John Wilson, who opposes mask mandates, shouts at Sarasota County School Board chair and former state Rep. Shirley Brown (standing), who called a recess to clear the room of hecklers. Screenshot: Sarasota County School Education Channel
At least five local school board members in Florida have experienced verbal abuse, vandalism, and other forms of intimidation as tensions rise over mask mandates and control over public schools during the pandemic.
Four of the board members participated in a Monday Zoom conference hosted by Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. She also is a gubernatorial candidate for 2022.
“I’ve personally had some threatening texts from people that I didn’t know had my cell phone number…and I turned that over to law enforcement,” Jane Goodwin, a Sarasota County School Board member, said during the Zoom press conference.
Also, on Oct. 5, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that about a dozen protesters gathered at Sarasota Board chair Shirley Brown’s house with sirens and bullhorns, calling her a “tyrant.”
The crowd dispersed once law enforcement arrived, according to the Herald-Tribune. Brown was not on the Monday’s Zoom call. Florida has 67 school districts.
Seminole County School Board member Kristine Kraus, on the Zoom call, said that she had been called “a satanic worshiper.” Broward County School Board member Sarah Leonardi said she’s been called a “bimbo b…ch.” Both have been called Marxists.
Over the past few months, local school board meetings across the nation, including in Florida, have become sometimes disorderly and even frightening events, as some parents and others oppose mask mandates and other concerns.
“When these behaviors are ignored, when there’s no accountability for these actions, they become normalized and acceptable, and they get reinforced,” Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins said during the Zoom meeting.
Jenkins, from Brevard County, outlined some of her experiences with the Washington Post in an opinion piece last week, where she described protesters gathering in front of her house to call her a pedophile and burning “FU” on her yard with weed killer.
In her Post column, she opens with her experience of being investigated by a state agency.
“My 5-year-old daughter was on a play date last month when an investigator from the Florida Department of Children and Families sat at my kitchen table to question me about how I disciplined her, then accompanied me to the play date to check for nonexistent burn marks beneath her clothes,” Jennifer Jenkins wrote for the national news outlet on Oct. 20. “Someone had falsely reported that I abused my child. The report was quickly dismissed, but this was the low point in the short time I have been a Brevard County School Board member.”
Meanwhile, the National School Boards Association on Friday says that they “regret and apologize” for a letter sent to the Biden administration about threats to school board members, saying that there was “no justification for some of the language included in the letter.”
The original letter, sent to President Joe Biden in late September, has caused a stir.
The NSBA asked Biden for help in dealing with “the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation” against local school board members, and outlined instances of harassment to local education officials throughout the United States.
“As these acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes,” the letter reads. This line has become a point of contention among critics.
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.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis mentioned the September letter in a press conference last week saying that the NSBA likened concerned parents to “domestic terrorists.”
“That is in the letter… they actually used that term to focus on these parents,” DeSantis said at press conference last week. At the time, DeSantis was rejecting the idea that the federal government needed to get involved, though it was not clear from DeSantis’ remarks if there have been communications yet between state and federal officials.
The Friday memo from NSBA apologizing for the September letter did not say which parts of the original letter warranted an apology.
“To be clear, the safety of school board members, other public school officials and educators, and students is our top priority, and there remains important work to be done of this issue,” the Friday apology said.
It continued: “…we deeply value not only the work of local school boards that make important contributions within our communities, but also the voices of parents, who should and must continue to be heard when it comes to decisions about their children’s education, health, and safety. ”
Responding to a question from a reporter during the Monday Zoom conference, Commissioner Fried noted that school board members need to be protected.
“Somebody has got to protect these women and somebody needs to step up to the plate,” Commissioner Fried said at the Zoom meeting. “If it’s not going to be our local (law enforcement), if it’s not going to be the FDLE (Florida Department of Law Enforcement), then we have to go to the federal government for it.”
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