Sunday, December 5, 2021

“I don’t want to die for this”: Student Council Members Face Growing Threats

Just days after Sami Al-Abdrabbuh was re-elected to the school board in Corvallis, Oregon, text messages arrived.

The first, he said, was a photograph taken at a shooting range. It showed one of his campaign signs on the lawn, Re-elect Yourself, riddled with bullet holes.

The second was a warning from a friend. This one said that one of their neighbors was looking for Al-Abdrabba. The neighbor threatened to kill him.

Like many school board races this year, the May race in Corvallis, a left-leaning college town in the northwestern state, sparked a particular controversy, raising concerns not only over the coronavirus pandemic, but also teaching what Al-Abdrabbuh called The “dark history” of America’s struggle with race. Even months later, the chairman of the school council, Al-Abdrabbuh, is still taking precautions. He regularly communicates with the police and scans the driveway in the morning before walking to his car. He often confuses his daily route to work.

“I love working on the school board,” he said. “But I don’t want to die for this.”

Al-Abdrabbuh is not alone. Since the spring, a steady stream of school board members across the country have nervously reported on the threats they received from angry local parents. At first, the grievances were mainly related to concerns about how their children were being taught about race and racism. Parents are now more likely to be enraged over COVID-19 restrictions, such as the ban on the use of masks in classrooms.

It’s an echo of what happened when tea-drinking supporters stormed Obamacare town halls across the country more than a decade ago. In recent months, Nazis have been welcomed at school board meetings and threatened with rape emails. Obscenity was thrown – or burned out on people’s lawns with weed spray.

In one extreme case, in a suburb of San Diego, a group of people protesting against the ban on the use of masks disrupted a student council meeting in September. Through an unauthorized vote, they immediately established themselves as the new district board.

Although no serious violence has yet occurred, several people have been arrested on charges such as assault and hooliganism. The National School Boards Association compared some of these incidents to domestic terrorism, although the group ultimately retracted this claim after it sparked backlash from its member government organizations.

At the intersection of parenting and politics, local school boards have always been a place where passions run high and politics gets personal. Especially in the wake of the nationwide protests against the assassination of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many boards of directors have grappled with the question of how to incorporate the subject of race into their curricula.

Some protesters, who have sparked a buzz at school board meetings in recent months, defended themselves by saying they were simply exercising their First Amendment rights and that schools get better when parents are involved – arguments supported by Republicans in Congress and in the race for states.

The parents, who openly opposed the Corvallis School Board, said they were not aware of any threats against al-Abdrabbuh or other board members.

They said the threat of violence would be counterproductive to their cause because it would allow school officials to portray dissenting parents as hateful fanatics. However, they said their disappointment was legitimate and stemmed from a lack of transparency on the board.

“I would definitely say tensions are brewing, but I’m in the wrong place; It’s not my character, ”said Alisha Karlson, 36, a personal life instructor with two children at local schools, about the threats. “I am not going to personally attack or attack anyone, either verbally or physically. I don’t think this will lead to long-term and sustainable change. “

Becky Dubrasic, 41, an emergency room nurse with three children in the area, said she was so concerned about the requirement for advice on vaccinations that she sent emails to school authorities daily expressing her opposition.

“I don’t think they are accepting this or really listening to us,” said Dubrasic, who has joined an unofficial parenting group called Stand Together, Corvallis Parents, about the board. “They are unresponsive and opaque.” But, she added, “our group of 50 is very intelligent.”

Recognizing that parents have a right to be heard, al-Abdrabbuh and other school board members argued that the recent wave of threatening disruptions is different from the sometimes heated conversations that have long marked the relationship between school board officials seeking to set rules and people caring for their children.

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“What is happening now and what is happening,” Al-Abdrabbuh said, “is much more serious than just listening to excited parents who want the best for their children.”

The federal government appears to agree with this.

In early October, Attorney General Merrick Garland released a memo announcing that the Justice Department would respond to what he called “an alarming surge of harassment, intimidation and threats of violence” against school board members and administrators. In the memo, Garland ordered the FBI and federal prosecutors to work with local law enforcement to track threats against people working in the country’s 14,000 public school districts.

The memo said federal officials viewed the issue as the latest example of a worrying trend: ordinary people use threats of violence to express their policies. This summer, in an effort to tackle a similar problem, the Justice Department created a task force to stop attacks on election officials.

But the initiative of the School Council of the Ministry of Justice not only did not calm the situation, but was also perceived by the republican authorities as a political issue.

Republican attorneys general in 17 states have issued a memo of their own that describes a proposal to track threats against school officials as a threat per se. According to them, any problems that arise at school board meetings are best dealt with by local law enforcement, and the involvement of federal authorities can lead to “intimidation of parents so that they do not express fears about the education of their children.”

Republicans in both houses of Congress have also criticized Garland’s plans, accusing him of treating his parents like terrorists, even though his memo does not mention terrorism or parents.

However, those who were harassed and vandalized welcomed the Justice Department’s move. Jennifer Jenkins, a student council officer in Brevard County, Florida, said she has been intimidated for months since last year, when she removed her current student council member.

At first, Jenkins said, parents, outraged by the district’s policy on transgender toilets, began showing up at board meetings, waving Trump flags and calling their members “pedophiles.” But it soon escalated into groups of angry people shouting in the street outside her house.

Then in July, after the district enacted a mandate to use masks for students, the GOP posted Jenkins’ cell phone number on his Facebook page and her voicemail was filled with hate messages. Shortly thereafter, she said, someone burned the letters “FU” on her lawn with a weed killer and cut down bushes in front of her house.

“It’s all very, very crazy here,” she said. “It’s just that a whole different level of anger and anger flared up in our community.”

In California, school board members received so many threats that Vernon M. Billy, executive director of the State School Board Association, wrote a letter to Governor Gavin Newsome asking for help. He wrote that near Sacramento, a school board was forced to leave its ward after protesters reached out to board members.

Al-Abdrabbu’s chalkboard run in Corvallis this spring took place almost exactly one year after the pandemic and the nationwide calculation of race that rocked American politics. In online forums and debates, he said, he found himself championing vaccine efficacy, a curriculum that focuses on racial equality, and a policy that allows transgender students to participate in school sports.

His opponent, Bryce Cleary, a local physician, often complained that conservative voices were not heard by board members, some of whom he said were “promoting political agendas.” In one candidate forum, Cleary argued that Al-Abdrabbuh’s board spent more time on inclusion and diversity than on mathematics and science.

“The problem is that our schools are not doing what they are supposed to be doing,” Cleary said.

As for al-Abdrabbah, Cleary’s arguments were, as usual, political. However, as soon as the text messages arrived after the election, he said he realized that something much more serious was happening. Even now, he continues to hear stories from colleagues who are developing personal safety plans or installing security cameras in their homes.

“I tell myself that this is not really about me,” said al-Abdrabbuh. “It’s about what’s best for the kids.”

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