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School Board members are resigning, questioning service as risk, harassment grows

Rebecca White/SPR

As school districts navigate their second year of pandemic-era instruction, school boards of directors are facing escalating hostility.

The increased attention has ranged from more participation at school board meetings, to harassment, to threats and intimidation.

Education leaders are calling for patience and civility.

Debbie Long has served on the Central Valley School Board since 2003. She says in 18 years, she’s presided over contentious issues, but none as divisive as masks and coronavirus vaccinations.

In August, Long ended an in-person meeting because attendees refused to wear masks. She’s been the target of critical public comment, a recall lawsuit, and most recently, a threat to her physical safety.

“I will never run again, I can tell you that,” she says. “They’ve got what they wanted, they’ve taken all the fight out of me.”

The person who physically threatened Long did so over Facebook. They called her a traitor, promised they and others would take her down, and called her names that are unrepeatable over public radio.

Long said she’s had difficulty eating and sleeping, and her family is concerned.

“It shook me to my core because I’ve never had a threat like that in my entire life,” she says.

Marla Nunberg, the director of communications at Central Valley School District, says this summer the district started providing security at school board meetings for the first time. She says during the pandemic the district received many complaints from frustrated members of the public, but the message sent to Long is the first that rose to the level of a threat. She says the district has filed a police report.

Long says the pandemic has been difficult for her as a board member, and said many of the decisions that have generated anger, such as a mask requirement and a vaccine mandate for workers, are out of her hands.

“I empathize with them, I’ve been in a mask since March of 2020. I don’t like it, but I wear it because that’s what I’m required to do,” she says.

Long works at a retirement home, and is fully vaccinated. She says she also empathizes with her critics because she doesn’t believe in mandates.

Long isn’t the only school board member in the Pacific Northwest to face threats of violence, or harassment. Tim Garchow, the executive director of the Washington State School Directors Association, says civility and decorum at school board meetings has become an issue.

“There have been cases on both sides of the state,” he says, “I wouldn’t say it’s the norm, there’s been enough to garner attention, where individuals message is being lost in their delivery.”

Garchow said a few of those cases have escalated to police reports, or led to board members gaveling meetings early.

He said the issue of contention is usually masks, or vaccine mandates, both decisions that were made by the governor, not local school officials. He and the School Directors association released a statement calling for civility.

“We are the adults in this situation, and it’s a difficult time,” he says, “but we can’t lose sight the fact that children are watching, they are watching our behavior.”

Idaho school districts are facing similar backlash.

When Kootenai County’s COVID-19 case count and hospitalization numbers skyrocketed, Coeur d’Alene school district trustees tried to meet to discuss a temporary mask mandate.

That discussion was cancelled after around 200 anti-mask protesters shut down the meeting. Several protestors also pushed their way into the district offices. School officials urged journalist covering the protest to leave, fearing for their safety.

Two school board members resigned following the incident.

Quinn Perry, the deputy director of government affairs at the Idaho School Boards Association, says their organization has seen unusually high turnover in school trustee positions.

“I’m hearing about a new trustee resigning every day basically at this point,” she says.

Perry says school board trustees in Idaho have reported seeing people taking photos of their license plates, and that they’ve seen more threats and harassment on social media. Some say they’re afraid to walk alone to their cars after board meeting.

She says trustees report they’re exhausted, not only from the anger and criticism of the public, but from the increased burden of leadership at a school district during a pandemic.

She says many have had to make unpopular decisions, but noted many of those are likely based on the obligations outlined for trustees in the Idaho State Constitution.

“At the end of the day I think everybody wants the same thing,” she says, “which is that we know that kids learn better in an in person safe environment, for a school board member if you know that’s your goal at the end of the day, you have a duty and obligation to implement whatever tools and strategies necessary to execute that constitutional obligation to the kids in your community.”

Perry says her organization is providing training to school trustees to help them de-escalate board meetings, but ultimately, she hopes the public takes some responsibility too.

“We’re supposed to set an example for our kids,” Perry says, “I think as long as we can all agree that these tactics of harassment and intimidation are something that nobody in the community supports, I think we’re going to get through this pandemic a lot faster.”

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.
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