After 22 years as a school board member for Grand Haven Area Public Schools in Michigan, John Siemion stepped down from his position last month after a board discussion and decision in favor of a temporary mask mandate led to threats against board members.
“Make it uncomfortable! Turn on the heat! Bring your pitchforks,” read one person’s Facebook post to a group that identifies as Grand Haven Conservative Parents, according to a screenshot shared by Siemion.
Siemion, who was board president when he resigned and is still a member of the board of directors of the Michigan School Board Association and board member of the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, said he and other Grand Haven Area Public Schools board members also were accused of child abuse because of their support for a mask mandate.
“I can understand a parent wanting what they think is the best for their children, but I had to do what I felt was best for all 5,700 children and over 800 staff in the district,” Siemion wrote in an email, noting he has presided over several contentious board meetings over the last two decades, but none compare to the tumult that has occurred during the pandemic.
An increase nationwide in disturbances at school board meetings due to charged opinions over COVID-19 masking protocols, critical race theory and transgender students’ rights, as well as threats and intimidation directed at school officials is leading local school officials to consider security measures for central office staff, said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services.
Historically, district administrators have been hesitant to invest in security measures at administrative buildings because school systems often prioritize the safety of students and teachers. District officials also don't want to be perceived as putting resources toward their own needs. Although some central offices have installed security cameras and proximity card readers in recent years, some don’t conduct regular lockdown drills or have crisis teams or evacuation plans, Trump said.
“We'll say, ‘You need to take a look at your own building. You're the people who hire and fire people, you hold suspension and expulsion hearings here, you have school board meetings and there are potentially contentious issues, and it's getting more political over the years,'” he said.
Federal attention on local threats
According to the National School Boards Association, board meetings in California, Florida, Georgia and other states have been disrupted due to discourse over COVID-19 safety protocols. Students and staff have also experienced confrontations, intimidation and hate mail.
While school governance experts and attorneys say board members should welcome public opinion on divisive issues, they shouldn’t have to tolerate threats of violence, intimidation and bullying.
Concerns about the safety of board members and school staff has led U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to direct the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to meet with federal, state, tribal, territorial and local law enforcement leaders over the next month to discuss strategies for addressing violent threats against school officials and teachers. An Oct. 4 memo from Garland also promises the U.S. Department of Justice will announce a series of measures to address the increase in criminal conduct directed at school personnel.
Federal interference, however, is meant to “intimidate parents attending school board meetings to advocate on behalf of their children,” said Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and Jonathan Butcher, a Will Skillman Fellow in education at The Heritage Foundation, in a statement.
“Biden administration officials should praise Americans for their civic participation and sense of duty, not treat them as a threat because they hold different views than radical bureaucrats,” Gonzalez and Butcher said.
Working on local security responses
Trump advises that central administrative offices follow the same security best practices as school buildings do, including having threat assessment teams to objectively evaluate potential safety risks.
Crisis teams should also be organized to develop and review security protocols for administrative buildings. At the school board level, members should have a plan of action if a meeting becomes too heated and board members feel unsafe. Some of these protocols could include having an exit near the board dais, as well as a signal from the board president to a police officer or security guard if help with decorum is needed.
In North Carolina's Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, the school board no longer holds in-person meetings without the presence of law enforcement. In Virginia, Prince William County Public Schools does not allow posters, signs and banners in the school board meeting room, except when part of an approved student presentation. The Noblesville School Board in Indiana now limits public comment at its meetings to 45 minutes total, and attendees cannot bring signs with them.
Although the Justice Department directed federal agencies to work with local and state organizations on school safety measures, a district’s security plan will need to be developed locally with the municipal police department involved when there is a credible threat, Trump said.
Security measures, however, shouldn’t restrict civil public input into school issues, he said.
“Parents should be able to be engaged. They should be able to voice their experience. They too often don't speak up at board meetings and provide constructive input,” Trump said. “At the same time, there's a difference between constructive input and having proper processes for doing so and crossing that line.”
Siemion said there was nothing Grand Haven Area Public School officials could have done differently to prevent his resignation and most of his time serving has been enjoyable.
“A growing number of board members are resigning or questioning their willingness to serve as meetings have devolved into shouting contests between deeply political constituencies over how racial issues are taught, masks in schools, and COVID-19 vaccines and testing requirements,” Siemion said. “It’s a no-win situation for board members no matter how they vote.”