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Threats And Disruption At Recent School Board Meetings Alarm NC Education Officials

Protesters supporting and opposing a mask mandate gathered outside Tuesday's Union County school board meeting.
Jennifer Lang
Protesters supporting and opposing a mask mandate gathered outside a Union County school board meeting Sept. 7.

"The Daily Show" recently sent comedian Jordan Klepper to Johnston County to cover an anti-mask protest at what he called "America’s new thunderdome: school board meetings."

The report was played for laughs, but Eric Davis, who chairs the state Board of Education, said there’s nothing funny about recent trends in behavior by some who attend board meetings.

Gwendolyn Glenn/WFAE
Eric Davis discusses student assignment with constituents in 2017, when he served on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.

"It’s actions and threats that go beyond the substance of the disagreement and go to personal attacks and threats upon the safety of those who’ve volunteered to serve on local boards of education," he said.

Davis chaired the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board more than a decade ago, when school closings led to protests that sometimes disrupted board meetings. Things got intense, he says, but people were focused on the issues. Now, Davis says, it's much worse.

Davis, vice chair Alan Duncan and state Superintendent Catherine Truitt issued a statement this week decrying “increased hostility and threats of force.” They urged the public to treat educators and elected officials with civility and respect. Gov. Roy Cooper also spoke against “threats, bullying and intimidation” at school board meetings.

Glass Door Shattered At ISS Meeting

The Iredell-Statesville school board’s Sept. 13 meeting illustrates how protests can cross into destruction.

Board Chair Martin Page said people were upset with the board’s decision to require masks, and then to crack down on exemptions. At that meeting, he said, about 70 people filled the chamber, with dozens more left outside.

As the public comment period began, board members could hear people banging on the chamber door. Eventually, the board heard the glass in the door shatter.

Martin Page, ISS board chair
Iredell-Statesville Schools
Martin Page, ISS board chair

The vice chair wanted to adjourn the meeting, but the others decided to keep going. Page said someone was charged with breaking the door.

He sees it as part of a national trend: "I think the anti-government movement nationwide has just gotten out of hand, and I mean the school board’s a low-hanging fruit, so I think they’re coming to our meetings and trying to cause trouble."

Page said the board will hire extra security for future meetings at taxpayer expense. But he said the real cost goes beyond that.

"When you don’t want to bring the students in that you want to recognize, and the teachers that you want to recognize, because they’re scared for their wellbeing, there’s something wrong with that," Page said. "That’s not America that I know and love."

Distracting From Vital Work

Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of the Raleigh-based Public School Forum of North Carolina, said she’s hearing concerns from around the state, including threats made by email or during public comments.

Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina
Public School Forum of North Carolina
Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina

"And you know, we continue to hear that our elected officials, our district leaders, are afraid for their safety but also for the safety of those in their district," she said Thursday.

It’s not clear whether there have been other criminal charges filed, but Wolf says the atmosphere of fear distracts elected officials and educators at a crucial time.

"If we could really pause and focus on what our kids need – from a learning perspective, from a staying-safe perspective – I think that’s where the energy needs to be," she said.

Wolf recently wrote a piece for EdNC calling attention to the spate of threats and violence. She said people need to take a stand when legitimate dissent crosses the line.

The North Carolina School Boards Association says the state law requiring monthly votes on mask policies adds to the turmoil. The association recently wrote to lawmakers and the governor seeking relief.

This week House Democrats tried to revise that bill, but Republicans who hold the majority voted it down. Representative Larry Pittman of Cabarrus County told the Associated Press that violence is unacceptable, but public scrutiny and input are valuable.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.