Attorney General Merrick Garland’s issuance of a memorandum using the authority of the Patriot Act to direct the federal government’s counterterrorism agents to monitor parental conduct at school board meetings is more than a tad chilly.
Intimidating anyone is never OK.
Threatening them with physical violence is unacceptable and, given the context, can be illegal as well.
However, intimidating school board members shouldn’t be a federal case except perhaps for extreme instances.
There is little doubt the conduct of some parents during school board meetings especially regarding the issue of face mask mandates often veers into the irreprehensible even by the vulgar standards that pass today as political discourse.
Elevating it to the level of domestic terrorism, though, smacks of political repression.
Again, it is clear that physical confrontations and some outlandish threats are clearly a crime and should be addressed. That is why we have local law enforcement.
What we are seeing, though, is essentially a knee jerk reaction by the nation’s top law enforcement officer to the knee jerk reactions of a few parents.
The knee jerk reactions of those parents, even if they happen in Timbuctoo, are amplified beyond reason by social media, cable TV news and bloggers who have no idea Timbuctoo is in Nevada County let alone Nevada County is in California.
Although I can’t speak for local school board members across this country that have had the unpleasant experience of angry parents shouting them down about mask mandates at board meetings, I’ve been in their shoes.
I was a Western Placer Unified school board member from 1975 through 1983.
And I faced a packed cafeteria of parents angry over a school mandate involving, ironically what students had to wear.
It wasn’t face masks but how they were allowed to wear pants and dresses as well as the length of their hair if they happened to be male.
I was 19 at the time and a year out of high school. Given the board chairman had to work, as vice chairman I got to run the special meeting with more than 250 people in attendance, a small crowd outside, and crews from two Sacramento TV stations.
The issue was whether girls should be allowed to wear spaghetti strap dresses and designer overalls to school and if boys could have hair touching their collar.
In retrospect it seems like “Ozzie & Harriet” stuff today compared to the edgy debate it was at the time. Most large city schools by 1975 had moved beyond dress codes that required administrators and teachers to micromanage on an intense scale. That wasn’t true of smaller towns.
For the record, I wasn’t for a nay or yea on what students had proposed that the district administration batted down and subsequently led to an upheaval in the community. Instead I was pushing for a basic health and safety dress code with on-site administrators empowered to say what was allowed beyond that.
My rationale was simple. The board was wasting a lot of time and energy every year on student requests to change the dress code. We also hired principals to run schools who should be able to make decisions regarding fashion changes and whether they were a distraction and/or a safety hazard in a learning environment we entrusted them to maintain.
There was one other board member that agreed with me. It was Lee Springer who happened to be an elementary principal in the neighboring Wheatland School District.
A lot of passionate people spoke that day, including a few that were belligerent with staff and board members who disagreed with the viewpoints they were espousing. Keeping things civil was a challenge.
There came a point when I spoke not simply to keep order and move the meeting forward but during the board discussion to advocate my solution.
I was speaking for perhaps 30 seconds when one lady jumped up, stepped into the line of the TV camera lenses, clicked her heels together, turned and looked directly at me, hoisted her arm up in the Nazi salute and literally shouted, “Seig Heil!”
I was told my expression on the 11 o’clock news was priceless.
After the meeting I sought out the lady. I asked her what I did to deserve being compared to Hitler. She told me the remark wasn’t directed at me but the speaker who had spoken before me adding that it took her a bit to come up with how to respond to him.
People in passionate situations often say things that are incredibly stupid and aren’t even aimed at the target of their frustrations.
As far as being threatened, there was one incident I wasn’t even aware of until it was addressed.
It involved someone angry that didn’t like the fact I led a successful effort on the board to terminate the superintendent.
They made angry remarks in a gathering of three people. It involved making a comment about a gun and getting justice.
I heard about it after Lincoln Police Sgt. Bob Barroso was told of the comments by an individual who heard it. The sergeant then went and talked to the man who made the comments.
Sgt. Barroso, based on a number of factors, determined it wasn’t what today we’d call a credible threat. The sergeant ascertained the guy was simply letting off steam, and had expressed remorse about what he had said.
After that, Barroso contacted me and apprised me of the situation. I’m not going to lie. It unnerved me at first. But over time when my path crossed that of the man who made threatening remarks in anger and frustration our interactions were cordial and devoid of malice.
I know is sounds kind of Pollyanna especially given how social media zealots today won’t let anything rest, but sometimes our reaction to an overreaction is to up the ante and to overreact as well.
Threats that are serious and credible should be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law.
But even then it doesn’t raise it to the level of a federal crime.
We need to entrust local law enforcement to do its job. It is not wise to equate every loose cannon that spews words in anger in the public square to the federal equivalent of terrorists commandeering jetliners and flying them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center.