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Garland slammed for triggering FBI over school board feud

While Attorney General Merrick B. Garland sees a growing domestic threat to public schools across the country, others struggle to identify anything more insidious than angry parents becoming rowdy at local council meetings. education.

Justice Department Pressed to Provide Specific Reasons for Mr. Garland’s Hotly Contested Oct. 4 Directive mobilizing FBI to respond to “disturbing increase in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence” against school officials.

The only details on the incidents came from the National School Boards Association, which gave about two dozen examples of disruptive behavior in its September 29 letter urging President Biden to appeal to the federal government and suggesting that “the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent of a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.

So far, however, Republican lawmakers have struggled to spot domestic terrorists and hate crime perpetrators.

“The NSBA letter cited only a handful of examples of alleged ‘extremism’ nationwide,” a letter to Mr Biden from 13 House Republicans said Wednesday. “However, most of the examples appear to fall far short of the US government’s definition of domestic terrorism.”

The 11 Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee asked Mr. Garland in an Oct. 7 letter to explain “how this all fits the definition of stalking.”

Most of the cited episodes involved the postponement or early adjournment of school board meetings due to noisy crowds of parents and community members objecting to hiding mandates or critical race theory in the curriculum.

An Illinois man was arrested last month for allegedly beating a school official who tried to escort him to a meeting. In Detroit, someone gave a Nazi salute to protest the masks. An Ohio school board received a hate mail with the “we’re coming after you” threat.

During a chaotic June 22 school board meeting in Loudoun County, Va., Scott Smith was arrested and charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. He told reporters this week he was upset because his daughter was sexually assaulted on May 28 in a school bathroom, an incident which is currently under investigation.

Certainly, much of the behavior is reprehensible and potentially criminal in a handful of cases. That said, the only actual violence cited occurred during the clashes in Illinois, despite the NSBA’s claim that “these threats and acts of violence have become more frequent.”

Additionally, all incidents appear to fall under the jurisdiction of local law enforcement, not the FBI.

“While we agree that there must be safeguards in place to protect public schools and education officials in the line of duty, the examples provided by the NSBA often boil down to to shouting and not to specific acts of violence against individual school board members, ”said the Republican Letter from the House led by Representative Doug Lamborn of Colorado.

In their letter, NSBA President Viola M. Garcia and Acting Executive Director Chip Slaven insisted that the situation requires federal intervention, including a review of potential violations of the USA PATRIOT Act.

As local and state law enforcement agencies work with public school officials in several communities to avoid further disruption to education services and school district operations, law enforcement officials in some jurisdictions need help, including monitoring threat levels, ”they said.

Mr. Garland said federal resources would be used to “deter these threats, identify them when they occur and prosecute them where appropriate.”

The Justice Department did not respond to requests from The Washington Times for details of threats and what data the department may have to show an increase in incidents.

School board meetings can get heated – ask anyone who has ever attended a public hearing on a school closure or a boundary change – but a unique element of recent skirmishes is that the issues are more national than local.

The NSBA has warned of a nationwide effort to disrupt school districts, saying “Groups are posting watchlists against school boards and spreading misinformation that boards are embracing a critical racial theory agenda and s’ strive to maintain online learning by randomly attributing it to COVID-19.

The association is linked to “School Board Watchlist,” a campaign launched by conservative group Turning Point USA, which seeks to “identify school districts across the country that are abusing their power to push leftist, racist and anti-propaganda. -american “.

Andrew Kolvet, spokesperson for Turning Point USA, said the watchlist contained only “publicly available sources and materials”, not “disinformation”.

“If the NSBA doesn’t like parents to know that radicals run their child’s school, that’s a problem with school boards, not with worried parents, or with TPUSA,” he said. declared. “The irony is that they are complaining about a private organization’s watch list by asking the government to put TPUSA and other concerned relatives on a government watch list.”

In its letter, the NSBA said that “threats and acts of violence” result in the resignation of school board members, and linked to two examples, although one of them, Jon White of the County School Board of Wilson in Tennessee told local media he wanted to spend more time with his family.

After Mr Garland issued his directive, Mr Slaven said several school board members and education officials received death threats and accused strangers of fueling chaos at meetings.

“The individuals who intend to wreak havoc and disrupt our schools – many of whom are not even connected to local schools – are stifling the voices of parents who need to be heard when it comes to making decisions about schooling. ‘education, health and safety for their children,’ Slaven said in an Oct. 4 press release.

Not all educators in the state support the NSBA’s request for federal intervention.

Parents Defending Education said they contacted 47 state school board associations affiliated with the NSBA, and 15 distanced themselves from the national effort: Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Wyoming.

For example, the Delaware School Board Association said it made it clear to the NSBA that it did not agree to sending the letter without first consulting public bodies and that if it did, the DSBA would not have allowed itself to be associated with the request for federal intervention.

“The DSBA does not agree, in the strongest possible terms, with parents and citizens protesting at school board meetings being labeled” domestic terrorists “and their protests being compared to” crimes of hate, ”the statement said on the Parents Defending Education website.

Parents Defending Education President Nicole Neily said the definition of “threats” and “harassment” had evolved “from a real legal standard to a standard of interpretation.”

“I have no doubt this is also happening in districts across the country, where tough questions and boos are reported as harassment, which is laughable,” she said in an email. .

Senate Republicans also disagreed with the parents’ narrative as terrorists, who said “the FBI should not be involved in quashing and criminalizing speech that falls far short of acts of violence. “. Lawmakers have also raised issues of freedom of expression.

“Reported heated encounters between concerned parents and school boards often involve speech clearly protected by the First Amendment,” the Senate GOP letter said. “Federal law enforcement should never be used against protesting parents. “

As far as Senate Republicans are concerned, “these actions look a lot like civil disobedience in protest against public order, a tactic often seen as virtuous by Democrats when it comes to the policies they are pursuing. oppose “.

Among those who applauded the Justice Department’s decision was Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who tweeted her thanks.

Michael Watson, research director of the conservative Capital Research Center, said the NSBA is funded primarily by member associations but received five-figure donations in 2019 and 2020 from the National Education Association, the largest teachers’ union in the country. country.

“It is difficult to see the actions of the NSBA and the Justice Department as anything other than attempts to curb the constitutionally protected discourse of criticism of teacher unions, critical racial theory agendas, and hyper COVID policies. -restrictions demanded by unions, ”Watson said. said in an October 7 article.

• James Varney contributed to this report.

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