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What it's like to be on the front lines of the school board culture war

Karen Watkins is vice chair of the school board of Gwinnett County, a suburban county north of Atlanta. She is surprised that she has become a target for a political culture war. "I just didn't realize that it would impact the local school board," Watkins says. "Our main focus is towards student achievement and ensuring that we are producing children that are thriving."
Johnathon Kelso for NPR
Karen Watkins is vice chair of the school board of Gwinnett County, a suburban county north of Atlanta. She is surprised that she has become a target for a political culture war. "I just didn't realize that it would impact the local school board," Watkins says. "Our main focus is towards student achievement and ensuring that we are producing children that are thriving."

Karen Watkins works in supply chain management and has two children in public school in Gwinnett County, Ga. She's one of those moms who has always been very involved in her kids' education. So much so that local officials urged her to run for school board last year.

"They said, 'This is probably going to be a good thing for you and you can probably make a difference.' ... But I didn't realize it came with a package, a big package," she says with a rueful laugh.

She wasn't prepared for the blowback that set in as soon as she put up her Facebook page to announce her campaign. She was inundated with messages like:

"You have sold your soul to satan .. you are greedy and deceitful ..you have no part with the truth!"

And: "Karen here some news for you the DEMOCRATIC COMMUNIST BABY KILLER PARTY doesn't have any values !!!"

"I knew we were in a heightened political era where there's a lot of divisive issues," Watkins says. "I just didn't realize that it would impact the local school board... Our main focus is towards student achievement and ensuring that we are producing children that are thriving."

School board members across the country are being threatened

All over the country, local school board members, who are typically volunteers or serve for small stipends, have indeed been placed on the front line of a national culture war. Protestors are mobilizing against masks, vaccines, LGBTQ rights, removing police from schools, and diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. In early October, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the FBI to meet with state and local authorities to create "strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff."

NPR spoke to school board members in California, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, in addition to Watkins and a fellow board member in Georgia. All of them told similar stories: of being yelled at in meetings that are sometimes brought to a halt entirely; receiving threatening letters; being followed to their cars; and being photographed or filmed.

Watkins says it's hard to know just where all the vitriol is coming from. But her picture does appear alongside two of her fellow challenger candidates, all women of color, in an opposition video ad that ran online in October 2020.

"Here in Gwinnett County our kids face a grave threat. A ticket of radical liberals is running for school board," says the voiceover.

The ad connects Watkins and two other school board candidates to teen pregnancy, Marxism and the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla. — that last because of the candidates' support for reducing the use of police officers in schools.

The ad is credited to Family Policy Alliance, a right-wing Christian lobbying group with chapters around the country. The Georgia chapter is now an independent group known as Frontline Policy Action, and it's led by Cole Muzio.

"Our focus is to glorify God in the public square," Muzio says. "We focus on the right to life, religious freedom and God's design." They created the ad because, he says, "we saw a tremendous need to step in and protect the kids in Gwinnett County."

Gwinnett County, a northeast suburb of Atlanta, is the 13th largest public school district in the country and its schools have a solid reputation. The county has changed rapidly over the past two decades, becoming far more diverse. When Watkins, who is Black and Filipina, and Tarece Johnson, who is Black and Jewish, were elected to the Gwinnett County Board of Education last November, they flipped the board to be majority-Democrat and majority-people of color.

"I think we have a healthy board now with all of our diversity. White, Black, Asian, LGBTQ. I think that's a healthy representation of what our school system looks like," Watkins says.

But she feels like she's being targeted now precisely because of her race, ethnicity and gender. And she worries about how those threats could impact her family and community. "I don't want our kids to get hurt or other people to get hurt because of me, because of a thought of me," she says through tears. "I didn't sign up for that."

The meeting that changed everything

The May 20, 2021, school board meeting was a turning point for Watkins. It was graduation season; students were there with their families, dressed up, being honored for their achievements.

From the dais, Watkins and her colleagues faced down an overwhelmingly white, unmasked crowd of dozens. A video of the meeting shows protestors in T-shirts that said "UNMASK OUR CHILDREN" and "We The People Take Back Our Schools".

Watkins says she ran for school board because she has two children in the public schools. Now she's worried that her family may be targeted.
/ Johnathon Kelso for NPR
Johnathon Kelso for NPR
Watkins says she ran for school board because she has two children in the public schools. Now she's worried that her family may be targeted.

"People were saying, 'Stand your ground,' and, 'They can't remove all of us.' Stand your ground — that's enough for me," Watkins says. "When you're saying things like that, it triggers things in my brain."

Johnson says she recognized some of the protesters from Web sites and social media pages that had been targeting her. "So May 20th happens, I'm seeing these people, I'm hearing my name in the hallway, I'm hearing somebody talk about children or her children or something, and then the shouting and screaming and I — I'm just looking at these people like, I don't understand."

Watkins and Johnson say they felt so personally threatened that they left the room and watched the public comments on the live stream.

There were nearly 60 people signed up to speak that night. Many sounded really angry, like a muscular man in a black T-shirt and cap who gave his name as Steve Smith. He called Watkins and Johnson "cowards" for leaving the room. He was protesting the idea of diversity, equity and inclusion: "And anyone who supports this poisonous ideological cult, we the parents of Gwinnett County are coming for you."

That's not the first time Watkins had heard this kind of language. She says one of her constituents had said something similar over the phone, after calling her to discuss the district's masking policy. "'We are coming for you' — how am I supposed to take that?"

And it's not just words. Watkins has been followed to the parking lot after a board meeting by someone who appeared to be videotaping her license plate. Strange cars have been parked near her house, and driven away when her neighbors walked up to ask questions. Once, Watkins says, she was out jogging when a man pulled up at a stop sign and asked, "Is your husband home?" Watkins was terrified.

"I was doing a nice leisurely jog and I booked it home after that," she recalls.

Her fellow new board member, Tarece Johnson, has been targeted online for old TikToks featuring her work as an artist, poet and Black Lives Matter activist. She says she has felt so intimidated that she purchased a gun for protection.

Frontline Policy Action, meanwhile, posted on its Facebook page on Oct. 11, criticizing the U.S. attorney general's action on school board disruptions. "Parents are not domestic terrorists because they want to remove radical indoctrination from their children's classrooms," the post said. One of the commenters responded, "We should be surrounding DC."

Muzio says he tries to delete those kinds of comments when they show up, and they don't represent his group. "We shouldn't be surrounding D.C. Now is not the time to marshal forces ...There's no way that we encourage attacks on school board members. I think there's a rhetoric and tone that sometimes should be dialed down. But what these kids are facing in schools is a direct attack on what parents have worked to instill in them. And we have a real crisis, I think, going on in schools."

"Mini-insurrections" at school board meetings across the country

Protestors are aiming harassment, insults, and threats not just at board members of color in diverse counties like Gwinnett, but at school district leaders of all races in small and medium-sized districts all over the country. One theme is the interruption of public meetings to the point where public business can't take place. In conversations with NPR, several school board members referred to these as "mini-insurrections" or "mini January 6ths." In places with indoor mask mandates, unmasked protestors present a safety threat before they say or do anything.

Nikki Hudson, who is white, is on the school board in Worthington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. She says anti-mask protestors giving the Nazi salute have brought her meetings to a halt. In September, she received a letter that read, in part: "You have become our enemies and you will be removed one way or another." Hudson says the letter was also sent to at least four surrounding school districts with language implying that she, Hudson, would be made an example of. Hudson thinks she's being particularly targeted because of her vote to remove police officers from high schools last year. She went public with the letter, and she's running for reelection.

"I have a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old," she says. "I feel very passionately about modeling behavior. And you don't back down to bullies, and you do what's right even when it's hard."

Marc Bertrando is the superintendent for Garnet Valley School District in suburban Philadelphia.

"Our August [school board] meeting was, without a close second, the worst in my experience as an administrator that spans almost 20 years now," he says.

He says protesters came in without masks and refused to leave until state police were called in.

And then there were the insults.

"It never feels good to be called a coward or a Marxist or have people tell you that you're a terrible leader or that you should be fired," Bertrando says.

Sara Clark Pierson is president of the Grand Ledge Board of Education, another medium-sized suburban district, this one outside of Lansing, Mich. Pierson has been in public service for 30 years, and has deep roots in the community. She too says she's never seen anything like this.

"We used to see people who would shout, and occasionally follow me to my car ... Now what we're seeing are people who rush at the stage with their fists in the air shouting at us. Yelling at me, as board president, saying, 'Take her seat, we'll run this meeting.' "

Pierson says it's angry, aggressive and very personal.

"I had a 40-year marriage that ended and it was deeply painful for me. And one woman got up [at a meeting] and said, 'You are a disappointment to this community ... no one in the community likes you. You're an embarrassment. In fact, even your family doesn't like you, and that's why they left you.' "

Pierson says she took comfort in the words of a local minister who reached out after some of these confrontations were aired on the news.

"I said, 'Where do you think this is coming from?' And she said, 'You know, there's a lot of grief in the community. There's a lot of loss. And ... people have a hard time expressing grief, but they can express anger.' "

On a good day, Pierson says she tries to have understanding for the people who are getting up and yelling at her. She has no intention of leaving her post.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.