Your Education Road Map

Politics K-12®

ESSA. Congress. State chiefs. School spending. Elections. Education Week reporters keep watch on education policy and politics in the nation’s capital and in the states. Read more from this blog.


Is the Justice Dept. Silencing Parents or Stepping Up to Protect Educators?

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 08, 2021 | Updated: October 11, 2021 5 min read
Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., speaks during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to examine Texas's abortion law, Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 20, 2021 edition of Education Week as Silencing Parents Or Protecting Educators?


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attend to the Whole Child: Non-Academic Factors within MTSS
Learn strategies for proactively identifying and addressing non-academic barriers to student success within an MTSS framework.
Content provided by Renaissance
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum How to Teach Digital & Media Literacy in the Age of AI
Join this free event to dig into crucial questions about how to help students build a foundation of digital literacy.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal AFT's Randi Weingarten on Kamala Harris: 'She Has a Record of Fighting for Us'
The union head's call to support Kamala Harris is one sign of Democratic support coalescing around the vice president.
5 min read
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks at the organization's annual conference in Houston on July 22, 2024.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, speaks at the organization's biennial conference in Houston on July 22, 2024. She called on union members to support Vice President Kamala Harris the day after President Joe Biden ended his reelection campaign.
via AFT Livestream
Federal Biden Drops Out of Race and Endorses Kamala Harris to Lead the Democratic Ticket
The president's endorsement of Harris makes the vice president the most likely nominee for the Democrats.
3 min read
President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, on the final day of the NATO summit in Washington.
President Joe Biden speaks at a news conference July 11, 2024, on the final day of the NATO summit in Washington. He announced Sunday that he was dropping out of the 2024 presidential race and endorsing Vice President Kamala Harris as his replacement for the Democratic nomination.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Federal What We Know About Kamala Harris’ Education Record
Harris is the frontrunner for the top of the ticket. A look at her record on K-12, along with those of other Democratic contenders.
8 min read
Vice President Kamala Harris embraces President Joe Biden after a speech on healthcare in Raleigh, N.C., March. 26, 2024. President Joe Biden dropped out of the 2024 race for the White House on Sunday, July 21, ending his bid for reelection following a disastrous debate with Donald Trump that raised doubts about his fitness for office just four months before the election.
Vice President Kamala Harris embraces President Joe Biden after a speech on health care in Raleigh, N.C., on March 26, 2024. Biden on Sunday announced he wouldn't run for reelection and endorsed Harris as his replacement.
Matt Kelley/AP
Federal Opinion The Great Project 2025 Freakout
There's nothing especially scary in the Heritage Foundation's education agenda—nor is it a reliable gauge of another Trump administration.
6 min read
Man lurking behind the American flag, suspicion concept.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty