IDEAS

I chair the school board in Derry, N.H., and I’m afraid

Police presence. Threats of violence. Open hostility. What happens to our schools if rancor overtakes our capacity to peaceably disagree?

Pro-mask and non-mask wearing demonstrators face off at the Cobb County School Board Headquarters in Marietta, Ga., last August. Mike Stewart/Associated Press

DERRY, N.H. —

For a couple of days last fall, a viral video on Derry Facebook pages was a one-minute clip of a man telling the Derry School Board that if we required everyone to get the “genocide jab,” we would be war criminals and should hang. As chairperson, I interrupted and asked the man to be polite. When he persisted, I told the AV guy to cut his mic. The man continued, calling me and my fellow board members Nazis and repeating that we should hang. The audience, who mostly shared the man’s opposition to masks and vaccines and usually clapped for like-minded speakers, remained silent.

That night my expression was steely. But the next day, in the district business administrator’s office, I cried — out of frustration, anger, and fear. The First Amendment gave that man the right to swear, to use lewd language, and even to make veiled threats. I would learn later from a lawyer for the New Hampshire School Boards Association that the man’s use of the word “if” to preface his remarks about a vaccine mandate meant that I couldn’t legally silence him. The lawyer advised me, going forward, to give people their three minutes and cut them off only when they exceed it.

But in the moment, that man’s threat, veiled or otherwise, felt very real to me.

Over the next week, I repeatedly relived what had happened and thought about resigning. Was serving as chair of my local school board worth withstanding such vitriol? Was it worth shaking in my car on my drive home from a meeting? What kind of example was I setting for students if I didn’t challenge such ugly speech?

Hostilities rose markedly last August in the wake of meetings about school reopening plans. One indication of that was an SUV I saw parked in front of the Derry farmers market that had “defund the school board” written on the back windshield and “unmask the kids” scrawled on the side windows. Seeing it, my daughter suggested I wear a hat and sunglasses, like a celebrity trying to evade public recognition. I wished I had something to hide behind. Instead, I was skittish and scanned the crowd as we shopped.

On the way home I thought about resigning, again.

I’m not alone. Barrett Christina, executive director of the New Hampshire School Boards Association, told me about school board members in the Granite State whom law enforcement had escorted to their cars for safety. One board was contacted by the FBI because of threats made against individual members. “Some very good members and some people who are committed to public education have already resigned from their local school boards,” Christina says. “I’ve heard from some others who have said they do not intend to run again when their seat is up this coming March.”

Hostility’s trickle-down effect

Incivility in politics is not new, but incivility at school board meetings is. Years ago, when I worked as a local reporter in southwestern New Hampshire and covered local school board hearings, I was often the only attendee besides the school board members themselves — unless it was a budget hearing, which tended to generate a little more public interest. The same was true in 2016, when I joined the Derry School Board. Our discussions focused on policy, building maintenance, and budgets. There was disagreement, but there was no name-calling. There certainly weren’t people telling us we should hang.

Today, Google “school board” and “violence” and you’ll get a host of articles from national and local news outlets with headlines like “Punch thrown at Connecticut school board meeting,” “Fight breaks out after school board votes in favor of mask mandate,” “Threats, violence, leads school boards to request FBI help,” and “It’s like a time of war.”

I date the start of the incivility to March 2020, when COVID shut down schools across the country. As the tenor of the national debate over masks and, later, vaccines grew heated, the intensity and division trickled down to the local level. The hostility was abetted by a lack of clear guidance from the top. Here in New Hampshire, the Republican governor left the masking decision to local school boards, which put us squarely in the crosshairs of an angry, scared, and frustrated public.

School boards have two primary functions: to establish budgets and provide fiscal oversight and to set and adopt policy. COVID made masks one of those policies. At hearings and meetings, we heard all the arguments against them: They were psychologically harmful to children. We had no right to make a medical decision and decide for parents that their kids should wear masks. The Centers for Disease Control peddled pseudoscience. Last August, audience members repeatedly interrupted a doctor advising our district, mocking him as he spoke. Some opposed to masks stood directly behind the chairs of those who favored masks, in what I assume was a bid to unnerve their opponents.

On the other side, equally passionate parents told us that masks kept their young children, who were not yet eligible for the vaccine, safe.

Regardless, someone was always angry and the board was always on the receiving end of their ire.

As school board meetings across the country have become battlegrounds, many boards, including mine, have brought in police to quell the anger. Christina says such police presence at local school boards in New Hampshire was uncommon before COVID but is common now. And in a state where it’s legal to carry a gun with a permit, I have often recognized the bulge of a handgun on the waist of an angry anti-masker or let the crowd drive away before walking to my car. I feel better knowing there is police backup, even as I lament that this is what it’s come to.

“There [are] people who just don’t want to talk. They just want to block what is happening because they don’t want it to happen. That is not new,” says Michele Holt-Shannon, director and co-founder of NH Listens, a civic engagement initiative of the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire. Her group works with up to 40 groups and communities a year to increase constructive public engagement. “The thing that feels different for me is the fear. Because of what has been happening the past couple of years, the fear of people hurting other people is higher and real.”

School board culture wars

The trouble on school boards isn’t only about how best to protect our kids from COVID. Critical race theory has also become a factor. CRT is not taught in our pre-K through eighth grade school system, but that hasn’t mattered. In 2021, as CRT, which contends, among other things, that racism is embedded in legal systems and policy, became a stand-in for the conservative case against liberals, outrage over it spread to local school boards. I first heard about critical race theory in a candidate forum before Derry’s school board elections last March. The candidates expressing outrage over CRT and masks didn’t win seats on the board, but there’s reason to believe they’ll have better chances this year.

For one thing, last July, conservatives and libertarians in New Hampshire passed so-called “divisive concepts” legislation, which makes it illegal statewide to teach schoolchildren that one group is inherently superior or inferior or inherently racist or sexist. For another, the conservatives and libertarians are organized. Moms for Liberty NH fundraised online for a “CRT Bounty” to be awarded to anyone reporting a teacher who violates the divisive concepts law. Some parents more closely scrutinized the goings-on in their children’s virtual classrooms. Each time school went remote and parents saw or heard something they didn’t like, they came to school board meetings in greater numbers.

In addition, the 603 Alliance — tagline: “Uniting conservatives for a better America” — trains people to speak at meetings and run for their local school board. Nationally, the 1776 Project PAC explicitly endorses candidates who oppose critical race theory.

Most school boards are officially nonpartisan, but the culture wars are changing that. School board election turnout in Derry averaged under 7 percent of eligible voters over the last decade. Such low numbers mean a strong turnout by one group can sway the vote.

I first ran for my local school board after a friend and I convinced the board to add another teacher to our sons’ grade because classes had as many as 27 students. I like the idea of improving education. Why am I still here, withstanding so much hostility? Because the hostility isn’t actually about education. And because we teach students to stand up for themselves, respectfully, and someone needs to stand up for them.

What I fear most is that community participation will become the domain of those who seek conflict or who hold an anti-mask, anti-vaxx viewpoint. For the conflict-averse, going to a meeting in today’s hostile climate is deeply uncomfortable and running for office is out of the question. And the next school board election in my town is in March.

Erika Cohen is a writer and editor in Derry, N.H. She won a third term last March and is in her sixth year on the board.

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