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Justice Department to Combat Spike in Intimidation, Violent Threats Against School Leaders As Culture War Rages

By Mark Keierleber | October 5, 2021

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Attorney General Merrick Garland has directed the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to combat what officials called a spike in harassment, intimidation and violent threats against education leaders as communities clash over schools’ pandemic response and lessons about systemic racism.

“Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values,” Garland wrote in a media release Monday. “Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.”

The move comes less than a week after the 90,000-member National School Boards Association urged the Biden administration to act swiftly to protect public school leaders who face “an immediate threat” of violence as school board meetings nationwide grow increasingly volatile. The group cited more than 20 instances of threats, harassment and intimidation during board meetings in recent months amid tension over mask mandates and classroom instruction on critical race theory. The school board group referred to the violent threats as “domestic terrorism.”

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In a memorandum, Garland called on the federal agencies to meet with local law enforcement in the next month to create a plan to combat the “disturbing spike.” The Justice Department also announced plans to create a new task force focused on prosecuting people who threaten school leaders. The task force will include the FBI and the Justice Department’s criminal, security and civil rights divisions.

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Officials also said they would create training resources that help school boards and administrators understand behaviors that constitute threats, how to report dangerous conduct to police and how to preserve relevant evidence.

Chip Slavin, the school board group’s interim executive director, said in a media release that the Justice Department’s response sent “a strong message to individuals with violent intent who are focused on causing chaos, disrupting our public schools and driving wedges between school boards and the parents, students and communities they serve.”

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In one recent incident, police arrested an Illinois man for allegedly hitting a school official as he was being escorted out of a board meeting and, in another, an Ohio school board member received a letter in the mail warning “we are coming after you,” threatening that she would “pay dearly” for requiring students to wear masks on campus. While some speakers have used board meetings to spread conspiracy theories and hate speech, other critics who frequently clash with their school boards offered sharp rebukes to the national association’s assertion that their actions constitute “domestic terrorism.” Among them is activist and former Wall Street Journal reporter Asra Nomani, who tweeted that the school board group should apologize to parents.

Conservative lawmakers and activists, including Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, were quick to accuse officials of trampling on the free speech rights of parents who speak up at school board meetings. On Twitter, Gaetz accused the Biden administration of using “federal law enforcement to punish dissent from the ruling class.”

Read the Justice Department memo here:

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