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Death threats, online abuse, police protection: School board members face dark new reality

Members of the Loudoun County School Board listen as speakers discuss transgender rights and mask mandates, among other issues, during a meeting in August. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

It was when the police car pulled away from her house, some time after midnight on a Thursday in late October, that Beth Barts hit her breaking point.

The school board member in Loudoun County, Va., had been fielding abusive, profane and threatening emails, Facebook messages and phone calls for eight months. She was also facing a recall campaign from mostly conservative parents irate over her support for pandemic safety measures, as well as her membership in a pro-equity parent group on Facebook. And she had been censured by other members of the school board in part for her outspokenness, which they said veered into rudeness, on social media.

The harassment of Barts, a 50-year-old stay-at-home mother and former librarian who used to lead a Girl Scouts troop, is part of a wave of anger against elected and appointed school officials, including superintendents, that is cresting nationwide. Parents upset over things including mask mandates in schools, as well as officials’ efforts to introduce more diverse curriculums and bias trainings for teachers, have taken over school board meetings, shouting abuse, making threats and demanding resignations.

The Loudoun County Public Schools board cut short the public comment section of a school board meeting on June 22 after attendees became unruly. (Video: Loudoun County School Board)

In early October, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed federal authorities to collaborate with state and local law enforcement to combat “harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators.” He was responding to a request from the National School Boards Association, which represents school board members across the country and which in late September sent a letter to President Biden asking for assistance handling what the association called “a form of domestic terrorism.”

Parental say in schools, resonant in Va. governor’s race, bound for GOP national playbook

Republican lawmakers — and many parents — took offense to Garland’s directive, complaining that the federal government and the National School Boards Association are demonizing well-meaning mothers and fathers who just want what’s best for their children.

Amid the political blowback, the association backtracked, writing in an Oct. 22 message to members that “we regret and apologize for the letter.” Days later, Garland was forced to defend his memo in a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, refusing Republican lawmakers’ demands that he rescind it — and weathering Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton’s declaration that he should “resign in disgrace.”

Garland said parents have the right to share their concerns with school boards, but that he worries the meetings will splinter into violence.

The ongoing harassment of school board members runs the gamut: In Illinois, a man was arrested for striking a school official at a September board meeting. In Hilton, N.Y., three people were arrested at a school board meeting last month — one for allegedly refusing to put on a mask, two for allegedly refusing to leave after the school board president suspended the meeting because of attendees’ unruly behavior.

And in Pennsylvania, a Republican candidate for Northampton County executive said at an August rally that he would bring “20 strong men” to the next school board meeting so they could “replace [board members] with nine parents and we’re going to vote down the mask mandates . . . this is how you get stuff done.” Steve Lynch, who was in D.C. at the time of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, denied he meant to threaten board members. He ultimately lost his election.

The hottest conflict over education has arguably come in Loudoun, a majority White, politically divided and wealthy suburb just outside D.C. Intense coverage from conservative media has converted Loudoun into the face of the nation’s culture wars. Board meetings in the district of roughly 81,000 students regularly stretch late into the night because more than 100 parents show up, some eager to scream insults at the board, some to pray for their salvation.

Despite the threats and anger, Barts said, she never felt unsafe in her own home. Not after a quarter-century of living in Leesburg, the quiet town she knows so well, the place where she has already raised one child and is midway through raising the second, a girl.

But it was thoughts of her youngest daughter that gripped Barts on a Thursday last month, as she sat on the couch trying to distract herself with an episode of “Ted Lasso.” The police were outside her house, she said, because the Loudoun County Public Schools safety and security team had asked the county sheriff’s office to send patrols to the homes of every school board member.

The embattled board was confronting yet another firestorm of controversy after revelations that the school district had transferred a teenager accused of sexual assault to a second high school within the system, where the teen allegedly committed a second assault. Some conservative parents and pundits were tying the sexual assault allegations to the district’s recent adoption of a policy that allowed transgender students to use bathrooms matching their gender identities — a policy Barts had supported.

Earlier that evening, Barts’s daughter had complained that the police officer’s flashing blue lights were making it impossible to sleep. Barts’s husband walked outside and asked the officer if he could turn off his lights. The policeman replied that he couldn’t: “That way,” Barts’s husband remembered him saying, “people are aware we’re here.”

Eventually, Barts’s husband and daughter fell asleep. But she stayed up, unable to relax. Her mind strayed to snatches of the messages she’d been receiving for months: “You f---ing disgusting piece of s---.” “YOU ARE A TRAITOR TO THE USA!” “A public hanging is in order . . . Should only take a few seconds.”

She realized the policeman had gone when the blue light that edged her living room shut off. Then she had a second realization: She was completely, utterly alone.

“I had a panic attack,” Barts said, “because I realized: All it would take is one person believing it was their mission to do something about us all — and in five minutes, maybe even two minutes, we could be gone.

“And my baby was sleeping upstairs,” Barts added. “And then I couldn’t do it anymore.”

Barts drafted a letter of resignation, ran it by a few close friends once they woke up around 7 a.m. and submitted it to the clerk of the school board that afternoon. She also posted it to Facebook with the title: “Taking my life back.”

'When did asking kids to wear a mask become child abuse?'

On a balmy evening in early October, about a dozen people gathered before a red-roofed house in a sleepy Sarasota County, Fla., neighborhood.

A girl in a red dress waved an American flag. A man paced back and forth with a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag hoisted over one shoulder, shouting, “No vaccines! No masks!” Other adults pulled out megaphones.

“We see you in there, Shirley,” called a man in a black baseball cap, according to a video shared on Twitter. “We know the next step is from masks to vaccines. This will not happen. This is the line we will die on.”

They were standing outside the home of Shirley Brown, the 69-year-old chair of the Sarasota County Schools board. Midway through cooking dinner when the protesters arrived, Brown within minutes phoned the police for help. By that point, she had already received a slew of emails labeling her a tyrant and a child abuser for her support of mask-wearing in schools. A parent group had shared her home address and phone number online.

“I mean,” said Brown, who plans to retire when her term expires next year, “when did asking kids to wear a mask become child abuse?”

In most places, the path to parental outrage has been the same. Mothers and fathers began showing up to board meetings in spring and summer of 2020, upset over school closures because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Beverly Anderson, a long-serving board member for Virginia Beach City Public Schools, said she first noticed an uptick in discontent when she began receiving 50 to 60 emails a day following her school system’s decision to close because of the pandemic in March 2020. Parents started showing up to complain at board meetings soon afterward, and the tone quickly turned far nastier than anything Anderson had seen in almost a decade serving on the school board.

“Covid changed things,” Anderson said, “because people didn’t understand why we had to close schools.”

Even after many schools reopened last fall, parents across the United States kept attending board meetings to share their concerns over safety measures, including social distancing, and to push for more days of in-person teaching. Some were upset that teachers were among the first in line for vaccines, given a portion of educators were continuing to teach remotely. And, taking the opposite view, some speakers came to demand more safety precautions.

By the fall of the 2021-2022 academic year, with the vast majority of school districts reopened for five days a week of almost-normal in-person learning, the arguments shifted to center on curricular and cultural issues. Some parents nationwide — usually White, conservative parents — have become alarmed over what they argue is the indoctrination of their children with critical race theory, a college-level academic framework that examines systemic racism in America.

The theory is not taught at the K-12 level, but schools across the country have embarked on racial justice initiatives — including adopting more diverse hiring practices and adding books by Black authors to curriculums — that parents argue amount to the embrace of critical race theory. How schools treat transgender students has also emerged as a hot-button issue.

Nowadays, meetings in Anderson’s small Virginia Beach district of 65,000 regularly last until 1 or 2 a.m., she said. Parents sign up in scores for public comment. People hold rallies in the parking lot beforehand, and security personnel or police have begun escorting Anderson and her colleagues to their cars at night’s end.

At one meeting, Anderson said, an attendee gave the board the middle finger and began shouting obscenities, causing the board to ask police to escort her from the building — which spurred accusations that the board had silenced the speaker. At another meeting, after students spoke in defense of books including Toni Morrion’s “Beloved,” parents accused the board of paying the students, Anderson said. One woman vowed an investigation.

“There is a faction of the community [that] is just discontented with anything public-school-wise,” Anderson said. “They look for issues that are able to divide us, anything they can come up with that is negative, because they are just so angry.”

Anderson, 70, who spent 36 years as a classroom teacher, ran for school board in 2012 because she wanted the district to start offering full-day kindergarten rather than half-day. She accomplished that goal quickly, but ran for the board again in 2016 and in 2020 because she loves being a board member. It allows her to tour schools and visit classrooms, she said, and to advocate for teachers and students.

But after one especially raucous recent meeting, Anderson drove home to find a massive screw stuck in her car tire. Her husband is convinced an angry parent placed it there. Ever since, he has insisted Anderson ask the police who attend board meetings to walk around her vehicle checking for damage before she climbs in.

Anderson is facing a recall campaign led by parents upset with her votes in favor of pandemic safety measures. She is considering retiring after her term runs out.

Back to school has brought guns, fighting and acting out

Another board member weighing whether to leave her job is Blanca Gonzalez-Parker, a mother of three in Guilderland, N.Y. Gonzalez-Parker, who is 43 and Latina, is one of the only people of color serving on the board of Guilderland Central schools, a district of about 5,000 near Albany.

She ran for the board last year because she has a background in public health and thought she could help the school district protect children and teachers amid the pandemic. Initially, things went okay. Then in August, the board voted to adopt a mask mandate, a measure Gonzalez-Parker supported.

The emails started coming soon after. People messaged her threatening to kick her off the board or calling her scum, a “stupid b----” and a Marxist, she said. Others began harassing her children, sending texts to the eighth-grader asserting that her mother was crazy and a liar, and that it was her mother’s fault children have to wear masks.

On a couple recent nights, police stayed outside Gonzalez-Parker’s house as a precaution. Scared by the officers and the flashing lights, her children began begging her to quit. She remembers them asking through tears, “Why don’t you love us more?” and “Why aren’t we more important than this stupid volunteer job?”

Gonzalez-Parker hears their questions repeating in her head almost all the time. Part of her wants to quit. Part of her feels an obligation to the students in Guilderland.

“I really want to keep everyone safe, including the children of the people who harass us,” she said. “But I’m afraid for my family, and I have to decide what’s more important.”

A boost in candidates — and spending

Not every school district is seeing a spike in violence and threats. In many places, board members are meeting to vote on items such as elementary-school utility easements much as they have always done, with little debate, fanfare or outside interest.

One such place is Alexandria City Public Schools, a Northern Virginia district of about 16,000 that sits close by Loudoun County but is more diverse and solidly blue. In Alexandria, mask and vaccine mandates have drawn almost no opposition. There is no organized parent group waging war against critical race theory. And the public comment portions of board meetings have generally remained short and decorous.

The setup apparently proved enticing, as a crowded field of 15 candidates — including several incumbents — competed for the nine school board seats up for reelection in Alexandria this fall.

But school boards in districts beset by controversy also saw heightened interest, especially from conservatives. Right-leaning advocacy groups and political action committees dumped large sums into school board races this fall — as did some traditionally left-leaning groups such as teachers unions. FreedomWorks, a conservative nonprofit that adopted deceptive advertising in service of President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, this year developed a six-week program that teaches parents how to run for the school board so they can combat “mask mandates, lockdowns, or critical race theory,” according to the group’s website.

In Ohio, the number of school board candidates rose by 50 percent this fall compared with four years ago, WOSU 89.7 NPR News reported — and many campaigned on a promise of eradicating critical race theory. In Colorado, spending on school board races across the state skyrocketed to $1.9 million, the Colorado Sun reported, with most of it coming from teachers unions or individual donors — including one man who gave $30,000 each to four Douglas County candidates favored by the Republican Party. In Denver alone, a teachers union gave more than $157,000 to four school board candidates, according to Chalkbeat Colorado.

And in Pennsylvania, self-described “hardcore Republican” Paul Martino, father to a seventh-grader and fifth-grader in the Central Bucks school system, said he donated $500,000 to school board races around the state in hopes of bolstering a bipartisan slate of candidates interested in keeping schools open. One of the recipients of that money was Jessie Bradica, a 43-year-old stay-at-home mother of three in the North Penn School District, just outside Philadelphia.

Bradica decided to run in February when she learned the local Republican Party was asking for volunteers, she said. She campaigned to fully reopen schools, which were then open part time, and she hoped to bring balance to a school board she said was 100 percent liberal.

Bradica declined to share who she voted for in the 2016 or 2020 presidential elections. But she said that she holds moderately conservative views, and that she was in D.C. at the time of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot — which became an issue in her school board campaign — although she said she did not go near the U.S. Capitol building or participate in any violence.

She knows board meetings in North Penn have become volatile of late — it was like watching “the division in our community . . . on full display,” she said — but she believes the vitriol will diminish if she and other conservative or independent candidates win their races and are able to enact more middle-of-the-road policies.

“Here’s the thing,” Bradica said. “When you make 100 percent of a group or side happy, you are going to make the other side or other people 100 percent unhappy.”

Bradica ultimately lost her election. She was in the minority. Martino, the father who donated half a million, said 60 percent of the candidates he sponsored won their school board elections.

And he is still pleased with the results, even in places where his candidates lost, he said.

“Just having the parents show up and say, ‘We’re here, we’re watching what you’re doing,’ ” Martino said, “that was also a win.”

'They're not going to stop'

In Loudoun County, Beth Barts decided to watch a live stream of the first school board meeting following her resignation.

Sitting before her computer on Oct. 26, she watched as angry parents spoke for two hours. The last to approach the podium was Ian Prior, a father and former Trump administration official in the Justice Department who founded the parent group, Fight for Schools, that filed the recall petition against Barts and is seeking the recall of four other progressive board members.

“I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but a week-and-a-half ago, a member of this school board . . . did the right thing,” Prior said, referring to Barts’s decision to quit. “And now, you all don’t have your human shield to take the slings and arrows. So the spotlight of accountability turns to you.”

Barts was suddenly cold.

“He’s right,” she recalls thinking. “I’m gone. But they’re not going to stop.”