A convoluted and factually shaky online campaign is spurring conservative activists and some parents to use obscure legal mechanisms to intimidate school districts into striking mask and vaccine requirements—even in districts where those policies aren’t in place.
In recent weeks, people have showed up to school board meetings in at least 10 states demanding, sometimes at the top of their lungs, financial documents that some districts don’t even have.
Here’s a representative example. A parent recently showed up to a school board meeting for the 1,600-student Gladwin district in Michigan with an odd request: Show me your surety bond so I can file a claim against it that you’re violating students’ constitutional rights by requiring masks.
But the superintendent, Rick Seebeck, doesn’t have a surety bond in his name, and only unvaccinated students who have been exposed to COVID-19 are required to wear masks.
“People aren’t interested in the truth. They’re not interested in what your policies are,” Seebeck said. “They’re interested in the sport of attending a public meeting and throwing bombs.”
School board members and district leaders in some states are required to hold surety bonds, which provide legal and financial coverage for instances in which the bond holder commits fraud or another crime that hurts the school district. Some surety bonds allow individual members of the public to make claims against them, while others only permit, for instance, the school district itself, to make a claim.
Requests like the one Seebeck experienced have been cropping up in districts across the country, including in Arizona, California, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina, Virginia, and Wisconsin. Sometimes, like in Elmhurst, Ill., the person making the demand admits they don’t even have a child in school.
These demands to eliminate mask and vaccine mandates are coming as many states and school districts are already making those moves.
“Everybody in the educational community is going, we don’t really understand what they’re trying to accomplish,” said Cindy Wilkerson, executive director for the Schools Insurance Group, an insurance cooperative for K-12 districts in California.
But experts on school insurance told Education Week that requiring mask-wearing doesn’t violate the terms of surety bonds or school insurance policies. And many of these threats to file claims haven’t even been followed by actual filings.
A coordinated and convoluted effort to unsettle school boards
Parents or other adults who attend school board meetings have been announcing that they plan to “serve” the district with demands for its surety bonds and insurance policies. In some cases, they’ve followed up those announcements with detailed open records requests, which sometimes run several pages long.
Less often, school districts will receive documents that purport to represent claims against those bonds or insurance policies. Virtually all of the claims that have surfaced in recent weeks have proven to be without merit, or they’ve failed to make a specific allegation with valid supporting evidence, said Francisco Negrón, chief legal officer for the National School Boards Association, which counts 3,200 lawyers that represent school boards among its members.
Local citizens in California have been submitting data requests regarding bonds and insurance policies since the start of the year, Wilkerson said. The state’s school leaders don’t have individual surety bonds; instead, school boards are covered by a liability policy.
To be taken seriously, a legitimate claim against one of these policies would require the claimant to illustrate a concrete action and damages caused by that action.
“When people want somebody to just stop doing something, that’s generally not an insurance trigger,” Wilkerson said.
Many of these efforts appear to be inspired by a website, Bonds for the Win, that has surfaced in recent weeks urging parents to storm school board meetings with requests for surety bonds and liability insurance policies. The website includes lists of surety bond details for virtually all districts in California, Arizona, and Washington, and links to pages on the social media platform Telegram, a frequent hangout spot for far-right and white supremacist groups, to coordinate efforts in each of the 50 states. The group’s own Telegram page currently has more than 19,000 subscribers.
The website offers some clues as to the group’s aims. A Q&A section claims that a person whose bond receives too many claims could be prevented from holding public office or obtaining another public bond; two school insurance experts told Education Week they don’t believe that’s true. A page titled “Stop the Tyranny Fight Back” lists 10 targets of the group’s ire, including vaccine mandates, mask mandates, lockdowns, business closures, and critical race theory.
The website links to a PayPal donation page for “building a team of professionals to assist people in obtaining and filing bond claims against their school districts and local authorities at no cost to them.” According to that page, the group has raised $14,000 towards its $20,000 goal.
One of the website’s founders, Miki Klann, lists a slogan for the QAnon conspiracy movement in the bio of her profile on the social media platform Telegram, according to a report from Vice News. Several other known misinformation spreaders and QAnon affiliates have been promoting the campaign against school boards in recent weeks, Vice reported.
Bonds for the Win also appears to have its eye on local office. One recent Telegram post from the group highlighted a man who acquired his California school district’s bonds and submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for 300 others. The post links to the man’s Venmo account and concludes by urging followers to support his bid for county supervisor, an elected position in local government.
School administrators struggle to keep up with ongoing chaos
When school districts receive requests for bonds or insurance policies, or claims against those policies, they’re often legally obligated to scramble to respond. Already-stretched administrators are confronting new piles of paperwork to sift through.
Mark Stockwell, executive director of the Missouri United School Insurance Council (MUSIC), received a call earlier this month from a person who wanted to file a claim against a school board member’s surety bond. Stockwell told her that only the district’s treasurer has a surety bond in their name, and that the district’s leaders are instead covered by a liability policy. The person asked to see the policy, but Stockwell told her she’d have to file an open records request with the district.
“She was hoping their deductible would be high so they could punish the school board members for voting for masks,” Stockwell said.
A week later, five or six district leaders in the state contacted Stockwell to say they’d received Sunshine Law requests for their bonds and liability insurance.
“It probably takes someone in their office a few hours to compile the information,” Stockwell said. “It’s not a horrendous burden. It’s just wasted effort.”
In Gladwin, the surety bond request is just the latest episode in an escalating series of battles over politics that have dismayed Seebeck, who’s led the district for 17 years.
Parents have visited school board meetings with printouts from obscure internet sites falsely claiming that vaccinating children will prevent them from eventually having children themselves. Social media groups have formed to criticize the district’s COVID-19 protocols. Community members have even verbally attacked Seebeck’s daughter, a junior in high school, over her father’s decisionmaking.
Seebeck has known many of his constituents for years. He sees them at the grocery store, at basketball games, on walks in his neighborhood.
“None of these folks that are behaving this way are bad people. They’re all good people. They’re passionate about something,” Seebeck said. “We used to deal with passion civilly. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
Seebeck and other administrators urge people who are frustrated with school policies to pursue legitimate avenues for addressing those concerns, like filing a Title IX complaint or a civil suit.
“If I am violating a child’s constitutional rights, I want to know about it,” Seebeck said. “If I truly am, I should be held accountable for that.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2022 edition of Education Week as Mask-Mandate Opponents Are Bombarding Districts With Insurance Requests. Here’s Why