Behavior at school board meetings sets a bad example for children
Not so long ago, a school board would have the good fortune to have a handful of citizens to attend a meeting. Now these meetings are a hotbed of arguments – about safe public mandates, program choices and even the members themselves.
In Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, other communities in Virginia and across the country, citizens are raising their voices – and some are crossing the line, turning into intimidation and even personal threats. It cannot be ignored.
This is the meaning of the message issued by US Attorney General Merrick Garland this month, when he announced that the Department of Justice would deploy a series of measures to combat “harassment, intimidation and threats. of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.
While the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, the legality of assembly, and the right to petition the government, it is not an authorization to do whatever one wants, no matter how serious the problem. problem discussed. It is high time that adults began to behave like adults, and that applies to public servants as well as to individuals.
In recent months, as school boards debated mask mandates and arguments over “critical race theory” gained traction, ordinarily lethargic meetings stirred the cauldrons of debate. At first glance, this is good and necessary in a democracy.
Communities need citizens involved in governance. Important decisions are reinforced by constructive public discourse. Virginia school boards cannot set tax rates and depend on other agencies for their funding, but they do shape the policies that affect the lives of children on a daily basis.
Parents should be involved in these conversations. They should stand up and offer comments. They need to reach out to their board members and make their case about a given policy or decision.
Even when the debate can heat up and rhetoric intensifies, it is essential to have citizens at the table. A public meeting should be exactly that.
But it is also true that members of school boards devote their time and energy to public service. Their pay is by no means equal to the amount of work they do in their efforts to build better public schools for all children.
They shouldn’t face threats to this service – no public official should. They shouldn’t have to live in fear of going to the grocery store or curling up in their homes. The public has a recourse if they do not agree with an elected official: the ballot box.
It is deeply distressing to know that men and women who have volunteered for public life would face such ugliness and contempt. Disagree, of course. Be strong in your words. But we cannot accept threats, intimidation and violence in the public arena.
While the Department of Justice must refrain from its actions that deter legitimate dissent, serious threats against school officials must be dealt with in an appropriate and legal manner. No group or individual can be allowed to force policy changes through violence or its threat.
For school board members, however, there is also a line that cannot be crossed. To serve in the public service is to be open to scrutiny, anger, name calling and other expressions of free speech. Civil servants cannot use the heated climate as an excuse to stifle debate.
Frankly, it is infuriating that such things have to be said, or that it might require federal intervention to force everyone to behave responsibly in a public setting. Communities need to be able to debate difficult and controversial issues without going into madness.
After all, these are meetings that should focus on schools, learning and the well-being of children. Those who serve and those who engage in debate must lead by example, be worthy of one another, seriously listen to different points of view, and disagree with respect.
If we cannot pass even this very low bar – if we cannot keep a cool head even in the heat of the moment – our communities are indeed in a very bad state.