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National group cites Oshkosh while asking Biden to protect school board members amid uptick in threats

US Attorney General Merrick Garland says the DOJ will get involved

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Protesters clash over vaccine mandate at schools
In this Aug. 12, 2021, file photo, pro-mask wearing demonstrator Djenaba Pershay, center, speaks with a non-mask demonstrator, left, at the Cobb County School Board Headquarters during a pro mask wearing protest, in Marietta, Ga. A growing number of school board members across the U.S. are resigning or questioning their willingness to serve as meetings have devolved into shouting contests over contentious issues including masks in schools. Mike Stewart/AP Photo

It’s Wisconsin School Board Appreciation Week. But across the state and nation, it has been a tough time for district leaders. Now, the federal government is stepping in.

The U.S. Department of Justice plans to address an “increase in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence” against public school employees and school board members, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced this week.

The news comes after the National School Boards Association sent an open letter to the White House, citing incidents at school board meetings across the country, including in Wisconsin.

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According to the letter, school boards in Wisconsin and other states have been forced to end meetings early due to “angry mobs.” It specifically cites an incident that took place in Oshkosh, where an August school board meeting devolved into a shouting match after protestors refused to wear masks as required by the district.

Elected officials have thick skin, said Bob Poeschl, a former city council member and current Oshkosh Area School District School Board president. As a representative of the district, he’s focused on maintaining kindness and civility, he said.

“I get that some people are going to struggle with that, but I don’t let it change or affect my decision-making as an elected official,” he said.

Poeschl and the board are working to keep children in school, with protocols in place, so they experience the least disruption possible, he said. While most community members have been supportive, he said, the board has encountered more anger recently.

Even after moving its meetings online, threats have continued. On Sept. 22, several community members called in to yell at board members.

“I think a lot of you people in this room are treading on very thin ice, and you have a lot of people watching you right now, so you just better be ready,” one caller said. “I know you probably all think you’re going to get away with it, or you’re protected, but you’re not. We’re coming for you.”

For the most part, board member doesn’t let the anger get to them, though Poeschl plans to be stricter when it comes to the public comments at future meetings, he said. Community members won’t be able to speak if they refuse to give their name and address or make threats.

Sheri Krause, a spokesperson from the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, confirmed the state hasn’t been spared from the national trend.

Attorney General Merrick Garland addresses the media
Attorney General Merrick Garland announces a lawsuit to block the enforcement of a new Texas law that bans most abortions, at the Justice Department in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Controversy is nothing new for school boards and board members want to hear from the community, she said. But the amount of vitriol and level of coordination — even though it’s among a small minority — is unprecedented, Krause said.

On Monday night, parents heckled a pediatrician at a school board meeting in De Pere, according to WBAY-TV. Across the state, school board members and district officials have resigned.

“That is a concern of ours, that folks won’t want to step up to fill these roles, which are really important local governing roles,” Krause said. “Folks are really volunteering their time. There’s little to no pay, it’s hard work, they need to make hard decisions, it’s a big commitment, it’s a lot of time.”

The National School Boards Association letter cites many incidents related to COVID-19 precautions, like in Oshkosh. But it says critical race theory has sparked heated debates too. Across the country, school board members have received threats by mail, through social media and at board meetings, according to the association, which represents more than 14,000 districts. It likened the threats to domestic terrorism and hate crimes.

John Ashley, executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, recently called for civility at board meetings. The organization is hoping to see greater support from the community, including local law enforcement when people cross the line, Krause said.

The Oshkosh Area School District has been working with local law enforcement to ensure safety at meetings, Poeschl said. Many school districts have emergency protocols for students and teachers, he said. The federal support might help school boards develop similar plans to protect board members and the community, he said.

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