TALLAHASSEE - The organization that represents Florida school boards has "great concern" for the safety of board members and school officials after recent reports of threats, but is rejecting its national counterpart’s request that the federal government step in.
The Florida School Boards Association is refusing to pay membership dues to the National School Boards Association after the Washington, D.C.-based organization wrote in a letter to President Joe Biden’s administration that the country’s "public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat."
The National School Boards Association’s Sept. 29 letter asked that the federal government help local jurisdictions with "monitoring the threat levels" to school officials.
But the Florida School Boards Association is accusing the national organization of making its request to the federal government "without consultation of our association or your own board of directors."
"Several elements of your letter run counter to the tenets embraced by the FSBA, and this communication has caused serious concerns, conflict, and consternation for many of our members within the FSBA," the state association’s executive director Andrea Messina wrote in a letter to National School Board Association leaders Monday. "Not only has it unnecessarily distracted from the important work being carried out by our members, it has strained important local and state collaborative relationships our members have worked hard to build and maintain for years."
The imperiled relationships include those with "our governor, Legislature, local law enforcement, communities, and our members questioning our commitment to the First Amendment rights of citizens, which we believe is the bedrock of democracy and would always protect," she added.
Messina called for a "review of NSBA leadership" and a "public acknowledgement of the federal overreach" that the national organization advocated for in its letter.
Fueled by more than one controversial education issue, tensions have run high at school board meetings around the nation in recent months.
In response to the national organization’s letter, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Oct. 4 directed the FBI to work with local officials to stamp out "harassment, intimidation and threats of violence" to school board members following what Garland called a "disturbing spike" in such incidents.
But Messina, a former Charlotte County School Board member, told The News Service of Florida that the state association trusts local law enforcement authorities to know when it would be appropriate to ask for assistance.
"I can’t tell you when that might be acceptable or might not be acceptable," Messina said Monday when asked if federal help is necessary. "That’s why we rely and we believe in relying on our local and state law enforcement. They’re the experts in these areas. If they believe they need additional assistance, we trust them to reach out for that."
Messina acknowledged that threats directed at local officials have raised concerns.
"We have heard some reports from our members that have legitimate, documented threats that are concerning. So we have great concern about the safety of our peers, of our members," Messina told the News Service.
But she said "passionate stakeholders" commonly attend school board meetings and board members should expect "disparate opinions," which she called "a sign of healthy community engagement."
"We are extremely concerned about alarming incidents, and comments ... when they extend beyond civil discourse," Messina said. "But we also recognize that the majority of comments that have been made have been respectful. And when and if they extend beyond civil civic discourse, we respect our local and state law enforcement agencies and rely heavily on them to keep people safe."
Alachua County Superintendent of Schools Carlee Simon is among the school officials who have reported receiving threats after backing a requirement that students wear masks on campus. During a conference call held by the State Board of Education last week, Simon said other local school officials also have been targeted.
"Our decisions on COVID protocols have been made in the sunshine, and almost all of us have been targets of intimidation and threats as a result," Simon said.
Recent school board sessions have flared up amid discussions about student mask requirements and whether critical race theory is taught in classrooms.
Volatile debate during meetings has resulted in speakers being removed, board leaders calling recesses and, in one recent case, the audience being shut out entirely.
During an Aug. 30 meeting of the Lee County School Board dealing with a student mask requirement, chairwoman Debbie Jordan called three separate recesses, suspending the meeting for nearly half an hour. Jordan declared speakers "out of order" pursuant to the board’s rules.
The rules expect speakers "to act in a respectful manner," Kathy Dupuy-Bruno, the board’s attorney, said in part as she read the rules aloud at the top of the meeting.
"Personal attacks on individuals or abusive language are prohibited. In addition, clapping, hissing and booing, unreasonably loud and or offensive language, swearing, cursing or display of temper are prohibited," Dupuy-Bruno said.
A meeting of the Brevard County School Board last week also got heated ahead of a vote on whether to maintain the district’s student mask mandate. Board chairwoman Misty Belford called a nearly 10-minute recess after audience members could be heard shouting at board members. When the meeting resumed, the public was not allowed in the room.
Belford’s move drew the ire of state Rep. Randy Fine, who called for an investigation into whether Belford violated Florida’s Sunshine Law during the sometimes-heated meeting.
The state school board association’s rebuke of its national counterpart mirrors state Republican leaders’ criticism of the Biden administration’s probe.
"Attorney General Garland is weaponizing the DOJ (Department of Justice) by using the FBI to pursue concerned parents and silence them through intimidation," DeSantis said in a tweet last week. "Florida will defend the free speech rights of its citizens and will not allow federal agents to squelch dissent."
State Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran further escalated the state’s response to Garland’s letter during a meeting of the State Board of Education on Thursday.
"Put short, we will not be strong-armed nor will we allow others to be. Should the federal government’s efforts stray even slightly from justice, to deter parental rights or lawful speech, they should prepare for a swift and zealous response," Corcoran said.