Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Anti-mask protesters disrupt local school boards and other agencies; 'It's like a time of war,' N.H. board member says

Mask and vacine mandates have sparked widespread, often heated debate in public meetings for town leaders, school boards and more all over the country, even in places known for town-meeting civility.

“Our meetings have been the victim of politicization,” Lorrie Carey, a Merrimack Valley School Board member who has held local elected and volunteer positions in New Hampshire for 30 years, told the New Hampshire Bulletin. “We have to consider the behavior of those who will attend. You have to think about, how will I get in or out of the meeting? It’s like a time of war. I never thought I’d see that in the United States of America.”

Things have gotten so bad at school board meetings that the National School Boards Association recently wrote a letter to President Biden saying that board members, officials and students are under "immediate threat" from malice, violence and threats that are "a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes," Brendan O'Brien reports for Reuters.

In response, Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered the FBI to "work with local leaders nationwide to help address what he called a 'disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence' against educators and school board members over highly politicized issues such as mask mandates and interpretations of critical race theory," Timothy Bella and Devlin Barrett report for The Washington Post. Garland wrote in the memo that, while "spirited debate" about policy is legal, threats against public servants are not. He also wrote that the Justice Department will hold strategy sessions with law enforcement over the next month and is expected to announce measures to combat the trend.

More than 20 right-wing advocacy groups, who say they represent 427,000 members, responded with an open letter blasting NSBA's request and Garland's answer. They are angry, they say, that school boards are restricting access to public meetings and sometimes violating state open meeting laws in order to duck debate. They "unequivocally oppose violence" and say the "tiny number of minor incidents" cited by the NSBA do not justify the DOJ's response. 

However, the incidents are not so rare nor so minor as the letter claims. "At a school board meeting in Illinois, a man was arrested after allegedly striking an education official. At another in Virginia, one man was arrested for making a physical threat, a second was issued a citation for trespassing and a third was injured," Brittany Shammas reports for The Washington Post. "And at other meetings in states such as Washington, Texas, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Tennessee, school board members have had to adjourn early after being confronted by angry mobs."

A growing number of school board members, who are mostly unpaid volunteers, "are resigning or questioning their willingness to serve as meetings have devolved into shouting contests between deeply political constituencies over how racial issues are taught, masks in schools, and Covid-19 vaccines and testing requirements," Carolyn Thompson reports for The Associated Press. NSBA interim executive director Chip Slaven "said there isn't evidence of widespread departures, but he and several board members . . . said the charged political climate that has seeped from the national stage into their meetings has made a difficult job even more challenging, if not impossible."

Carey told the Bulletin's Annmarie Timmins that she listened in disbelief at an August meeting as parents swore and yelled at board members during a mask-policy discussion. The board canceled a meeting the next month and called for police backup when attendees who declined to wear masks also declined to watch the meeting from the cafeteria, a designated mask-free zone.

The protests have reached the state level, Timmins reports: "Angry protesters shut down an Executive Council meeting last week where law enforcement escorted state employees to their cars. Some of the same angry protesters stopped the state Department of Health and Human Services from rewriting the vaccine registry’s rules they believed expanded the state’s reach. Gov. Chris Sununu canceled a '603 Tour' stop last month, citing a concern for attendees’ safety."

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