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Education

Florida school boards are under fire over COVID, race policies. Where conservatives see free speech, others see threats and harassment

 A classroom with desks, chairs on top
A classroom with desks, chairs on top

The federal government recently announced it would investigate threats against local school board members. The announcement comes amid growing acrimony between parental groups and public school leaders over issues like face masks and critical race theory. Yet, where some see a threat—others see an exercise of free speech.

The federal government recently announced it would investigate threats against local school board members. The announcement comes amid growing acrimony between parental groups and public school leaders over issues like face masks and critical race theory. It’s part of broader social issues—the coronavirus pandemic and social justice efforts. Yet, where some see a threat—others see an exercise of free speech.

In recent months, as the public discourse over issues like social justice, race, and the pandemic has deteriorated, so have local school board meetings. In school districts with mask mandates, the climate has been downright hostile.

“It feels like we’re just under constant attack," said Leon Superintendent Rocky Hanna.

According to WUSF Public Media in Tampa, Sarasota School Board Chairwoman Shirley Brown said she recently had more than a dozen people show up at her house, carrying signs calling her a tyrant, and yelling at her through a bull horn to resign.

"I'm not sure if it was the Proud Boys, but the boy with the -- the man with the speaker at my house last night, he had a Proud Boys T-shirt on. And I know they stormed the Capitol with guns. I don't know what they are going to do here," said Brown.

That sort of action—showing up to people's houses— toes the line, said Florida School Board Association Executive Director Andrea Messina.

“When it crosses the line is when it moves beyond speech on an issue or topic related to education, and instead, it focuses on a person," she said.

Messina started teaching in 1987 and says she's never seen the education climate this bad.

"I’ve spoken to people who’ve been in education two, to three times longer than I have [and] they’ve never seen the climate like this.  I’ve heard someone liken it to the last time they saw this level in intensity and emotion, was when schools were [de] segregated.”    

Schools were largely desegregated in the 1960s. As for what’s driving today’s fury? Messina can’t say for sure. But she has her own theories. During Florida’s 2004-05 storm season, Hurricane Ivan hit Charlotte County hard. Messina was living there at the time. Businesses and homes were destroyed and the district lost a third of its public schools. Grief counselors were brought in to help.

"[And] one of the things they told us was…on the backside of grief, is anger. That those educators needed to be prepared for people to lash out in anger because they had no other way to express it. So when you ask about COVID, I think there’s an element of that. 

The U.S. Department of Justice announced on October 4th that it would be convening a meeting of federal and local law enforcement agencies to come up with ways to address a rise in criminal conduct—including threats, harassment, and intimidation—aimed at local school board members. The announcement drew a rebuke from conservatives like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran says the DOJ memo treads “dangerously close to the constitutional right to free speech, if not trampling on it.”

“We will not be strong-armed or allow others to be," Corcoran told the State Board of Education. "Should the federal government's efforts even stray slightly from justice, they should prepare for a swift and zealous response.”

The school boards are hoping people will begin to calm down.

“I’ll borrow some of Richard Corcoran’s words," said Messina. "We need to give each other grace and space."

Leon’s Hanna has taken most of the verbal abuse leveled at his district. Leon is one of six school districts suing to overturn the state’s ban on their mandatory mask policies.

“There are those haters out there that cuss me and my wife out in the parking lot at the grocery store. But the vast majority of people in our community, I think they’re appreciative of our approach. I really do.”

Educators have long asked for more public input. Now they’re getting it. Just not exactly in the way they may have wanted.

Copyright 2021 WFSU. To see more, visit WFSU.

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