DeSantis squares off against feds over potential threats to school officials

By: - October 20, 2021 5:18 pm

Gov. Ron DeSantis responds to U.S. Department of Justice addressing threats against local school board members. Oct. 20, 2021. Screenshot/Florida Channel

A couple weeks ago, the National School Boards Association sent a letter to President Joe Biden asking for help in dealing with “the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation” against local school board members.

“School board meetings have been disrupted in California, Florida, Georgia and other states because of local directives for mask coverings to protect students and educators from COVID-19,” the letter said.

A few days later in an Oct. 4 memo, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the FBI, working with U.S. Attorneys, to convene meetings within 30 days with federal, state and local officials and tribal leaders to “facilitate the discussion of strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff…” among other measures.

Since then, it’s not clear, or it hasn’t made public, what has transpired on Florida’s front between federal, state and local agencies related to incidents involving local school officials.

But Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis essentially responded to the U.S. Department of Justice, by saying that local law enforcement in Florida can handle any disorder among school boards.

“We’re here because, up and down the state, law enforcement has been united to say: ‘We don’t need federal agents coming in to do this.’ It’s designed to intimidate,” DeSantis said at a news conference Wednesday in Brevard County. “It’s designed to squelch dissent. And that is not an appropriate use of federal law enforcement. They (local law enforcement) will do the job that they are commissioned to do here, locally.”

Over the past few months, local school board meetings across the nation, including in Florida, have become lively and sometimes disorderly events, as some parents and others oppose mask mandates and other concerns.

The National School Boards Association’s letter highlights a few examples from across the nation. For example:

“An individual was arrested in Illinois for aggravated battery and disorderly conduct during a school board meeting.”

Another example from the letter: “In Ohio, an individual mailed a letter to a school board member labeling the return address on the envelope from a local neighborhood association and then enclosing threatening hate mail from another entity. This correspondence states that, ‘We are coming after you and all the members on the … BoE [Board of Education].’ This hate mail continues by stating, ‘You are forcing them to wear mask—for no reason in this world other than control. And for that you will pay dearly.'”

Even Florida school boards have had similar experiences.

In August, Sarasota County School Board Chair Shirley Brown called a recess at the board meeting five times to calm a rambunctious crowd, the Phoenix previously reported.

On Oct. 5, after the NSBA’s letter was sent, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that about a dozen protesters gathered at Brown’s house with sirens and bullhorns, calling her a “tyrant.”

The crowd dispersed once law enforcement arrived, according to the Herald-Tribune.

At the DeSantis news conference Wednesday, the Brevard Sheriff Wayne Ivey spoke, saying that he’s told his officers that they are not the mask police.

Russell Bruhn, communications staffer with the Brevard County School District, said that while school board members have faced more harassment since about the summer, local law enforcement have been helpful.

“The school district, and the people in this building and the people that work in our schools, think we have a really good relationship with our law enforcement partners,” Bruhn told the Phoenix.

“So from the school district’s point of view, we have a very solid relationship.”

DeSantis, at the news conference, Wednesday, said, “If ever at any that debate (during school board meetings) crosses into something that’s not peaceful, we have law enforcement here, who maintain order. And they do that every single day in a variety of capacities. And they absolutely will do it if need be, in those situations,”

“There’s never been any discussion, or never been any instance, in which a sheriff… has not been willing to maintain order in their communities,” DeSantis said.

“Nevertheless, the Department of Justice recently said they need to mobilize the FBI to be able to target, effectively, parents who are very concerned about some of the things that are going on in some of these school districts.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University. She has served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine and Rowland Publishing. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat.