Justice Dept. to Address Threats Against School Personnel

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WASHINGTON — The Justice Department, in response to pleas from national groups representing school administrators, is deploying federal law enforcement officials around the country to help address instances where people have threatened and harassed educators over divisive policy issues such as mask mandates and teaching about racism, and possibly pursue prosecutions.

Citing a “disturbing spike” in harassment against school personnel in recent months, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo on Monday directing the F.B.I. and U.S. attorneys’ offices to meet with local officials over the next month to coordinate a response to the threats, which he said “are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values.”

“While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution,” Mr. Garland wrote, “that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views.”

The department also announced that it would form a task force with members from its criminal, national security and civil rights divisions to determine how to address attacks that rise to criminal offenses federally and locally. The department said it planned to create “specialized training and guidance” for local school boards and school administrators on how to report threats and collect evidence for possible prosecution.

The measures come after the heads of the National School Boards Association made a direct plea to the White House last week, asking for federal protection. In a letter to President Biden, the organization’s leaders outlined instances across the country of school board meetings disrupted, board members threatened, and in one case, a protester arrested.

The attacks faced by educators, the organization wrote, include verbal attacks for approving Covid-19 safety policies such as masking, as well as physical threats stemming from false allegations that schools are teaching “critical race theory,” a legal framework primarily taught in graduate school that examines racism as a social construct embedded in policies and institutions. In recent months, some parents and politicians have invoked the phrase in seeking to restrict teaching about racism in public schools.

“As these acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes,” the group’s leaders said.

The letter followed similar pleas from other education groups, including those representing the nation’s superintendents and secondary school principals.

Last month, the National Association of Secondary School Principals said in a statement that its members — who are responsible for enforcing policies in schools — were facing the brunt of conflicts over masks, quarantines, vaccines and other issues.

Dr. Teresa M. Hill, the principal at Walden Grove High School in Sahuarita, Ariz., recounted in the statement an episode in August in which seven people refused to leave her campus, demanding that a quarantined student be allowed to attend class. The situation led to a three-hour lockdown of the school’s front office and three arrests, she said, after which she was the target of intimidating voice messages, emails and posts on social media.

“Calling me a Nazi, a fascist, using profanity, and being told to ‘eat the end of a shotgun’ is beyond disturbing,” she said.

The Justice Department’s announcement was met with widespread praise. But one parent group that joined in rebutting the national school board association’s request, criticized the federal intervention.

“It is shameful that activists are weaponizing the U.S. Department of Justice against parents,” Nicole Neily, the president of Parents Defending Education, said in a statement. “This is a coordinated attempt to intimidate dissenting voices in the debates surrounding America’s underperforming K-12 education — and it will not succeed. We will not be silenced.”

And Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a Republican, responded on Twitter to the Justice Department’s announcement, saying that “Florida will defend the free speech rights of its citizens and will not allow federal agents to squelch dissent.”

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