And we’ve all seen the outrageous images of irate mobs swarming school board meetings, parents accosting teachers over masks, schools being put on watch lists, and threats being sent to educators and district officials.
But what can be done when the bad actors have accomplices on the inside?
It’s a very good thing that the FBI has answered the plea for help. In a memorandum in response to the National School Boards Association’s letter, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the bureau to develop strategies for dealing with the “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence.” That, in turn, prompted Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) to fulminate that Garland's “dangerous” directive amounted to a McCarthyist effort to silence concerned parents.
Hawley’s Red Scare metaphor is useful to understanding what is happening across the country, only he has it backward. As a Texan, I can say that he completely misses what is happening to educators in states such as mine.
From racial desegregation to debates over comprehensive sex education, adults have always managed to turn children’s education into a cultural battleground, fueled by the prevailing moral and political anxieties of the day.
In today’s chapter of this old story, irrational anxiety over anything resembling diversity, inclusion and historical accuracy on race in the United States has individuals and groups in Texas creating a climate of fear, intimidation and surveillance in education. One group emailed Dallas teachers encouraging them to report peers for lessons in critical race theory and “predatory gender fluidity.” Educators have told me their fears about their names appearing on certain local Facebook groups of parents — one in particular wondered whether it had been a mistake to move to Texas to teach. Joseph McCarthy would have been impressed by it all.
I asked one besieged educator about the call for federal help. James Whitfield, the first Black principal of Colleyville Heritage High School outside of Dallas, was put on administrative leave not long after he spoke up to defend himself against racist abuse, as well as accusations of endorsing critical race theory. Whitfield said it was welcome that a government entity was taking notice of teachers and school officials in the cultural crosshairs. “I’d be interested to see how much input the FBI is going to take from educators,” he said.
Considering how much districts benefit from federal funding, Washington does have a big stick it can use to combat the worsening atmosphere. And, of course, there are school boards and districts around the country that are standing behind those under attack. School boards command a significant amount of power in local communities, including over lucrative contracts and decisions on hiring and codes of conduct.
In many places throughout the country, school boards are having to call in extra security and law enforcement to help control unruly meetings. But how will federal intervention help in red states where, in many cases, state lawmakers, district officials and school boards themselves are enabling or at least turning a blind eye toward abuses?
Whitfield’s saga is a prime example of what happens when a school district is uninterested in taking threats to educators seriously. After being publicly accused of promoting critical race theory, Whitfield recalled a situation in which he asked Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District officials to do something about an individual who had been publicly harassing him. “They told me he was just being drunk,” he said. Whitfield asked whether the person could be barred from football games where they might interact, he said, but the request was denied. “This behavior is excused.” Whitfield is still on administrative leave and plans to appeal the school board’s decision last month not to renew his contract.
It remains to be seen whether federal backup will help prevent school board members from quitting under the pressure. A Nevada school board member said this summer that the harassment got so bad he considered suicide — and decided to step down. In Wisconsin last month, a board member resigned after deciding his family’s safety was at risk — all because he voted in favor of mask mandates.
But it’s hard to see what will change the real driver of these battles — a normalization of surveillance and intimidation of educators coming from the right. I’m glad the federal government is getting involved, but one can only hope that it’s not too late. Education skirmishes in the United States are becoming more partisan and explosive. And in the end, the heaviest cost will be borne by America’s kids — literally, in other words, our future.