On Oct. 4, the U.S. Department of Justice 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 respond to rising threats of violence against school board members, teachers, and public-school workers.
The move comes less than a week after the National School Boards Association (NSBA) wrote a letter to President Biden urging the federal government to help education officials respond to harassment, threats and criminal conduct, which has risen as school districts enact mask mandates and quarantine policies in response to the pandemic. The topic of critical race theory also has been a point of contention.
“Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values,” wrote Attorney General Merrick B. Garland in a memorandum announcing the measures. “Those who dedicated 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’s additional efforts are expected to include the creation of a task force, consisting of representatives from the department’s Criminal Division, National Security Division, Civil Rights Division, the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys, the FBI, the Community Relations Service and the Office of Justice programs, to determine how federal enforcement tools can be used to prosecute these crimes – and ways to assist law enforcement when threats of violence may constitute federal crimes, according to a DOJ news release.
The Justice Department also will create specialized training and guidance for local school boards and school administrators that will help school board members and other potential victims understand the type of behavior that constitutes threats, how to report threatening conduct and how to capture and preserve evidence to aid investigators and prosecutors.
The NSBA’s letter to President Biden, dated Sept. 30, asked for federal assistance to stop threats and acts of violence against public schoolchildren, public school board members, and other public school district officials and educators.
“America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat,” reads the letter signed by NSBA President Viola M. Garcia and NSBA interim Executive Director and CEO Chip Slaven. “The National School Boards Association respectfully asks for federal law enforcement and other assistance to deal with the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation occurring across the nation.”
The letter asks the federal government to “investigate, intercept, and prevent the current threats and acts of violence against public school officials through existing statutes, executive authority, interagency and intergovernmental task forces, and other extraordinary measures to ensure the safety of our children and educators, to protect interstate commerce, and to preserve public school infrastructure and campuses.”
The letter cites more than 20 instances of threats, harassment, disruption, and acts of intimidation that have transpired during school board meetings and that are targeted at school officials. It urges federal law enforcement agencies, state and local law enforcement, and public-school officials to join forces to tackle the problem. Specifically, NSBA asks that the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Secret Service and its National Threat Assessment Center focus their expertise and resources on the level of risk to public schoolchildren, educators, board members, facilities and campuses. NSBA also requests that the U.S. Postal Inspection Service intervene against threatening letters and cyberbullying attacks that have been transmitted to students, school board members, district administrators, and other educators.
The letter underscores that local school board members want to hear from their communities on important issues and it acknowledges that such feedback is at the heart of good school board governance and promotion of free speech. It also notes, however, that there “must be safeguards in place to protect public schools and dedicated education leaders as they do their jobs.”
“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 argues.
The NSBA praised the Justice Department’s announcement, noting in a news release, “The U.S. Department of Justice’s swift action in response to NSBA’s request is a strong message to individuals with violent intent who are focused on causing chaos, disrupting our public schools, and driving wedges between school boards and the parents, students, and communities they serve. We need to get back to the work of meeting all students’ needs and making sure that each student is prepared for a successful future. That’s what school board members and parents care about.”
NSBA’s complete letter to President Biden is available here.