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?

Change Is Overdue

Tonight I spoke once again at a Geneva School Board Meeting, imploring the Board to address the current racist bullying at the Geneva Middle School with meaningful policies and staff development. It brought back the bullying our younger son endured in the 1980s. It brought back the tragic 2010 suicide of a Geneva student bullied for his sexual orientation and gender identity. I spoke to the Board then, too. Their response: one evening speaker for the community and one session of training for a handful of educators.

Change does not happen with one-off efforts. It requires a sustained, ongoing commitment to training and a clear vision of values. Staff need to practice effective interventions before they’re needed. Research shows that students must feel safe to learn. The primary job of the school Board is to ensure that all students have the best learning opportunity possible. That means that they need to make sure all students are safe to learn.

Students need to learn that bullying and racism are not acceptable, and that there are clear and established consequences for those who persist anyway. Students, too, need to learn how to speak up. Role-playing with trainers can make a huge difference.

Yet here we are again. The mother of one of a Geneva student has told the Board how he has been bullied and subjected to racial epithets. Our Superintendent claims that the Board does not tolerate such behavior, but his words are empty without meaningful actions to accompany them. Surely the last year has laid bare the systemic racism that supports this bullying, yet it appears that little has been done. Once again, I find myself imploring the Geneva School Board to honor their commitment to all of their students by providing meaningful training about implicit bias and about how to intervene effectively. I am asking what their process and protocols are to address bullying and how they might improve them. Every school district needs to take a clear stand against bullying and against racism. Every district needs a clear policy that is enforceable and enforced, that provides safety for students and consequences for bullies who won’t reform their ways. And every educator needs to learn how to pay attention to the signs of bullying and how to intervene effectively, instead of ignoring the issue or making things worse.

Geneva schools served my older son – and no doubt most of their students – well. After more than thirty-five years, though, we don’t see much progress for students who are bullied. That progress is long overdue. The School Board needs to take meaningful and effective action now. We all will be watching.