'Terrorism and hate crimes': School boards say death threats, unruly meetings require FBI

Angry mobs. Police tape. Obscenities hurled at elected officials. Smashed windows. Physical confrontations, assaults and arrests.

The unruly and violent conduct at many school board meetings, plus death threats directed toward elected members, has risen to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes, the national group representing school boards said this week in a letter to President Joe Biden's administration.

The National School Boards Association requested an investigation by the U.S. Departments of Justice, Education and Homeland Security and assistance from the FBI to maintain safety for school board members, as well as district staff and students.

"We urge the federal government’s intervention against individuals or hate groups who are targeting our schools and educators," the letter said.

School board meetings in many communities have become the epicenter of increasingly uncivil arguments and sometimes violent altercations over everything from COVID-19 protocols to how classrooms address race, equity, social justice and sexual equality.

Those latter issues are often lumped under the teaching of "critical race theory" – recently, a term used to fuel a firestorm of conservative action against inclusion efforts and classroom content in public schools.

School teachers have not historically taught the law school framework, which probes how racial discrimination permeates institutions and society to perpetuate inequities. Public schools do, however, tend to embrace equity and diversity of race and opinion. They've moved in that direction for years because students tend to learn more readily when they feel accepted and safe in class, and when their experiences are reflected in discussions and activities, research shows.

Those fighting against critical race theory are wrongly conflating those issues, said National School Boards Association Interim CEO Chip Slaven. The association represents more than 90,000 school board members who govern the country's approximate 14,000 school districts.

What is critical race theory? Parents want kids to learn about ongoing effects of slavery – but not critical race theory. They're the same thing.

Along with attacks related to requiring masks against COVID-19, "Many public school officials are also facing physical threats because of propaganda purporting the false inclusion of critical race theory within classroom instruction and curricula," the letter signed by Garcia and Slaven said.

"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."

'Tone down the rhetoric'

In an interview Thursday, Slaven said the letter may not immediately cause federal agencies to swoop in, but he hopes it raises awareness among parents. He believes a silent majority is being drowned out by a vocal and uncivil minority responsible for the unrest and threats.

Some people will never be convinced that critical race theory isn't being taught in schools, Slaven said, but others need to stand up and ask questions if they're unsure, or engage civilly with their elected school boards.

"People need to stop, look and listen like at a rail crossing, and say: 'What’s really going on here?'" Slaven said. "We've got to tone down the rhetoric and focus on the real issues."

Many conservative groups are behind the activism driving the heated exchanges at school boards. And misinformation online about critical race theory and the effectiveness of masks and vaccines have all come together to drive opposition.

What's more, faith in local teachers and school leaders has fallen, according to a USA TODAY/Ipsos poll conducted in late August and early September.

About 76% of the general public approved of their local public school teachers in 2018, but that fell to 65% this fall. Support for school and district leaders also dipped in 2021, the poll showed.

Still, on balance, the majority of adults support COVID-19 mitigation in schools, which is the opposite position of many people leading the fights at school board meetings. On the whole, 65% of adults support states or schools enforcing mask mandates; 65% support mandatory vaccinations for school staff and 59% support mandatory vaccinations for eligible students, the poll showed.

As for critical race theory, 49% of respondents supported teaching about the theory in schools. And 63% supported teaching about the ongoing effects of racism and slavery in the U.S. — which is essentially the same thing.

Inclusion in textbooks: History curriculum, books were written by and for white people. What about kids of color?

Contact Erin Richards at (414) 207-3145 or erin.richards@usatoday.com. Follow her on Twitter at @emrichards.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: School boards ask FBI to fight 'terrorism' over masks, race theory