U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said Monday that the FBI will work with federal attorneys, as well as state and local leaders, to discuss strategies for countering threats against teachers, principals, school board members and other educators.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice announced plans to create a federal task force to address “the rise in criminal conduct towards school personnel” as school boards and other educators have faced anger and harassment in response to COVID-19 restrictions and other controversial issues in schools.
In a statement, the Justice Department said the “expected” task force would “determine how federal enforcement tools can be used to prosecute these crimes, and ways to assist state, Tribal, territorial and local law enforcement where threats of violence may not constitute federal crimes.” The task force would include the FBI, the National Security Division, the Criminal Division, and other divisions of the department.
The Justice Department said it will also create “specialized training” for school leaders to help them understand the behavior behind the threats, how to report threats to law enforcement, and how to preserve evidence of crime stemming from threats against educators.
“Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values,” Garland said in a memo announcing the initiative. “Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.”
The announcement came less than a week after the National School Boards Association wrote to President Joe Biden asking for the federal government to step in and help education officials deal with what the group called a rising tide of harassment, threats, and criminal conduct targeting them.
Among other things, the school boards group asked the Biden administration to investigate whether these incidents should be classified as criminal conduct under laws that address domestic terrorism and hate crimes, such as the USA PATRIOT Act, among other statutes. The organization also asked for the U.S. Postal Service to halt the cyber-bulling of students as well as teachers and other K-12 officials.
NSBA interim Executive Director and CEO Chip Slaven told Education Week at that time that incidents of violence, threats, and harassment against education officials were not “random acts.”
Asked last week about the organization’s request, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki condemned violence and other acts against school officials and said the administration was exploring options for how to respond. She also said that those concerned about specific threats should contact state and local law enforcement.
It is unclear exactly how many threats and acts of violence have been committed against educators in recent months. But some members of the public have reacted angrily in response to schools’ decision to adopt mask mandates and quarantine policies for students during the pandemic. In September, three adults sought to execute a citizen’s arrest of an Arizona principal and showed up at her school; the men were arrested and charged.
The school boards association also linked a backlash against the use of critical race theory in classrooms to violence and threats against its members. Like mask mandates and quarantine policies, critical race theory has triggered protests at some school board meetings. Educators have rejected assertions that they are using it to improperly indoctrinate students or steer them towards a distorted view of American history.
The NSBA on Monday praised the Justice Department’s announcement, calling it a “swift response” and “a strong message to individuals with violent intent.” The group also stressed, as it did last week, that the disruptions educators are facing are a dangerous obstacle to their work of helping students.
“The individuals who are intent on causing chaos and disrupting our schools—many of whom are not even connected to local schools—are drowning out the voices of parents who must be heard when it comes to decisions about their children’s education, health, and safety,” the association said in a statement.
However, others have argued in recent days that the NSBA is trying to improperly use the power of the federal government to go after its political opponents.
In an Oct. 1 Washington Examiner column, for example, Becket Adams said the school boards group was effectively asking the White House to intervene “against parents who oppose onerous coronavirus masking mandates and the teaching of racialist ideology.” He also mocked the school boards group for ostensibly championing public debate even as it seeks protection under the USA PATRIOT Act, an anti-terrorism law.
Christopher Rufo, a prominent opponent of critical race theory, condemned the Justice Department’s Monday announcement, as did Parents Defending Education, a group that has sought U.S. Department of Education civil rights investigations into school districts that pledge to address systemic racism.
“This is a coordinated attempt to intimidate dissenting voices in the debates surrounding America’s underperforming K-12 education—and it will not succeed,” Parents Defending Education President Nicole Neily said in a statement. “We will not be silenced.”