The new schoolyard brawl: it’s the adults who fight
We all remember the schoolyard brawls of our childhood: playground brawls between students, often inscribed as a rite of passage by parents, teachers and school principals. “Children will be children,” they said, tacitly tolerating the behavior.
Now it’s the adults who are fighting. School board meetings across the country have been disrupted by angry parents whose grievances include everything from mask mandates and vaccine policy to curriculum issues.
Their tactics go beyond placards and yelling at meetings. While many parents take to social media to express their anger, others have literally turned to school board members. Family members and neighbors were also intimidated.
In Brevard County, Fla., School board member Jennifer Jenkins recently reluctantly shared her story. “I don’t reject people who come here and speak with their voices,” Jenkins said. “I reject them by following my car everywhere. I reject them saying that they are coming for me, that I must implore mercy. Jenkins’ daughter was examined by the Florida Department of Children and Families over a false abuse complaint.
The National School Board Association, which represents more than 90,000 school board members, sent a September 29 letter to President Joe Biden describing violence and threats against public school officials as a form of domestic terrorism, amounting to hate crimes.
Attorney General Merrick Garland responded, ordering the FBI and U.S. prosecutors to meet within the next 30 days with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to discuss strategies to combat the embarrassing situation. In a note from the Department of Justice, Garland wrote that “although lively debate on political issues is protected by our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats or violence or efforts directed at intimate individuals. according to their opinions ”. The threats, he said, are illegal – and they go against our nation’s core values.
Garland’s actions have been decried by some government officials, media and educational organizations as an effort to intimidate concerned parents for their views. Asra Nomani, vice president of investigation and strategy at Parents Defending Education, accused the attorney general of “criminalizing parenthood” and said Garland owed the American people “a quick apology.”
These are powerful and strong words. Even still, I can’t help but wonder if the federal government is really going too far. There is nothing more local than the affairs of the school board. And every parent has the right to voice their concerns about public schools.
Writer Ruben Navarrette has a different perspective. In a recent column in the Daily Beast, Navarrette justified the GM’s involvement, citing three factors: harassment and intimidation of elected officials, which erode civil order; demonstrations of inappropriate behavior in inappropriate places, such as outside the homes of school officials; and the origin of the request for help – in this case, the National School Board Association.
We can never equate heated debate with threats of violence. The people who work in our schools, or who help manage them, should not have to worry about their personal safety.
It reminds me of the “Code of Civil Discourse” which was created by the National Center for Conflict Resolution in 2015 to guide communications by and between elected officials and members of the community. The code was formally adopted by the municipal governments of Del Mar and Chula Vista. It was based on a conviction that is still dear to us: that divergent points of view enrich political dialogue and lead us to solutions that best meet the interests of the community. Properly managed, conflict is a powerful catalyst for positive change.
The “Code of Civil Speech” establishes communication guidelines that would be useful to school boards and their constituents. It affirms the right to freedom of expression, but within the limits of courtesy, sensitivity and respect. The code asks elected officials and members of the community to:
- Explain their position and how they got there, from a logical and ethical framework
- Asking questions to understand the position of others
- Avoid personal attacks and a condescending attitude
- To assume the good faith of all parties involved, even with divergent points of view
- Keep an open mind to other perspectives
If we can’t find our way back to civil discourse, I worry: who will fill the void and step up to serve as school board members? And besides, who will teach our children? We cannot hope to attract and retain the best and the brightest teachers in schools where the culture is acrimonious and suspicious.
No one wins this schoolyard brawl, especially not our students. It’s time to put our attention back.
Dinkin is president of the National Conflict Resolution Center, a San Diego-based group that seeks solutions to difficult problems, including intolerance and incivility. To learn more about NCRC programming, visit ncrconline.com.