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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

School board fights drown healthy debate

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland sent a memo

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland sent a memo to the FBI, U.S. attorneys and state attorneys general asking them to discuss strategies to combat threats of violence against school workers and school board members. Credit: Getty Images/Alex Wong

School boards have become the latest political battleground in America, with passions running so high that this week Attorney General Merrick Garland sent a memo to the FBI, U.S. attorneys and state attorneys general asking them to discuss strategies to combat threats of violence against school workers and school board members.

Activist parents, mainly conservatives, see this as an attempt to intimidate dissenters and stifle democracy, while their opponents say the real intimidation comes from right-wing extremists.

School board meetings on Long Island have been disrupted by unruly behavior to such an extent that Suffolk County police increased patrols at school board meetings. Board members have complained of harassing emails. Some districts are reverting to COVID-era virtual gatherings to tone down the temperature.

School board battles are mainly about two things: COVID-19-related masking and vaccination policies and curricula related to anti-racism, racial equity and cultural diversity. It’s hard to say which of these are more divisive.

As is often the case in culture-war battles, there are valid claims on all sides. Critics of anti-racist education raise legitimate points about approaches that can polarize rather than enlighten — for instance, lessons and reading materials that offer a simplistic analysis of complex issues such as race and police violence and that inculcate personal guilt about crudely defined "privilege." The affirmation of students’ racial, linguistic and cultural identities, a part of the New York State Board of Regents’ recent guidance for educators, can easily turn into a focus on labels rather than individuals.

But school board rebellions have also targeted the simple teaching of harsh truths about the history of race in America — including the story of Ruby Bridges, the Black girl in New Orleans who became a school-integration pioneer at the age of six in 1960 and was harassed by a racist mob.

COVID-19 policies are also a legitimate subject of debate, including questions about the efficacy of masks and COVID-19 vaccination for younger children. But healthy debate is easily drowned out by hysteria that likens masking and vaccine mandates to Nazi and Communist tyrannies.

In Arizona, a father upset that his daughter was missing out on a school trip because of a COVID-19 quarantine showed up at the school with zip ties with apparent intent to arrest the principal.

The National School Boards Association, which recently sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking that federal anti-terrorism laws be used to address threats of violence against school workers and officials, says such behavior should be seen as "equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes."

Conservative groups have denounced the letter as an attempt to equate dissenting parents with terrorists. In fact, the letter and the Garland memo target harassment and threats, not dissent. And yet critics may be right that federal involvement at this point is an unnecessary escalation. The incidents cited in the school boards association letter, for instance, are mostly about obnoxious and even repugnant behavior — e.g., the heckling of a boy who spoke at a Virginia school board meeting about his grandmother’s death from COVID-19 — rather than violence or even violent threats.

Concerns about extremism on the right are certainly warranted, and the involvement of fringe groups like the QAnon conspiracy cult in school board conflicts bears watching. But rude emails to school board officials and school administrators should not be criminalized, and the phrase "domestic terrorism" should not be used lightly.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a contributing editor at Reason magazine, are her own.