School leaders face violence, threats
Justice Dept. to address rise in illegal conduct toward school staff, board members
November 1, 2021
In light of threats of violence and intimidation against educators and school board members across the country, including in California, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has launched efforts to address the rise in criminal conduct directed at school personnel.
According to an Oct. 4 news release, Garland has directed the FBI and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to meet in the next 30 days with federal, state, tribal, territorial and local law enforcement leaders to discuss strategies for addressing this disturbing trend.
“Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values,” wrote Garland, in the release. “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 Justice Department said it will create specialized training and guidance for local school boards and school administrators. This training will help school board members and other potential victims understand the type of behavior that constitutes threats, how to report threatening conduct to the appropriate law enforcement agencies, and how to capture and preserve evidence of threatening conduct to aid in the investigation and prosecution of these crimes.
ACSA members have reported throughout the pandemic that interactions with the public have been more contentious and would likely intensify following the Oct. 1 announcement that vaccines will be required for students to attend school.
“Our educators get into this industry for a lot of reasons. I don’t think any of them expect that they’re going to be on the receiving end of whether it be death threats or violence or just having to deal with this on a regular basis,” said ACSA Senior Director of Governmental Relations Edgar Zazueta, during a recent ACSA Legislative Lunch Break on vaccine mandates. “But unfortunately, it is this sign of the times that we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with difficult issues.”
On Sept. 29, the National School Boards Association sent a letter to President Joe Biden citing numerous instances of school board meetings being disrupted, and threats or actual violence against school personnel, mainly connected to COVID safety measures like masking and false assertions that Critical Race Theory is being taught in K-12 schools. The letter urged the federal government to intervene “against individuals or hate groups who are targeting our schools and educators.”
Many incidents have occurred in California. On Sept. 9, an online-only school board meeting of the Poway Unified School District had to be adjourned without conducting any of its business due to protesters that entered the building, according to media reports. On the first day of school in August, a Sutter Creek Elementary School teacher was physically assaulted by a parent during an argument over mask mandates, according to published reports. That prompted Amador County Unified School District Superintendent Torie Gibson to send a letter to families.
“If I ask nothing more of you this school year it is this. Take a breath, pause, listen, and walk away if necessary,” Gibson wrote. “Remember, we are not the ones making the rules/mandates, we are the ones required to follow/enforce them if we want to keep our doors open and students at school five days a week.”
Demonstrations on school grounds and offices during business hours have led LEAs to develop strategies that protect free speech while ensuring the safety of staff and students.
Placer County Office of Education Chief Communications Officer Michelle Eklund said she typically greets demonstration organizers and explains areas where they can assemble. The county office is also developing a flier that can be distributed to demonstration organizers with a map showing free speech public areas. They are also planning to post A-frame signage in designated free speech areas “so we can clearly mark the public space from the school space,” she said.
In June, a group of protesters occupied the lobby for more than 45 minutes causing disruption to operations. As a result, Eklund said PCOE is looking into revising its internal safety plans to possibly include closing the office for the day (with signage on the door indicating how to schedule an appointment) and possibly allowing employees to work from home when a protest is planned to ensure efficient operations.
The California School Boards Association recently held a webinar on “Governing in a Time of Chaos” to address strategies for keeping order during board meetings.
“It’s harder to be a school trustee now than it ever has been before,” said CSBA CEO/Executive Director Vernon Billy during the webinar. “Your mission to educate students is too important to be derailed by those who want to stop the work of boards, which is why it’s critical that boards develop techniques for effective community engagement and productive board meetings, even in this time of chaos.”
During the webinar, school board trustees shared their experiences and strategies they are using to create a safe and open environment for public discourse.
Many school boards start their meetings by reading a statement (crafted with input from legal counsel) that covers how to submit comments, board policies on civility and local mask requirements, among other items. Other best practices include taking breaks during meetings to calm tensions, following consistent public comment rules and turning off microphones if commentors are disruptive.
“Take a breath, pause, listen, and walk away if necessary.”
— Torie Gibson, Superintendent of Schools, Amador County USD, from a letter to families following the physical assault of a teacher on campus
Josh Daniels, general counsel for Oakland USD, stressed that boards must uphold freedom of speech.
“The only time which you step in to constrain someone’s expression is if that expression is disruptive to the meeting, not in its content, but in the way that it is expressed,” he said, adding that approaching the board, going over time or screaming would be examples of disruptive actions.
Threats of violence against school board members, officials and workers in public schools can be reported to the FBI’s National Threat Operations Center at 1-800-CALL-FBI and at
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