School board meetings across the country and in Orange County are becoming increasingly heated as debates rage on polarizing issues like mask mandates and ethnic studies courses.
These debates have gotten so intense that in September the National School Boards Association called on President Joe Biden to intervene with what they say is a “growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation” towards students, educators and school board members.
Recently, a small group of people protested mandatory masks in front of Huntington Beach High School. In numerous Facebook videos, some students were arguing with protestors.
While some welcome intervention of the Department of Justice to protect school officials, students and educators, others worry the move is overreach by the government to intimidate them from speaking out on issues they are passionate about and targets their First Amendment rights.
On Wednesday, the Orange County Board of Education decided to jump in on the debate and voted 3-1 to pass a resolution calling on U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland to backpedal his memorandum stating the Department of Justice will announce a series of measures to address the “rise in criminal conduct towards school personnel.”
Days after the National School Boards Association sent its letter, Garland released a memo essentially promising to act on those concerns and that he has directed the Federal Bureau of Investigation to convene meetings with federal, state and local leaders to discuss strategies in addressing the threats.
“While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views,” reads the memo.
“The Department takes these incidents seriously and is committed to using its authority and resources to discourage these threats, identify them when they occur, and prosecute them when appropriate,” the memo continues.
OC Board of Education Trustee Ken Williams lambasted the idea of federal officials looking into the situation.
“We have an attorney general attacking parents and potentially targeting them. I find that offensive. This is nonpartisan, this is defending the rights of parents to direct the upbringing of their children, as well as citizens to address vigorously if necessary this board,” said Williams, who wrote the resolution.
At the Wednesday meeting, Williams said he hasn’t seen any issues with criticism against the OC Board of Education.
Residents are also weighing in on the issue.
Lynne Riddle, a retired federal judge, at Wednesday’s meeting called the County Board of Education’s resolution “objectionable, nasty and wrong.”
She also criticized it as incendiary and called on the board to withdraw the resolution.
“I’m enraged that the resolution appears to cast doubt upon, minimize and in fact, again ridicule servants of our public schools family — who have been targeted, placed in states of anxiety and fear for their school colleagues, their families and their children,” she said.
Riddle also said the resolution could cause an uproar.
Another person who identified themselves as Kelly spoke in favor of the board’s resolution, arguing the civil liberties of parents are protected and their voices need to be heard.
She also criticized the National School Boards Association.
Kelly called on the board to protect parents from being reported to the department of justice.
“It is outrageous. We need local autonomy to preserve our open discussions and keep vigilant watch over the local boards by participating and vocalizing as much as possible,” she said.
Trustee Beckie Gomez was the only one of her colleagues to vote against the resolution and criticized her own board for discouraging public participation at their meetings and allegedly cutting off people who disagreed with them in public comments — a claim her colleagues objected to.
“The first paragraph of this resolution talks about the use of resources to discourage public discourse, yet our own board has time and time again failed to allow public comment via teleconferencing,” she said.
The Board of Education’s full resolution entitled “Opposing Tyranny of the United States Government and Intimidation of its Citizens” is attached to Wednesday’s agenda.
Part of the resolution states that schools have “elevated political correctness over academics” which has sowed division.
“School boards across this country are instituting policies and curricula that are antithetical to their constituents’ values and principles,” reads the resolution. “These woke-like curricula include racism, critical race theory, Marxism and social justice politics…”
Earlier this year, the Orange County Board of Education held two forums on ethnic studies and critical race theory where a group of panelists shared concerns about critical race theory and the state’s ethnic studies curriculum.
Although ethnic studies may have elements of critical race theory, the two courses are different and the theory isn’t widely taught in school districts, according to the California School Boards Association.
[Read: OC Board of Education Hosts Forum as Heated Debate Over Ethnic Studies Continues]
At Wednesday’s meeting Williams said the board will put out a white paper on the ethnic studies forums next month.
In Wednesday’s resolution, he also writes that the Department of Justice shows no proof of an increasing level of intimidation or threats towards educators, students or school board officials.
Locally, however, parents in the Placentia-Yorba Unified School District like Sonia Dhaliwal have told the Voice of OC some people are afraid to speak out in support of issues like ethnic studies or vaccine mandates because they feel intimidated by the parents rallying against such issues.
[ Read: Placentia-Yorba Linda School Board May Ban Critical Race Theory After State Mandates Ethnic Studies ]
In the Los Alamitos Unified School District, debates on creating social justice standards got so intense that the board opted to hold their meeting online to “protect public health and safety” following recommendations from local law enforcement.
Even the Orange County Board of Education had to change the venue for their forum on ethnic studies and critical race theory after trustees decided the cost for security was too high.
In their letter, the National School Boards Association shared some of those same concerns about intimidation.
“Coupled with attacks against school board members and educators for approving policies for masks to protect the health and safety of students and school employees, many public school officials are also facing physical threats because of propaganda purporting the false inclusion of critical race theory within classroom instruction and curricula,” reads the letter from the National School Boards Association.
“This propaganda continues despite the fact that critical race theory is not taught in public schools and remains a complex law school and graduate school subject well beyond the scope of a K-12 class,” the letter continues.
The National School Boards Association has since apologized for some of the language used in the letter, which even went on to compare the acts of violence and threats to domestic terrorism and hate crimes.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
Since you've made it this far,
You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.
Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.