We all remember the schoolyard brawls of our childhoods: fights in the playground between students, often chalked up as a rite of passage by parents, teachers and school administrators. “Kids will be kids,” they said, tacitly condoning the behavior.
Now it’s the adults who are fighting. School board meetings around the country have been disrupted by angry parents whose grievances include everything from mask mandates and vaccine policy to curriculum matters.
Their tactics go beyond sign waving and shouting at meetings. While many parents are turning to social media to express their anger, others have gotten in the face of school board members — literally. Family members and neighbors have been intimidated, too.
In Brevard County, Fla., school board member Jennifer Jenkins recently shared her story, with reluctance. “I don’t reject people coming here and speaking their voice,” Jenkins said. “I reject them following my car around. I reject them saying that they’re coming for me, that I need to beg for mercy.” Jenkins’ daughter was examined by the Florida Department of Children and Families following a bogus abuse claim.
The National School Board Association, which represents more than 90,000 school board members, sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Sept. 29 that described the violence and threats against public school officials as a form of domestic terrorism, equivalent to hate crimes.
Attorney General Merrick Garland responded, instructing the FBI and U.S. Attorneys to meet in the next 30 days with federal, state and local enforcement agencies to discuss strategies to combat the troublesome situation. In a Department of Justice memo, Garland wrote that “while spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats or violence or efforts to intimate individuals based on their views.” The threats, he said, are illegal — and they run counter to our nation’s core values.
Garland’s actions have been maligned by some government officials, media outlets and educational organizations as an effort to intimidate concerned parents for their views. Asra Nomani, vice president of investigations and strategy at Parents Defending Education, accused the attorney general of “criminalizing parenting” and said that Garland owes the American people “a swift apology.”
Those are mighty strong words. Even still, I can’t help but wonder whether the federal government is indeed overreaching. There is nothing that feels more local than school board matters. And every parent has the right to voice their concerns about public schools.
Writer Ruben Navarrette has a different perspective. In a recent column that appeared in the Daily Beast, Navarrette justified DOJ involvement, citing three factors: the harassment and intimidation of elected officials, which erodes civil order; the displays of inappropriate behavior in inappropriate places, like outside the homes of school officials; and the origin of the request for help — in this case, the National School Board Association.
We can never equate spirited debate with threats of violence. The people who work in our schools, or help run them, shouldn’t have to worry about their personal safety.
I’m reminded of the “Code of Civil Discourse” that was created by the National Conflict Resolution Center in 2015 to guide communications by and between elected officials and community members. The code was formally adopted by the Del Mar and Chula Vista city governments. It was based on a belief we still hold dear: that differing viewpoints enrich political dialogue and move us toward solutions that meet the best interests of the community. Properly handled, conflict is a powerful catalyst for positive change.
The “Code of Civil Discourse” sets out communication guidelines that would be useful for school boards and their constituents. It affirms the right to freedom of expression — but within the parameters of courtesy, sensitivity and respect. The code asks elected officials and community members to:
- Explain their position and how they came to it, from a logical and ethical framework
- Ask questions to understand the position of others
- Avoid personal attacks and a condescending attitude
- Assume good faith on the part of all involved, even with differing viewpoints
- Keep an open mind about other perspectives
If we can’t find our way back to civil discourse, I worry: Who will fill the void and step up to serve as school board members? And for that matter, who will teach our children? We can’t hope to attract and retain the best and brightest teachers at schools where the culture is acrimonious and distrustful.
Nobody wins this schoolyard brawl — least of all, our students. It’s time to put our focus back where it belongs.
Dinkin is president of the National Conflict Resolution Center, a San Diego-based group working to create solutions to challenging issues, including intolerance and incivility. To learn about NCRC’s programming, visit ncrconline.com.