U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has directed federal authorities to meet with local law enforcement over the next month to discuss strategies for addressing the increase in "harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members, teachers and workers" in public schools across the country.
The one-page memorandum directs the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Offices to meet with federal, state, Tribal, territorial and local law enforcement leaders over the next 30 days in the hopes of opening up channels of communication for threat reporting, assessment and response.
"While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views," Garland wrote, characterizing threats against public servants as both illegal and "counter to our nation's core values."
The directive comes amidst a surge in confrontations at local school board meetings over topics like masking, vaccine requirements and how race is taught in schools, and a request for federal help.
In a six-page letter to President Biden last week, the National School Boards Association detailed instances of threats and acts of violence (mostly related to mask mandates) at school board meetings in states including California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Texas and Virginia.
It says such conduct — whether at local meetings or threats sent through mail and social media — endangers students and educators and disrupts school district operations, and notes the growing threat of "extremist hate organizations showing up at school board meetings."
"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 school boards association wrote, asking for federal help investigating and preventing them.
Garland's memorandum also says that the Justice Department will announce more efforts aimed at addressing the rise in "criminal conduct directed toward school personnel" in the days ahead. Those are expected to include:
- The establishment of a task force to determine how federal enforcement tools can be used to prosecute crimes, and ways to assist local law enforcement in situations where threats of violence may not constitute federal crimes
- The creation of Justice Department training and guidance for local school boards and school administrators that focuses on identifying behavior that constitutes threat, reporting such conduct to law enforcement and how to capture and preserve evidence for subsequent investigation and prosecution
"The Department takes these incidents seriously and is committed to using its authority and resources to discourage these threats, identify them when they occur, and prosecute them when appropriate," he said.
This story originally published in the Morning Edition live blog.
An earlier version of this story named an organization that has promoted school board rallies and protests in California, but says it was not involved in the specific incidents in other states mentioned in the story. NPR could not verify such involvement, and that reference in the story has been removed.