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Education

Pennsylvania school boards leave national group after it asks Biden for help with threats

2020 03 06-e lee-warrington tamanend middle school-virus shuts down schools
Emma Lee
/
WHYY
Tamanend Middle School in Warrington, Pa., and four other schools in central Bucks County, were shut down Friday, March 6, 2020, as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19.

The governing board of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association has voted unanimously to withdraw from its national counterpart, after the larger group requested federal help to address increasing harassment and threats of violence against school board members.

“Attempting to solve the problems with a call for federal intervention is not the place to begin, nor a model for promoting greater civility and respect for the democratic process,” PSBA wrote in a statement to its members.

In a letter to President Joe Biden on Sept. 29, the National School Boards Association outlined incidents that have disrupted school board meetings across the country. Most were in response to mask mandates, but public officials have also faced vitriol over vaccine requirements, in addition to how race is taught in schools and policies toward LGBTQ+ students.

Among other incidents, the letter detailed two school boards meetings in Michigan where a protestor yelled a Nazi salute while decrying mask requirements, an Illinois board meeting where a man was arrested for aggravated battery and disorderly conduct, and a Virginia meeting where one individual was arrested and another injured.

The letter also referenced “angry mobs” that have confronted school board members and forced meetings to end abruptly.

“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 letter read.

NSBA asked for assistance from federal law enforcement, including the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI, in responding to these threats.

That move prompted PSBA, which represents about 4,500 school board members across the state, to cut ties with its parent organization.

“The most recent national controversy surrounding a letter to President Biden suggesting that some parents should be considered domestic terrorists was the final straw,” the statement reads. “This misguided approach has made our work and that of many school boards more difficult. It has fomented more disputes and cast partisanship on our work on behalf of school directors, when we seek to find common ground and support all school directors in their work, no matter their politics.”

PSBA had already been questioning the value of its NSBA membership, according to the statement, claiming the federation “is not focused on bipartisanship, civility and seeking solutions to the internal problems that have plagued the national organization for so long.”

NSBA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The September letter to Biden did not spell out any incidents of harassment or violence in Pennsylvania, but did cite a Delco Times story about a Garnet Valley school board meeting where police were called in to clear out the room after protestors refused to wear masks.

School board meetings have grown increasingly contentious across the commonwealth. In August, Central Bucks School Board President John Gamble resigned after stating he had received death threats.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice has pledged to address threats against school leaders. On Oct. 5, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo directing the FBI and federal prosecutors to meet with local officials to coordinate a response to these threats.

“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,” Garland wrote. Threats against public servants, he said, are not only illegal but also “run counter to our nation’s core values.”

The department also said it expects to launch a task force “to determine how federal enforcement tools can be used” to prosecute crimes against school personnel, and ways to assist local law enforcement in situations where threats of violence may not constitute federal crimes.

In addition, DOJ plans to create specialized training and guidance for local school boards and school administrators on how to report threats and capture evidence for investigation and prosecution.

Read more from our partners, Keystone Crossroads.