Education Reform

Anya Kamenetz: School Board Madness About Masks, Vaccines, and Race

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Anya Kamenetz of NPR describes the chaos and rage enveloping many school boards as they are besieged by angry protestors. The protestors may represent a small minority of parents but their intimidating presence at school board meetings gives them an outsized voice. It’s actually astonishing that parents would shout and organize protests against public health measures meant to protect their children, family, and community.

The Poway Unified School District, in San Diego County, Calif., was planning a pretty typical school board meeting in September. They were hearing reports from their student representatives and honoring their teachers and other staff members of the year.

Because of the pandemic, the general public has been asked to join and comment via livestream.

That hasn’t stopped protesters from showing up in person.

“In the August meeting, they were pounding on the windows,” said board member Darshana Patel. “So little by little it’s been escalating — they’ve been antsy and escalating their hostility and aggression toward the board.”

In several states and districts around the country, protestors have been disrupting school board meetings. They’re opposed to mask policies. Vaccine mandates. LGBTQ rights. Sex education. Removing police from schools. Teaching about race and American history, or sometimes, anything called “diversity, equity and inclusion” or even “social-emotional learning.”

She wrote about the letter sent by the National School Boards Association to Attorney General Merrick Garland, asking for federal help to protect school boards. She wrote her story before the NSBA withdrew its letter and apologized for sending it, after several red-state associations resigned their membership or threatened to.

She continues:

What happened — what is happening — in Poway is not an isolated incident, but it may take the cake for being “surreal,” as Patel puts it.

At the board’s Sept. 9 meeting, some protesters followed behind a visitor and got inside the building. Patel and her fellow board members decided that the best way to de-escalate the situation was to immediately adjourn the meeting.

What happened next is documented in an elaborately shot and edited video posted to YouTube:

“So we are the people,” says a man in a black baseball cap and black T-shirt. “So we can go ahead and replace the board. Let’s take a vote. Who’s willing to become the president?”

Another man steps up, wearing a T-shirt that says “Let Them Breathe,” with a yellow smiley face on it.

He gives his name as Derek Greco. The protestors vote, “Aye!” to make him the new “school board president.”

Later that night, Greco, who could not be reached for comment, posted a video to Instagram. In it, he’s breathless and sweaty. “The board vacated their seats tonight. So we then brought in a constitutionalist and we held a quorum and we voted in a new board,” he says. “You are looking at the new president of the Poway Unified School District, apparently.”

“Constitutionalism” is a far-right ideology that means, in essence, that people don’t have to recognize any laws or authorities that they don’t like beyond the Constitution itself. The video continues at a local restaurant, where Greco and some of the others who had just declared themselves the new school board explain that they then “voted” to remove Critical Race Theory from the school — though it is not being taught — and to stop requiring masks. Later, Greco and four others filed notarized oaths of office with the San Diego County Clerk.

Tools and tactics for disrupting school boards

The “election” by those protestors on Sept. 9 was in no way legitimate, county officials say, and the properly elected school board continues to run the district.

Melissa Ryan founded the consulting firm CARD Strategies, which tracks right-wing extremism. She says this kind of activity usually begins with real anger — in this case, on the part of parents, at COVID school shutdowns and restrictions like masks. But it’s not entirely grassroots and spontaneous. “The flames are being fanned by national money and resources,” she says. “It’s basically the same groups and funders that were funding the Tea Party and frankly, it’s the same tactics.”

Kamenetz names some of those groups funding the protests:

  • The Manhattan Institute, one of the most established conservative think tanks, published “Woke Schooling: A Toolkit For Concerned Parents” in June.
  • Citizens Renewing America, founded by President Trump’s former budget director Russell Vought, published a 34-page guide for activists also in June, dedicated to “combating critical race theory in your community.” The toolkit states the following: “CRT holds that racism is not just a belief held by individuals; rather, it is a system of oppression that has been built into the very structure of our society.”
  • Parents Defending Education, founded earlier this year, provides resources to activists, pursues litigation, and publishes “incident reports” on districts around the country. President Nicole Neily previously worked at the libertarian Cato Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum, another conservative group that has produced a template letter for activists challenging school mask mandates.
  • Turning Point USA, a group closely allied with Trump through its leader, Charlie Kirk, started School Board Watchlist, a website with the names and photographs of school board members around the country. They say they are “America’s only national grassroots initiative dedicated to protecting our children by exposing radical and false ideologies endorsed by school boards and pushed in the classroom.” School districts are called out for requiring masks and promoting “cultural literacy and sensitivity.”
  • The Proud Boys, which the Southern Poverty Law Center calls an extremist hate group, has taken part in school board protests in several states.
  • The 1776 Project is a political action committee backing school board candidates nationwide who oppose antiracist curricula. They raised nearly $300,000 in the quarter ending Sept. 30, according to FEC filings.
  • PragerU is a nonprofit media company founded by the conservative radio host Dennis Prager. Last year they started an online community aimed at parents and teachers that claims 20,000 members. There are videos and books for children promoting a patriotic vision of American history and conservative heroes like Condoleezza Rice, alongside a “Parent Action Guide” for parents who want certain materials removed from classrooms, and a video documentary for parents about “the battle happening right now for the minds of our children.”

Yet another group that promotes anti-masking protests is called “Let Them Breathe,” founded by Sharon McKeeman, a California mother of four. She has raised nearly $200,000 selling smiley-face T-shirts with the logo, ”Let Them Breathe.” Or ”My Body My Choice.” (This T-shirt might also be sold at pro-abortion rallies, but that’s not what McKeeman has in mind.)

Public radio station KPBS wrote about McKeeman here. in addition to fighting masks, she is also fighting mask mandates.

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