Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita is calling on President Joe Biden’s administration to step down from an investigation into harassment and threats lobbied at teachers and other school officials, warning that it could infringe on the free speech rights of parents.
“Hoosier parents have a First Amendment right to speak their minds to teachers, administrators and school board members,” Rokita said in a letter sent Monday to Biden and U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. “That’s why I’m demanding that the Biden administration immediately stop attempting to shut down parental participation through scare tactics and intimidation.”
Rokita is one of 17 state attorneys general who signed onto the letter, which comes two weeks after the U.S. Department of Justice issued a memorandum decrying a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.”
For months, school board meetings have been scenes of shouting matches, angry crowds and regular disruption as parents, community members and activists have spoken out against critical race theory, mask mandates and more. The same loud, angry scenes have played out at suburban school districts around the country, including many in Indiana.
In some districts, though, the vitriol has gone beyond outbursts at public meetings. In Brownsburg, threatening flyers showed up around town and in the front yards of some school board members after the district voted to impose a mask mandate. More recently, Carmel Clay Schools said that board members have had their home addresses shared publicly in an attempt to intimidate them and a group has demanded the resignation of the district’s mental health coordinator. Teachers have received threats of violence and “unwarranted references to family members,” according to the district.
Rokita said actual threats and acts of violence toward school employees are rare and, in the event they do occur, they could be addressed by existing laws and local authorities.
“Surely the FBI and Department of Justice have more pressing matters to attend to,” the letter says, “like the massive spike in murders in major cities throughout the United States.”
Garland called for the FBI and other federal law enforcement to get involved in response to a request from the National School Boards Association late last month.
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“As these acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes,” the association wrote.
Rokita accused the group of being more concerned about “suppressing speech” it disagrees with than actual violence.
The letter went out to question why the administration and NSBA are focusing more attention on “parents who have concerns about their children’s education” than on the “outright and documented criminal behavior” that occurred during the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted last summer in response to the killing of George Floyd and other Black citizens at the hands of police.
“In no known instance, has there been anything like the burning, looting, police assaults, vandalism and other criminal activity that occurred in the summer of 2020,” the letter reads. “We note that to date your administration has done nothing to bring those thousands of perpetrators to justice.”
Cities across the country saw marches, protests and, in some cases, unrest in response to the deaths of several unarmed Black people. Those protests were seeking justice, social change and protection of the civil rights of Black Americans.
The disruptions at school boards meetings in recent months have largely centered around concerns about the teaching of critical race theory, which is not taught in K-12 schools but has become an impetus for parents to reexamine what their children are learning. Mask mandates, quarantine procedures and other COVID-19 protocols have also been a lightning rod for parental criticism and protest.
Rokita has been a proponent of more outspoken involvement from parents and taxpayers in public education. Earlier this year, he released a “Parents Bill of Rights” encouraging parent participation with the document that aims to be a resource for civic dialogue and outlines how parents and caregivers can “exercise their legal right to have a voice in their children’s education.” The document was released in the middle of heated but largely unfounded concerns about schools teaching CRT.
As of Monday evening, the justice department had not publicly responded to the letter.
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