Will The NSBA Letter Backfire?

Parsing the dangerous from the dissenting...

A lot of chatter – and here’s a 74 article – about the NSBA open letter to the President asking for help combating domestic terrorism at school board meetings. Yes you read that right. Happy 2021!

A few things going on here at once.

First, of late there have been threats of violence, and actual violence, against school officials and teachers. And then also some disrupted meetings. It’s still thankfully quite rare (click fueled media and social media distorts your sense of prevalence*) but it’s not trivial, enough to be concerning, and it only takes one.

It’s completely unacceptable and anyone engaging in real or threatened violence against school officials should be held accountable. Period. And left unchecked this can get out of hand. There is some history here. The anniversary of Marcus Foster’s death, who was killed over absolute idiocy, is next month. Everyone should tone it down.

Second, as the NSBA letter basically notes, there are existing tools to deal with this. There are laws against threatening public officials, laws against using mail or electronic means to do it, and law’s against domestic terrorism and agencies tasked with addressing it. At the school level,  assaulting a teacher is just that, an assault and should be treated accordingly. The law should be aggressively enforced where applicable. It seems so obvious it shouldn’t bear mentioning, we can have no tolerance for violence or the threat of it to coerce school officials.

At the same time, we should be cautious about broad strokes here. There is a complicated, at times politically toxic, conversation happening about schools right now. The issues range from masks and vaccinations to how and what to teach about American history and longstanding debates about sexuality and curriculum. There are those – on the left and right – who would rather shut those debates down than engage them.

It’s not hard to see how the invocation of “domestic terrorism” will fuel the impulse to shut down rather than work through. Protecting your members is one thing, but this is playing with matches and open letters released to the media are not the only way to engage government officials.

People who have concerns and want to be heard by public officials will feel they are being labeled as a means to shut them out. If Biden wants to cede the suburbs and their political power back to Republicans here’s a way to do it. Meanwhile, people who don’t want debates about these issues will feel emboldened – by definition no one needs to engage a domestic terrorist in debate anyway – to just ignore dissent.

If we’re being honest, many school boards trumpet their publicness while doing whatever possible to avoid the grubby work of actually engaging with the public – especially the public that doesn’t agree with them. That hypocrisy always lurks here. In our system of government it’s a mistake to assume that your “side” is ascendent and various powers won’t be used against you at some point.

All this is to say that without a careful parsing of the dangerous from the dissenting the NSBA letter, rather than a warning or a clarion call for help, may end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. And peril that way lies.

*Also, there is a fair amount of agreement about a lot of these issues, that gets distorted by the loud poles, too.