When we were kids, our parents told us not to talk back to our teachers “or you’ll be in big trouble.”
Who knew they’d be predicting our future?
These days, if we, as parents, talk back to teachers — or, rather, the school board members who oversee them — we do run the risk of big trouble.
It’s called the FBI.
That’s because, late last month, the National School Board Association sent a letter to President Joe Biden claiming “heinous actions” were happening at school board meetings across America, and compared such actions to “domestic terrorism.”
And remarkably, the Biden administration responded by having Attorney General Merrick Garland issue a memo last week saying the FBI would coordinate with local law enforcement to put a stop to this development. He called it “a rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel.”
OK. First, who knew you could write a letter to the president in late September and have the FBI rush in by early October? It takes longer than that to get a salad these days.
Second, where exactly is this “criminal conduct”? For the FBI to get involved, you’d imagine people were being shot, beaten, chased into alleys by mobs.
Except nothing like that is happening. A recent USA TODAY op-ed claimed “there is no evidence” of dangerous actions suggested by Garland’s memo, and no “references to where one could find evidence of (them).” It called the whole idea “mostly a figment of Democratic imagination.”
Shouldn’t we have a little meat on the bone before the FBI — the FBI? — starts getting involved in local school board meetings?
A thankless job
Where is all this coming from? Well. In the last 18 months, parents have gotten way more involved with their kids’ educations. COVID-19 has a lot to do with that: the rules about masking, vaccines, in-person versus virtual learning, all called for more input from Mom and Dad than the good old days of, oh, say, 2019, when you could just drop the kids at school and be on with your day.
And with COVID-19 comes controversy. You can’t expect American parents to be in lockstep on school issues when they’re not in lockstep on a pandemic. Some want masks, some don’t. Some want vaccines, some don’t. Since when was America ever uniform in anything involving our kids? Harsh pushback — just like rabid support — should be expected.
On top of that, the revelation of controversial academic approaches like critical race theory, new definitions of “inclusion” and “oppression,” hot button topics like sexuality and transgender rights, and dealing with current events like the death of George Floyd, all brought out a myriad of voices, and transformed the traditionally-sleepy school board meeting into the academic equivalent of “The Jerry Springer Show.”
Look, I empathize with school board members. It’s not a glamour job. It doesn’t pay well (if it pays at all). And you have to take an earful from the community, not all of which is calm, nice or even logical.
But as the USA TODAY piece points out “democracy is not a graduate school seminar.” If things really get out of hand, we have local authorities to deal with it. But people getting angry, raising their voices, insulting one another, doesn’t warrant FBI involvement.
Not even close.
The kind of “heinous” actions the National School Board Association cited in complaining to the president included a parent who gave a Nazi salute after being repeatedly told to put on a mask, and another parent whose disagreement with critical race theory “prompted the board to call a recess.”
This is domestic terrorism? At worst, these are examples of disruptive behavior. At best, they’re just another night in local politics. But by what stretch of the imagination does it warrant federal law involvement? Is the nation’s attorney general really in the business of shutting people up?
The fact is, despite the occasional hotheads, we should be glad parents are taking an interest in how and what their kids are being taught. Not all that long ago, most teachers were lamenting parents’ lack of interest.
I can’t agree with Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe when he condescendingly stated, “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and actually take books out and make their own decision. … I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Well, they most certainly should have a say in it, shouldn’t they? They pay the taxes, provide the kids, and are called upon for everything from parent-teacher conferences to volunteering. Admonishing parents for reading books and “making their own decision?” Isn’t that what responsible people do?
McAuliffe made his stunning declaration after a Virginia parent at a school board meeting had the audacity to read from a book called “Lawn Boy” that she took out from the school library. She claimed it was available even to junior high schoolers. The section she read detailed oral sex between a 10-year-old boy and an adult male. It was graphic. It was disturbing.
Yet for reading it aloud, she was admonished by the school board — even though a student could just as easily read the same passage silently, which was pretty much her point.
Now I ask you: If the FBI storms that meeting, who are they going after? And for what?
Re-learning to peaceably disagree
Frankly, with the recent upheavals of policies and school subject matter, can we be surprised that parents want a closer look? Curriculum creators may not be used to parents checking their choices. That doesn’t make it a crime.
Consider this example: A few months back, a Providence, Rhode Island, teacher named Ramona Bessinger posted a disturbing account of finding a new curriculum assigned for 2020-21 that did away with established classic literature by Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Martin Luther King Jr., Maya Angelou, Anne Frank and Robert Frost, and specifically eliminated Holocaust studies, all in favor of new “leaflet style booklets …poorly written, historically biased, inaccurate, and pushing a racial narrative,” she posted.
“When I asked the school reading coach where all the Holocaust books were, she said, ‘We do not teach the Holocaust because kids can’t relate to the story.’ “
That sentence alone should raise the ire of parents AND school board members. If relatability is the criteria, why teach any history at all?
Instead, Bessinger, as noted by the Wall Street Journal, has since posted about being harassed for questioning the changes. She claims she was also told to teach children of color about “justifiable violence toward white people.”
Decide for yourself what you think about that sentence. But note that, despite vehement disagreement and claims of harassment, this teacher never called for the FBI to jump in.
School boards shouldn’t either. Nobody should get in “big trouble” for speaking up. Meetings may get loud, even uncomfortable, but at the core is a critical question: What is best for our children?
That discussion deserves to play itself out freely and openly, without the shadow of the FBI lurking in the corners.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.