The National School Boards Association board of directors repudiated a letter its two top officials sent to President Biden that precipitated Attorney General Merrick Garland’s order the FBI to investigate complaints of threats to school officials from parents.
In a message to NSBA members Friday, the board said that “we regret and apologize for the letter,” which was sent Sept. 29 and co-signed by association CEO Chip Slaven and President Viola Garcia.
“To be clear, the safety of school board members, other public school officials, and students is our top priority, and there remains important work to be done on this issue,” the board wrote. “However, there was no justification for some of the language included in the letter.”
The message added that “we deeply value not only the work of local school boards that make important contributions within our communities, but also the voices of parents, who should and must continue to be heard when it comes to decisions about their children’s education, health, and safety.”
The letter was tweeted out by the Oregon School Boards Association, whose executive director, Jim Green, said in a statement: “We appreciate NSBA’s apology over some of the language in the organization’s appeal for protecting the safety of school board members.
“That doesn’t mean the underlying issue — keeping volunteer school board members safe from threats and violence — isn’t important. It is,” Green added. “But NSBA recognized that the wording it used alienated many parents, our vital partners in public schools. It’s my hope with this apology that the national organization can learn from the experience and move on.”
Emails obtained earlier this week by the group Parents Defending Education showed that board members had not been consulted about the Sept. 29 letter, which suggested that parents who object to mask mandates and the imposition of critical race theory in classrooms are engaging in “a form of domestic terrorism.”
The letter from Slaven and Garcia caused a national uproar after it suggested that verbal confrontations and other incidents at local school board meetings across the US constituted “acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials.”
“[T]he classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes,” read the letter, which went on to suggest that the administration “examine appropriate enforceable actions” under a raft of legislation — including the post-9/11 Patriot Act.
On the same day Slaven sent the letter to Biden, he circulated it among the NSBA’s board and noted that “in talks over the last several weeks with White House staff, they requested additional information on some of the specific threats, so the letter also details many of the incidents that have been occurring.”
The letter received a chilly reception from board members, one of whom wrote in an email: “Rather than helping our cause and calming the waters, this letter has re-awakened hostilities that were just beginning to finally calm down.”
The same member, John W. Halkias, added that the letter “took a stance that went beyond what many of us would consider reasonable and used terms that were extreme, and asked for action by the Federal Government that many of us would not request … We have given our loudest critics more ammunition to criticize us.”
Another board member, Steven Chapman, wrote that “[m]y hope for a letter like this, or any letter that we are going to send to the President of the United States and push through a press release is at least reviewed by the executive committee.”
On Oct. 4, five days after the letter was made public, Garland announced that he had tasked the FBI with looking into what the AG called “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.”
While Garcia initially defended the letter in email exchanges with NSBA board members, she acknowledged on Oct. 11 that she had received feedback “questioning both the letter’s content and the manner in which it was distributed.
“We take this feedback seriously and are implementing a number of steps to understand the chain of events which led to this issue and to consider initiatives which are critical going forward,” she added.
Friday’s letter promised that the NSBA board would “do better going forward” and vowed to review “not only the proceedings leading to the letter, but also other related concerns raised by members even before the letter was sent.”
Under questioning from House Judiciary Committee ranking member Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) Thursday, Garland denied that anyone from the White House had spoken to him about the NSBA letter, but added, “I am sure — at least, I certainly would believe that the White House communicated its concerns about the letter to the Justice Department.”
When Jordan asked whether Garland or anyone at the Justice Department discussed his Oct. 4 memo with anyone at the White House, the attorney general answered: “I did not. I don’t know whether anyone discussed the memo. I am sure that the communication from the National Association of School Boards was discussed between the White House and the Justice Department and that’s perfectly appropriate.”
Garland also insisted during the hearing that the department was not going to investigate parents who take issue with school board policies.
“The Justice Department supports and defends the First Amendment right of parents to complain as vociferously as they wish about the education of their children, about the curriculum taught in the schools,” he said. “That is not what the memorandum is about at all, nor does it use the words ‘domestic terrorism’ or ‘Patriot Act.’”
“I can’t imagine any circumstance in which the Patriot Act would be used in the circumstances of parents complaining about their children,” Garland added. “Nor can I imagine a circumstance where they would be labeled as domestic terrorism.”