Attacks on School Boards

Several dozen crowd the lobby of the Vail Education Center and begin “electing” their own board of governors after the Vail School District governing board meeting was shut down before it could begin, Tucson, Ariz., April 27, 2021.Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

School Boards are under assault. Opponents argue against the teaching of critical race theory; they rally against mask and vaccine mandates even as Delta causes another surge and children remain hospitalized with Covid in record numbers.

In many states, including my own state of Illinois, school board members remain unpaid volunteers who generously give their time and expertise. But the polarization of our country and this ongoing lack of civility now plague their meetings.

A friend who is a school board member in a nearby town says, “This is a really tough time for everybody. There’s a lot of fear and anger and misinformation, so governing is really hard. I’m trying to be a good listener, and I’ve reached out to people I don’t agree with so we can have a dialogue. The compassion between people is completely gone. We’ve put everybody into boxes and we assume a lot.”

This summer Pam Lindbergh, a school board member for six years in Robbinsdale, Minnesota, resigned her position, saying, “I will not continue to accept that hateful and disrespectful behavior with my service to the community … The hate is too much. I no longer feel respected nor effective.” [Sun Sailor] Suspending the public comment portion of school board meetings, the Carmel Clay, Indiana, schools “sent an Aug. 18 email to parents that stated the new measures are in response to disruptions, verbal attacks, intimidation, inappropriate behavior and the presence of a firearm by an attendee at recent school board meetings” [youarecurrent.com].

Tulsa, Oklahoma, is concerned enough to have developed a specific policy: “The individual dignity of board members, district employees, students, and members of the public must be respected by all speakers. Board members, employees, students, nor members of the public will be subjected to verbal abuse” [tulsaschoolboards.org]. Places as diverse as Vail, Colorado; Hartford County, Maryland; and the Louisiana State School Board have had to suspend meetings because of protesters’ behavior.

The New York Times takes a national perspective in “The School Culture Wars.” “In Williamson County, Tennessee, protesters outside a packed, hours-long school board meeting last week shouted, ‘No more masks, no more masks.’” The decision of the Loudon County, Virginia, school board to allow transgender students to join sports that match their gender identity and to have chosen pronouns honored “brought raucous crowds to school board meetings this summer, culminating last week with dueling parking lot rallies.” A Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, parent yelled at the school board about critical race theory so viciously that the school board president took the parent’s microphone away and had her escorted from the lectern [nytimes.com].

“‘The water pressure is higher than it has ever been and there are more leaks than I have fingers,’ said Kevin Boyles, a school board official in Brainerd, Minn., who said he recently received 80 emails in three days about face masks. He described being followed to his car and called ‘evil’ after a board meeting where he supported a commitment to equity. Another time, a man speaking to the board about race quoted the Bible and said he would ‘dump hot coals on all your heads’” [Ibid.].

The article reminds us that schools, already hampered by the pandemic’s forcing closures and virtual learning, are trying to reopen just as the Delta surge becomes a serious threat. School officials should be focused on keeping students safe, improving their mental health, and making up academic gaps. “But at this critical moment, many school officials find themselves engulfed in highly partisan battles, which often have distracted from the most urgent issues. The tense environment comes amid a growing movement to recall school board officials, over everything from teachings on race to school closures. Nationwide, there have been at least 58 recall efforts targeting more than 140 officials this year, more than the previous two years combined, according to Ballotpedia” [Ibid.].

The Times article offers some perspective, reminding readers about the 1920s pushback over the teaching of evolution and the 1950s fights over school desegregation. “’Schools are particularly fraught spaces because they represent a potential challenge to the family and the authority of parents,’ said Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an associate professor of history at the New School in New York City [Ibid.].

This time feels different, though, as politicians and political groups stoke these divides. “The two biggest divides in schools today are also highly volatile because they challenge fundamental narratives of what it means to be an American. The debate over mask mandates puts two values into conflict, collective responsibility versus personal liberty. And an examination of the country’s history of racism challenges cherished ideas about America’s founding” [Ibid.]. Any internet search turns up these conflicts around the country.

This situation is not sustainable. School officials and educators are distracted from urgent decisions and actions. They are resigning after being attacked personally. Who will run our schools if this trend continues?

The Youth Are Our Teachers

Yesterday two fierce, intelligent, courageous young women reinforced my belief that we adults can learn from youth. My teaching memoir, Tales Told out of School: Lessons Learned by the Teacher (due out next year), tells the stories of my learning from my students. Yesterday two 2020 graduates of a nearby high school in a very white community organized a Black Lives Matter rally. They faced opposition; indeed, the original site was changed after the homeowners of the subdivision where the public park is located lodged such vigorous protest.

Bethany Duffey and Izzy Mohatt brought together a diverse group of people and wonderful speakers to help us all learn. My heart broke listening to Marcia Lane-McGee’s description of her experiences as a black student in a white Catholic school. She resurrected painful memories for me. My first teaching job was in a white, working-class Catholic school in Madison, WI, which took in expelled students from the public schools. One of my students was a year older, two heads taller, and infinitely blacker than her classmates. Though she responded well to my encouragement and pulled her grade up to a C, the principal lowered it to a D because, in her eyes, my student couldn’t possibly have done that well. Impotent to change her mind or protect my student, I was grateful to be leaving the school. I knew her action was wrong. Listeners yesterday knew that Lane-McGee’s being ostracized for the color of her skin was wrong.

18-year old Isabella Irish, whose organization of a Black Lives Matter rally in nearby Batavia inspired the Elburn organizers, said “Black power is giving power to people who have not had power to determine their destiny. In today’s America, African-Americans don’t need to be accused of a capital offense to be discriminated against and murdered.”

I have been aware of my white privilege for decades. Doing my high school research paper on James Baldwin’s writing fifty-five years ago first opened my eyes to the world beyond my white suburban community.  Reading Robin D’Angelo’s White Fragility last year with a group of fellow activists had pushed me to want to do more. But I still hadn’t found my voice until the murder of George Floyd. I wrote a letter to the editor of our local and regional papers. Our group met last Saturday to develop an action plan, and each of us is taking ownership of specific steps.

But these young people didn’t wait on us. They saw injustice and stepped up. I am humbled and inspired. And I am grateful to them, not just because they generated a rally with enough space and social distance for us to feel safe to go despite the pandemic. I am grateful because they remind me, at a time when our country feels torn asunder, that young people like them can lead us from darkness into real, systemic change.