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National School Board Group’s Apology for ‘Domestic Terrorism’ Letter May Not Quell Uproar

By Andrew Ujifusa — October 24, 2021 4 min read
Seminole County, Fla., deputies remove parent Chris Mink of Apopka from an emergency meeting of the Seminole County School Board in Sanford, Fla., Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021. Mink, the parent of a Bear Lake Elementary School student, opposes a call for mask mandates for Seminole schools and was escorted out for shouting during the standing-room only meeting.
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The National School Boards Association has apologized to its members for its letter last month to President Joe Biden in which the group sought federal help in countering threats, harassment, and violence targeting school officials and said that some of the actions could be classified as “domestic terrorism” or hate crimes.

In a Friday letter to NSBA members, the group stated that while the safety of its members and schools in general was its top priority, “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.”

The school boards association said “we regret and apologize for the letter” but did not specify what language in the letter was inappropriate in retrospect. Nor did the group explicitly rescind request for federal backup in dealing with threats and violence. But the initial request from the group, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s response that it would meet with state and local officials to help monitor and respond to threats, led to sharp criticism and a heated debate about whether protests and turmoil at board meetings warranted a federal response that, according to the Justice Department, would include the FBI.

The sharpest critics, including some GOP lawmakers and conservative groups, alleged that the NSBA had essentially accused outspoken parents who opposed things like mask mandates of being terrorists and criminals for simply exercising their rights. They also said the Biden administration’s response to the group amounted to an attempt to silence or intimidate members of the public.

Opponents of the move also pointed to emails that showed, among other things, that NSBA board members did not approve the letter before the group sent it to Biden and released it publicly.

Those who sympathized with the school boards group’s position said K-12 leaders have faced an unprecedented and in some cases frightening backlash to their efforts to keep students and educators safe. They also dismissed claims that the federal government would spy on or seek to silence parents, stating that the actions outlined by the Justice Department did not amount to improper surveillance or political intimidation. The Justice Department’s announcement made no mention of targeting opponents of COVID-19 rules or critical race theory, two issues raised by the NSBA in its letter.

At least a few disruptions at school boards and elsewhere in school communities have led to arrests recently, although it is unclear how widespread or coordinated the phenomenon is; the NSBA said that these incidents were not random.

It is not clear how (or whether) the NSBA’s reversal will affect the Justice Department’s official response to threats targeting school officials. The department did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Sunday.

Many of the NSBA’s state-level affiliates have expressed confusion or anger about the letter to Biden. Affiliates from states including Louisiana and Pennsylvania cut ties with the NSBA in the wake of the letter; it remains to be seen whether the NSBA can bring those state affiliates back into the fold and shore up the organization’s membership base.

Regardless of that outcome, however, the national school boards group’s mea culpa might not do a great deal to defuse anger at the Biden administration that has proved to be politically potent.

Just a day before the NSBA’s apology, House Republicans grilled Attorney General Merrick Garland for how he responded to the group’s plea for federal help. U.S. Rep Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said Garland had set up a “snitch line” on parents. Garland rejected the idea that he was seeking to silence parent speech. Elsewhere, on the Senate floor earlier in October, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, mocked Biden for, in her view, unleashing the FBI on parents.

From disagreements about mask rules and COVID-19 quarantines, to nasty disputes about how schools address America’s history with racism, normally sleepy school board meetings have become much more divisive recently. Those disagreements have also resonated on the electoral landscape.

In Virginia, GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin has made education, and the argument that schools have shunted aside parents for too long and should be held accountable, a key part of his campaign. He’s highlighted a remark from his Democratic opponent, Terry McAuliffe, that parents should not be able to tell schools what they teach; McAuliffe has said Youngkin is taking that comment out of context.

A Monmouth University poll released in October shows a tight Virginia gubernatorial race, and that Youngkin and McAuliffe are in a statistical tie for which candidate is trusted concerning schools. Education has also become a more prominent issue for voters in the Virginia campaign in recent months, according to the Monmouth poll; 41 percent of registered voters in the poll said education was a top issue for them in the race, up from 31 percent in September.

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