a long-term plan to address safety concerns is likely a helpful step, Jacobsen said.
She and her team at Michigan State University have recently begun a project researching conflict between school boards and the community.
So far, it appears that although tensions may initially flare because of a specific issue—like pandemic-era masking requirements—and the most volatile interactions may subside, higher-than-average instances of shouting, crying, and interruptions linger and bleed into other subjects that previously likely wouldn’t have gotten much, if any, attention.
“We have been somewhat saddened, but maybe not surprised, unfortunately, that this does seem to be continuing,” Jacobsen said. “So it doesn’t really surprise me that boards are saying, you know, ‘We need to keep some of these policies in place.’ ”
Repairing relationships is key
Jacobsen agreed that additional security measures may be necessary, but so is taking steps to repair relationships with the community, even—and especially—the angriest people.
One way to begin that process is by creating space for people to “vent” to board members and make them feel truly heard, without interruption or counterpoints. That can feel counterintuitive, especially if the people venting have been the ones to say or do offensive things before.
But, oftentimes, people just want to know they’re understood, Jacobsen and Henig said.
Along with steps to bolster physical security, some boards have taken steps to change public comment policies by tightening time limits and restricting the topics commenters can address. Some have cautioned against the move, saying it, too, can erode the public’s trust.
“We’ve seen some places have forums that were very long and open ended, but they let everybody who attended say what they wanted to say without being cut off, and it helped people feel like, OK, they are listening and responding, and combatted that narrative that school boards are always trying to shut down opposition or critical feedback,” Jacobsen said.
Jacobsen also encouraged more proactive information sharing, especially in communities that lack a robust local news scene. School boards should send routine messages to families about their work and good things happening in their school community, fostering connectedness and transparency, Jacobsen said.
Without a strong local news outlet, there are fewer opportunities to highlight those achievements and efforts, she added.
“At a basic level, there’s a disconnect and people have forgotten or lost sight of all the good things schools do,” Jacobsen said. “The more school boards are doing to connect and inform about not only what they’re doing but what’s happening in schools, the more you can bridge that gap.”
Maya Riser-Kositsky, Librarian and Data Specialist contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the May 17, 2023 edition of Education Week as After Threats and Unruly Meetings, School Boards Invest in Security