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Long: Civility is needed at local school board meetings, but not imposed by the feds

Long: Civility is needed at local school board meetings, but not imposed by the feds

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Former governor Terry McAuliffe, currently running for a second term, created a stir in the recent gubernatorial debate when he opined that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” It was part of a longer off-the-cuff statement, not necessarily a proclamation of inviolable education policy. So I’ll credit McAuliffe with common sense enough to assume he didn’t mean it in any absolute sense, that parents should always keep their mouths shut when it comes to their kids’ schools. Still, I bet he regrets uttering the words.

Whether he likes it or not, his statement seemed to reinforce, in the eyes of some political opponents, an aura of arrogant elitism often assumed on the part of politicians. As I write this the race is close and either candidate could win. Should McAuliffe lose, I’m guessing that injudicious statement will be a big part of the explanation.

More concerning to me, though, was the recent memorandum issued by the U.S. Justice Department concerning school boards and threats that have been allegedly made against members across the nation. The memo was issued in response to school board meetings, some here in Virginia, which have indeed gotten unruly and even unnecessarily ugly. Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Oct. 4 announcement acknowledged that “spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution,” but also added that “that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views.” He went on to say that his department “is committed to using its authority and resources to discourage these threats, identify them when they occur, and prosecute them when appropriate.”

Now, to a point, most everyone agrees with the statement. Making threats against public officials is and should be illegal. But efforts “to intimidate individuals based on their views” strikes me as disturbingly vague, coming from an agency with armed officers and legions of lawyers. Can a parent tell an elected school board member that they will work to defeat him in the next election? Can a board, faced with a roomful of angry parents murmuring, claim to feel intimidated and call for federal security? Can mere dissent from board policy be deemed intimidation? Should we read the memo itself as veiled intimidation?

Garland would certainly deny that such things are intended, but I’ve read and heard a lot of opposition to this memo and the implied threat of the federal government policing local school board meetings. Does security at a local school board hearing really need to be a federal matter?

Interestingly, one group who would seem to answer no is the Virginia School Boards Association.

On Sept. 29, the National School Boards Association, based in Alexandria, released a letter to President Joe Biden calling for federal law enforcement to help deal with “the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation occurring across the nation.” (It’s not clear to me the extent to which Garland’s memo was in response to this letter.)

But a few days later, Oct. 6, VSBA issued its own dissenting letter to the president. Pointing out that, while a member of the national association, VSBA was not consulted on the letter to Biden, the group did not concur with the call for federal action. Eloquently, VSBA stated “Those citizens who serve on Virginia’s local school boards deserve our thanks. There is no justification for physical or verbal threats directed against them, their staff and certainly not the students. Nor is there any excuse for disrupting a public meeting. When such unfortunate events occur, the local officials, working with local law enforcement, must deal with the situation appropriately. While we look for support to our state and federal governments, we do not seek the involvement of federal law enforcement or other officials in local decisions.”

I also thought of McAuliffe’s statement above when the letter noted that “local boards in Virginia work very hard to listen to parents and other members of the community and to work as a collaborative team for the safety and achievement of all students.”

In these challenging times when debates about COVID policies and controversial curriculum are inevitable, showing courtesy, respect and decorum are even more important. But I agree with VSBA that involving the federal government in such local affairs is unnecessary, unwelcome, and potentially burdensome. I’ve heard little discussion in the news about VSBA’s letter. Perhaps all candidates for statewide office could issue statements clarifying their positions on this matter.

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