Boise School District Trustees and Superintendent Coby Dennis listen to a speaker during a meeting Monday. Photo by Nik Streng/Idaho Education News
WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans on Thursday objected to a move by the Justice Department to investigate violent threats made against local school board members and teachers, arguing that the federal agency is “policing the speech of citizens and concerned parents.”
Idaho Republican U.S. Rep. Russ Fulcher is among the lawmakers pushing back against the investigation. An angry crowd of protesters last month swarmed a building in Coeur d’Alene, where a school board was expected to meet to consider school reopening measures to limit the spread of COVID-19.
“Violence and true threats of violence should have no place in our civic discourse, but parents should absolutely be involved in public debates over what and how our public schools teach their children, even if those discussions get heated,” according to a letter led by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, the top Republican on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
Attorney General Merrick Garland earlier this week directed the FBI to meet with local governments and law enforcement officials to probe increasingly frequent clashes at school board meetings over mask mandates and discussions of race in public schools. His action followed a Sept. 29 plea for help from the National School Boards Association to President Joe Biden, in which school meetings in Georgia, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Virginia, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Nevada were cited.
“As these acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes,” the association said.
“As the threats grow and news of extremist hate organizations showing up at school board meetings is being reported, this is a critical time for a proactive approach to deal with this difficult issue,” the letter added.
But the GOP senators said that it was “entirely inappropriate” for the association to ask for a review of whether crimes are being committed under various statutes including the PATRIOT Act, which is aimed at deterring terrorism.
“We urge you to make very clear to the American public that the Department of Justice will not interfere with the rights of parents to come before school boards and speak with educators about their concerns, whether regarding coronavirus-related measures, the teaching of critical race theory in schools, sexually explicit books in schools, or any other topic,” they wrote.
“Furthermore, we urge you to instruct the FBI and the various United States Attorneys to make clear in the meetings discussed above that speech and democratic processes, like those that occur at a local school board meeting, must be respected.”
Over the last year, school board meetings across the country have been the target of conservative activists and some parents over requirements to mask in school to curb the spread of COVID-19 and over “critical race theory,” which is not taught at the K-12 level and instead is an academic theory studied in college. Critical race theory is the study of the intersection of race and U.S. law.
Garland said threats against public servants are illegal and wrong. “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 wrote in his memorandum to the FBI director.
Other Senate Republicans who signed the letter to Garland include Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, John Kennedy of Louisiana and Josh Hawley of Missouri.
Dozens of House Republicans on Thursday also sent a similar letter to DOJ, led by U.S. Rep. Lisa McClain of Michigan, a member of the House Education and Labor Committee.
“Threats of violence are completely unacceptable; however, this is nothing more than a scare tactic to silence parents who are pushing back against unnecessary mandates and an agenda they disagree with being forced down our children’s throats,” the House Republicans wrote. “School boards are elected bodies and it’s their duty to be responsive and fairly represent the parents and students in their district.”
Some GOP lawmakers who signed included Reps. Daniel Webster, Vern Buchanan and Greg Steube of Florida; Tom Emmer of Minnesota; Bob Gibbs of Ohio; Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin; Russ Fulcher of Idaho; Debbie Lesko of Arizona; Guy Reschenthaler of Pennsylvania; and Ben Cline of Virginia.
In the Senate letter, Republicans argued that the local school board meetings that the NSBA characterized as disruptive could have been dealt with by local law enforcement. “Citizens expressing their concerns in an appropriate forum is not a matter for law enforcement, and it is even more difficult to imagine what role federal law enforcement would play in such a scenario,” the senators said.
In Florida, a school board meeting was disrupted when parents and protesters came to discuss items that were not on the agenda such as critical race theory, as reported by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the NSBA told the White House. Similar situations happened at school board meetings in Michigan and Nevada.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that a school board meeting in Gwinnett County, Georgia was disrupted when participants refused to wear masks and objected to the school’s requirement that students, teachers and staff wear masks.
“This too does not appear to warrant criminal investigation, especially by the federal government,” according to the GOP letter. “Not wearing a mask in a public place may or may not be a violation of a local law, but at most it is a petty offense wholly unworthy of the federal government’s attention and the sort of civil disobedience many Democrats would embrace if the politics of wearing masks were reversed.”
Idaho Capital Sun reporter Audrey Dutton contributed.
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