Updated: This article has been updated to reflect comments from the Kentucky, Louisiana, and Virginia school boards associations.
The Department of Justice’s decision to support school officials alarmed about threats and harassment has touched off a political scrum in Washington and beyond.
Politicians, activists, and other groups are rushing to weigh in on the idea that COVID-19 protocols and critical race theory have created an unsafe environment for educators that merits a forceful federal response.
Groups like the American Federation of Teachers and the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund have backed the announcement by the Justice Department Tuesday that it planned to create a task force to monitor the issue, and use the FBI to help K-12 leaders and local law enforcement track and respond to threats. But Republican politicians and other organizations say the Biden administration is trying to intimidate or silence those who are exercising their legal right to speak out against mask mandates and other policies in local schools.
“If this isn’t a deliberate attempt to chill parents from showing up at school board meetings, their elected school boards, I don’t know what is,” Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., said in response to the Justice Department’s announcement.
The Justice Department’s Oct. 4 announcement of its plans came just a few days after the National School Boards Association asked President Joe Biden to intervene and protect its members against a rising tide of intimidation, harassment, and worse. Stating that these incidents were not “random acts,” the association said that among other things, authorities should review violence and threats targeting K-12 leaders to see if they could be classified as domestic terrorism or hate crimes under federal law.
Both the school boards group and Attorney General Merrick Garland have stressed that they do not want to stamp out “spirited debate” (as Garland put it in a memo) or attack free speech. And the Justice Department did not say it will investigate or otherwise target opponents of critical race theory or COVID-19 protocols using anti-terrorism or other statutes.
But some aren’t taking that at face value, and are forcefully objecting to the idea that the FBI is now involved, however indirectly, with the issue. It remains to be seen how the Justice Department’s response energizes or otherwise alters activism that K-12 officials are facing.
The state school boards associations for Kentucky, Louisiana, and Virginia have criticized the national group’s request for federal intervention. All three state groups said they were not consulted about the NSBA’s letter to President Joe Biden.
The state association for Virginia said that while there is “no justification” for physical and verbal threats directed at education officials, “We do not seek the involvement of federal law enforcement or other officials in local decisions.”
The Louisiana state association said the NSBA’s request “fails to align with the standards of good governance, and it discourages active participation in the governance process.” The Louisiana group added that it was “evaluating the future” of its affiliation with the national association.
Some Republicans accuse the Justice Department of abandoning parents
Hawley was one of the first prominent figures to push back on the Biden administration. In a Senate hearing, Hawley told Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco that the president was “weaponizing the federal bureaucracy” and compared the situation to the “Red Scare” under Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
“Is parents, waiting sometimes for hours, to speak at a local school board meetings to express concerns about critical race theory or the masking of their students ... is that itself harassment and intimidation?” Hawley asked, noting that Garland did not define harassment and intimidation.
Monaco disputed Hawley’s argument. “When and if any situation turns to violence, that is the appropriate role for law enforcement to address it,” she told him.
The exact number of recent violent incidents or threats targeting school staff and administrators is unclear. It is also unclear whether the preponderance of those activities involve opposition specifically to schools’ COVID-19 rules, or critical race theory, or a combination of the two.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., pointed to a video of a mother protesting critical race theory and asked Garland on social media why she should be labeled a “domestic terrorist,” a term the attorney general did not use in its Oct. 4 announcement when describing the incidents. (With Senate education committee ranking member Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., set to retire after his term expires at the end of this Congress, Paul could become the panel’s chairman if the GOP takes control of the Senate.)
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also weighed in on Fox News to condemn “authoritarian” Democrats for the move. Cruz linked the Justice Department’s response to Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe’s recent comments that he doesn’t think “parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” a remark that has caused a stir in that campaign.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, all 23 Republicans on the House education committee wrote to Garland and U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona that both were guilty of “disrespecting and abandoning parents.”
“Parents should not harass or threaten violence to school officials, nor should parents be intimidated, threatened, or coerced from speaking out about concerns in their schools,” the GOP lawmakers wrote. They also said the administration should brief the committee “prior to any action.”
Some education leaders and groups have moved quickly to defend the response by the Justice Department.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said that the violence directed at school board members is “unacceptable” and praised the Justice Department for “stepping up.” National Education Association President Becky Pringle shared a similar sentiment.
One group made a pointed historical comparison. Parents protesting mask mandates and how teachers discuss racism “have more in common with the threatening violent mobs who blocked entrances, menaced children, and assaulted reporters outside schools where Black children were attempting to exercise their right to attend integrated schools in the years after Brown v. Board of Education” than with parents exercising legitimate First Amendment rights, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said in a statement.
The issue is resonating outside of Washington as well.
Florida “will not allow federal agents to squelch dissent” among parents, said Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who is a possible GOP presidential nominee in 2024 and has fought the Biden administration over local school mask mandates. Ohio U.S. Senate hopeful J.D. Vance, a Republican, called on Garland to resign.
Moms for Liberty in Williamson County, Tenn., a group that has opposed a local mask mandate and the way schools have approached the subject of race, mocked the idea that they were extremists in the eyes of the Justice Department. And Christopher Rufo, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow and a prominent opponent of critical race theory, said the Biden administration was targeting parents “without providing a shred of evidence.”
🚨 DOJ and FBI employees: Your agencies are being weaponized against American families. Leak me documents at firstname.lastname@example.org. 🚨— Christopher F. Rufo ⚔️ (@realchrisrufo) October 7, 2021
A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2021 edition of Education Week as Silencing Parents Or Protecting Educators?