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U.S. Attorney General: ‘The only thing we are concerned about is violence and threats of violence.’

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United States Attorney General Merrick Garland testified before a Senate Judiciary Committee this week, saying that he never sent the Federal Bureau of Investigation after parents who were protesting at local schools boards around the country.

“The only thing we are concerned about is violence and threats of violence against school officials, school teachers, school staff,” USA Today quoted Garland as saying.

The testimony comes in response to a series of events surrounding strife at local school boards around the country regarding both mask mandates and complaints from parents who think critical race theory is being taught in schools.

National School Boards Association letter

Late in September, the National School Boards Association sent a letter to the administration of President Joe Biden regarding what it called an “immediate threat” to public schools and education leaders.

“The National School Boards Association (NSBA) 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. Local school board members want to hear from their communities on important issues and that must be at the forefront of good school board governance and promotion of free speech. However, there also must be safeguards in place to protect public schools and dedicated education leaders as they do their jobs,” the letter states.

The letter goes on to talk about “attacks against school board members and educators for approving policies for masks,” as well as “propaganda purporting the false inclusion of critical race theory within classroom instruction.”

The letter says the National School Boards Association “solicits the expertise and resources of the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Secret Service, and its National Threat Assessment Center regarding the level of risk to public schoolchildren, educators, board members, and facilities/campuses. We also request the assistance of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service to intervene against threatening letters and cyberbullying attacks that have been transmitted to students, school board members, district administrators, and other educators.”

One of the lines from the letter that has received the most attention says, “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.”

Garland memo

Shortly after the letter, Garland sent out a memo addressing the federal government response to school board threats.

“In recent months, there has been a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff who participate in the vital work of running our nation’s public schools. 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,” the memo states.

It goes on to say that the Department of Justice “is committed to using its authority and resources to discourage these threats, identify them when they occur, and prosecute them when appropriate.”

The memo also said that Garland was directing the FBI to work with United States Attorneys to hold meetings at every level of government in the country to “facilitate the discussion of strategies for addressing threats.”

During Garland’s testimony this week, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, criticized Garland’s memo for what he said was the targeting of parents trying to exercise their rights, according to USA Today.

“That is a poisonous, chilling effect,” USA Today quoted Grassley as saying. “This kind of looks like something that would come out of a communist country.”

North Carolina School Boards Association reacts

The National School Boards Association has faced a flurry of attacks since it put out its letter from those who say it is trying to stop parents from advocating for their children at local school board meetings. Among those who have been critical of the national organization are many state school boards associations, including North Carolina’s.

On Oct. 11, the North Carolina School Boards Association put out a statement disavowing any association with the National School Boards Association letter on school threats.

Here is the statement from Leanne Winner, the executive director of the organization.

“The NC School Boards Association had no role in creating the National School Boards Association’s letter to President Biden—we were not privy to any drafts of or conversations about the letter prior to its release. The Association does not agree with the tone or language in the letter nor the request for federal agencies to intervene in our communities.  I have written to both NSBA President Garcia and NSBA Interim Executive Director Chip Slaven conveying the Association’s disagreement with the letter’s tone and contents. 

“NCSBA strongly believes that students, parents, and community members should and need to be able to voice their opinions to their elected officials. However, there should be no place in our public discourse for criminal acts, such as bringing weapons to school board meetings, destruction of public and private property, and death threats. Unfortunately, we have seen examples of all these things in recent months and weeks in North Carolina. We have shared with school districts that any criminal acts should immediately be reported to local law enforcement, which is best equipped to handle such situations and determine if they need further assistance. In the same vein, I believe it is best left to law enforcement to determine what constitutes intimidation, harassment, and threats.”

Earlier in September, prior to the National School Boards Association letter, the NC School Boards Association reached out to Gov. Roy Cooper and lawmakers asking for help with school board threats. Specifically, they were asking lawmakers to change the requirement that districts revisit their mask policies every month. Meetings where local school boards have to vote on the issue of masks are the source of a lot of strife.

This week, the National School Boards Association also apologized for its letter to the federal government.

In his testimony this week, Garland said that he “wanted the memorandum to assure people that we recognize the rights of spirited debate,” and that he didn’t think it “reasonable to read this memorandum as chilling anyone’s rights,” according to the USA Today article.

“It expressly recognizes the constitutional right to make arguments about your children’s education,” USA Today quotes him as saying.

Grassley and others have called on Garland to take the memo back but he has, thus far, refused.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.