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Culpeper School Board rejects feds' offer of help over threats to educators
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Culpeper School Board rejects feds' offer of help over threats to educators

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The Culpeper County School Board is pushing back hard against the National School Boards Association and the U.S. Department of Justice over federal assistance to stop threats against public-education leaders.

Meeting Monday night, the local board voted 7-0 to reject U.S. law-enforcement assistance investigating harassment of teachers, school staff or school board members, as well as the National School Boards Association’s position on the issue.

The School Board called the Justice Department action and NSBA’s move an effort to “criminalize dissent and protected speech.”

School Board member Deborah Desilets urged the panel to act, saying she found it “extremely disturbing” that the NSBA had asked the Biden administration to get involved.

The national group didn’t consult beforehand with the Culpeper School Board or the Virginia School Board Association, she said.

“It’s unacceptable asking the FBI to invoke the Patriot Act on behalf of state associations and 90,000 school board members,” Desilets said to her colleagues. “They didn’t ask me, and I don’t think they asked you.”

She discounted the idea that federal authorities need to be “on the lookout for terrorist parents.”

Desilets acknowledged that the Culpeper School Board has weathered some “raucus” meetings, hearing vigorous comments and criticism from county residents since the summer of 2020, when it debated reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But, she said, “it’s our duty to listen.”

Threats are not appropriate, Desilets said, but Culpeper school officials would consult with local law enforcement if they occurred.

On Oct. 4, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the FBI to meet with state and local lawmen to address ongoing threats against school leaders and personnel over divisive issues such as mask mandates and teaching about racism.

As the School Board discussed Desilets’ proposal, member Barbee Brown said she didn’t disagree with her central argument, but cautioned that propaganda against Critical Race Theory continues despite the fact that it isn’t taught in grade schools.

School Board Chairman Marshall Keene said heated disputes over schools happen everywhere, and parents have a First Amendment right to speak out. “It’s all about parental choice,” he said.

The resolution adopted by the School Board, introduced by Desilets, says that its members:

—Reject the efforts of the NSBA and DOJ to criminalize dissent and protected speech within our community; and

—Respect the rights of parents and taxpayers in our community to provide input on all topics which involve the education students receive in our school system which are provided by taxpayer funds; and

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—Respect the right of teachers and staff to address the board and provide input on all topics which involve the education students receive in our school system; and

—Reiterate our commitment to respectful two-way communication with our community, free of threats or violent action; and

—Respect the rights of our constituents to make their voices heard and encourage that through the election process of the School Board.

Attorney General Garland acted in response to the National School Boards Association’s request for help, a plea it sent to the White House.

Writing President Biden, NSBA leaders noted examples across the country of disrupted school board meetings, board members being threatened and a protester who was arrested. “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,” NSBA leaders said.

Other education groups, including those representing the nation’s school superintendents and secondary-school principals, have made similar pleas in recent weeks.

NSBA CEO Chip Slaven praised Garland’s action as sending “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.”

In recent weeks, Slaven said school board members and other leaders have received death threats and been harassed online and in person.

“The individuals who are intent on causing chaos and disrupting our schools—many of whom are not even connected to local schools—are drowning out the voices of parents who must be heard when it comes to decisions about their children’s education, health, and safety,” he added. “These acts of intimidation are also affecting educational services and school board governance. Some have even led to school lockdowns.”

But on Oct. 6, the VSBA distanced itself from the NSBA’s stance, saying it “was not consulted about this letter, did not provide information to NSBA, and was not informed that the letter was being sent.”

“Local boards in Virginia work very hard to listen to parents and other members of the community and to work as a collaborative team for the safety and achievement of all students,” Association President Janet Turner-Giles and Executive Director Gina Patterson said in a statement. “... Those citizens who serve on Virginia’s local school boards deserve our thanks.

“There is no justification for physical or verbal threats directed against them, their staff and certainly not the students. Nor is there any excuse for disrupting a public meeting,” they said. “When such unfortunate events occur, the local officials, working with local law enforcement, must deal with the situation appropriately. While we look for support to our state and federal governments, we do not seek the involvement of federal law enforcement or other officials in local decisions.”

Attorney General Garland said threats against educators “are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values.”

“While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution,” he wrote, “that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views.”

The Justice Department said it would create special training and guidance for local school boards and school administrators on how to report threats and collect evidence for possible prosecution.

The NSBA said educators face attacks that include verbal attacks for approving COVID-19 safety policies such as masking, and physical threats after false allegations that schools are teaching “critical race theory,” a legal framework primarily taught in graduate school that examines racism as embedded in policies and institutions.

Loudoun County has been a flashpoint in the Critical Race Theory controversy, which some parents have raised in Culpeper in recent months, including Monday night.

The Culpeper County School Board’s meeting was broadcast by Culpeper Media Network, and is viewable online here.

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Clint Schemmer, a journalist since 1980, has worked at papers in California, North Carolina and Virginia. He’s been a bureau chief, editorial-page editor, copy desk chief and local news editor. Now a staff writer at the Culpeper Star-Exponent.

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