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Florida School Board Association says its national affiliate's letter to DOJ has worsened relations between parents and local boards

Members of the Leon County School board listen to updates on mask mandates and school safety
Craig Moore
WFSU Public Media
Members of the Leon County School board listen to updates on mask mandates and school safety

A plea for help by the National School Boards Association is having a ripple effect in politics—riling local school board members, already-angry parents, and causing the Florida Association of School Boards to distance itself from its national arm. In Leon County, angry parents blasted their local school board after the national association likened certain threats to domestic terrorism.

School boards across the U.S. have had to face off with upset parents concerned about mask mandates and the false claim that schools are teaching critical race theory. During the summer as the mask debate raged, some school board members, like Sarasota school board member Shirley Brown, saw angry protestors show up to her private residence--her house--demanding her resignation. Worse has happened elsewhere—leading the National School Boards Association to request help from the U.S. Department of Justice.

In its letter to the DOJ the association said, “the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”

Conservatives jumped on the language and blasted the organization and the DOJ. Now, local school boards are feeling the fallout.

“I just hope there can be better dialogue between all of us," said Leon County parents Katrina Heft. "I don’t there should be such animosity. But I don’t think our national leaders are helping by calling us ‘domestic terrorists.”

During Tuesday’s school board meeting the district had armed security present—a first after recent meetings have seen outbursts and veiled threats leveled at board members. For Heft, the increased security presence was jarring.

“So when I came up to the door and having to be frisked (not technically), wow. What a changed world it is. And I do feel defensive.  I know you don’t agree with what some of us are saying, but we have a right to be here. And you should care what parents are saying. You do have a problem," she told the board.

Heft believes the Leon school board has a credibility problem with some parents who’ve opposed the district’s prior mandatory mask policy.

The public will now have to follow the same screening measures most people have to undergo to enter places like the courthouse and city hall. The district says the policy will stay in place moving forward.

The Leon School Board falls under the Florida Association of School Boards. Its director, Andrea Messina, says the national board’s letter was unnecessarily divisive. And raised concerns about it in a prior interview with WFSU.

“The Florida School Board Association encourage and are encouraged by increased participation in school board meetings. I want to be clear on that," she said.

The Florida Association along with those in Louisiana and Virginia are trying to distance itself from the national association. All three state associations say the national group did not consult with them before issuing the letter. And that’s created more problems for everyone. Messina says threats and harassment against local school board members have increased in the past two years—but she also says local officials who face such threats already know where to go.

“I’m not suggesting in any way it’s the norm because it's not. It’s outlier behavior," Messina said at the sometimes violent outbursts that have become more frequent features of previously sleepy board meetings.

"It’s not every person who speaks at a school board meeting. And when something happens, from what we know—local school districts are relying on local law enforcement partners to address concerns when something rises to a level that exceeds an issue or topical education comment.”

The National School Boards Association has received the letters from Florida, Virginia, and Louisiana and is reviewing them.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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