Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday ordered the FBI to work with local leaders nationwide to help address what he called a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” against educators and school board members over highly politicized issues such as mask mandates and interpretations of critical race theory.
In a memorandum to FBI Director Christopher A. Wray and federal prosecutors, Garland wrote that the Justice Department will hold strategy sessions with law enforcement in the next 30 days and is expected to announce measures in response to “the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel” in the nation’s public schools.
“While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views,” he wrote. “Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values. 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.”
Garland’s order comes days after the National School Boards Association, a group representing school board members across the United States, pleaded with President Biden for federal assistance to help investigate and stop the recent threats against educators. The group said in a letter to Biden that much of the vitriol has involved policies focusing on mask mandates to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The NSBA likened the harassment and abuse over face coverings in schools to domestic terrorism.
“America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat,” the group wrote to Biden.
Republicans at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday accused Biden’s Justice Department of heavy-handed tactics to try to intimidate parents speaking at local school board meetings about mask mandates or school curriculums.
“If this isn’t a deliberate attempt to chill parents from showing up at school board meetings, I don’t know what is,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said to Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco. “You’re using the FBI to intervene in school board meetings. This is extraordinary.”
Monaco said that was not what Garland’s memo did. She said the FBI is not investigating people for speaking out at school board meetings.
“You are attempting to intimidate them. You are attempting to silence them,” Hawley replied.
The “disturbing spike” in threats in public schools is playing out at a time when educators, parents and school boards continue to clash with one another over a litany of issues. The NSBA noted more than 20 instances of intimidation, threats, harassment and disruption in states such as California, Florida, New Jersey, Ohio and Georgia.
Mask disputes have regularly made headlines in recent months. A Northern California father was banned from his daughter’s school after he allegedly struck a teacher in the face while arguing about masks. In Austin’s Eanes Independent School District, the superintendent said one parent ripped a teacher’s mask off her face, while others yelled at another teacher to remove her mask because they claimed it made it difficult to understand what she was saying.
A school meeting in Michigan was disrupted when a man performed a Nazi salute to protest masks in the classroom. A letter mailed to an Ohio school board member called the official “a filthy traitor” for instituting a mask mandate.
“We are coming after you,” the letter said, according to the NSBA. “You are forcing them to wear [a] mask — for no reason in this world other than control. And for that you will pay dearly.”
The order also comes as educators and elected officials nationwide are engaged in heated and fraught debates over how far teachers can go in teaching about history, race and systemic racism in the classroom. Most of those battles have been focused on critical race theory, an academic framework for examining the way laws and policies perpetuate systemic racism.
The backlash over the issue, which has become a focus of heavy coverage by right-leaning news outlets, has led to what the NSBA describes as “propaganda purporting the false inclusion of critical race theory within classroom instruction and curricula.”
“This propaganda continues despite the fact that critical race theory is not taught in public schools and remains a complex law school and graduate school subject well beyond the scope of a K-12 class,” the group wrote.
The back-and-forth over critical race theory has also spilled over into the classroom. James Whitfield, a Texas high school principal, was suspended last month after being publicly accused of promoting critical race theory, which he has denied. The school board voted to not renew the contract of Whitfield, the first Black principal for Colleyville Heritage High School.
He told The Washington Post last month that he was the target of political activists who want to block attempts to make schools more inclusive.
“That sounds absurd,” he said, “but that is the nature of what we’re dealing with.”
Garland, who said the FBI would work with U.S. attorneys and authorities in each district to develop strategies against these incidents, emphasized Monday that federal prosecutors would use their resources to help curb the number of threats made against educators. A training program and new federal task force are expected to be implemented by the Justice Department to help with the public-school threats.
“The Department takes these incidents seriously and is committed to using its authority and resources to discourage these threats, identify them when they occur, and prosecute them when appropriate,” the attorney general wrote.
The order was welcomed by Chip Slaven, NSBA’s interim executive director and CEO. In a statement, Slaven said Garland’s move is “a strong message to individuals with violent intent who are focused on causing chaos, disrupting our public schools, and driving wedges between school boards and the parents, students, and communities they serve.”
“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,” he said.
“We need to get back to the work of meeting all students’ needs and making sure that each student is prepared for a successful future,” Slaven said.