GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Concerned by threats of violence and unrest at school board meetings in states around the country, last week the National School Boards Association sent a letter pleading with the Biden administration for federal help keeping its members safe.
“America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat,” the letter reads. “NSBA believes immediate assistance is required to protect our students, school board members, and educators who are susceptible to acts of violence,” it goes on.
The letter asks for a review by the Department of Education, Homeland Security and the FBI on any actions that might be lawfully taken to prevent and prosecute threats against school board members and educators under several different U.S. laws, including the Gun-Free School Zones Act, PATRIOT Act, and the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act.
“The classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes,” the letter posits.
Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards isn’t aware of any threats that have matriculated into physical violence against any board members or educators in Michigan, but is definitely aware of the threats themselves.
“I don’t think any of our school board members signed up for that, they were just trying to be helpful,” he said, speaking to FOX17 on Wednesday. “It’s typically over these hot-button issues that have become political in nature as opposed to public health nature or somewhere along those lines.”
COVID-19 policies including in-person and virtual learning, mask wearing and vaccine mandates as well as decisions to include or not include critical race theory in curriculums have been divisive issues that Wotruba says have created the tension behind the threats.
He thinks, at least in Michigan, it’s not anything local law enforcement can’t handle on the ground but only if they have the resources.
“If you’re a small district served by a county sheriff, you may be in a situation where you don’t have somebody at your board meeting if you think you need something so maybe you are looking for additional assistance,” he said.
Instances of violence have been present in other states. In Louden County, Virginia, a school board meeting became physical and one person was arrested recently. In Grand Haven last month, a school board member left the job after rhetoric took a turn for the heated.
“I have great empathy right now. School board members are people like you and I that have jobs and have kids and or we just care about our communities,” said Wotruba. “I do worry about what it means for the next election cycle – who wants to serve on a school board if this is what they feel their experience will be?”
Wotruba mentioned that this week, the Department of Justice sent out a press release floating the idea of a joint task force between local and federal law enforcement on how best to protect educators against threats.
“People are passionate about these issues and I do understand from where ethe passion comes from, I just hope that we can be more civil in it,” Wotruba said.