Berated and interrogated: School board meetings have become untenable amid mask mandates, critical race theory – MLive.com

berated-and-interrogated:-school-board-meetings-have-become-untenable-amid-mask-mandates,-critical-race-theory-–-mlive.com

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GRAND RAPIDS, MI – At a crowded school board meeting, a Forest Hills Public Schools parent drew cheers and applause after adamantly admonishing school leaders for pushing masks on students, pointing her finger and saying, “I think the board forgets who you work for, you work for us. We tell you what to do.”Another parent sternly voiced disapproval of critical race theory, saying it was a “constantly evolving and racist lens.” And a grandmother berated the board and superintendent for singling out white students and turning kids into “radical anti-Americans.”For nearly an hour during public comment Sept. 20, some of the more than 50 parents and community members interrogated and criticized the board on polarizing topics like mask mandates, critical race theory and gender and sex education issues, at times threatening lawsuits, board recalls and demanding the superintendent resign.A year and a half of mask mandates, vaccine debates and disruptions to in-person learning has left many Michigan parents feeling angry, frustrated and scared – and those concerns are boiling over at hostile school board meetings statewide as distrust has set in, raising questions about the short and long-term impact on school communities.School board meetings weren’t always quite as contentious. Meetings were typically mundane – the board and superintendent could conduct routine school business, approve budgets and discuss policies.During the pandemic, monthly school board meetings have become the local battleground for some of the most contentious issues that are dividing the country right now, said Don Wotruba, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Boards (MASB).“We’re seeing it across the state – sometimes hours of public comment, often not with a polite or civil conversation, but people yelling at the board,” Wotruba said. “We really are seeing a period of time that in my 24 years at MASB I have never seen before. In some ways it’s reflecting society – this is the level of discourse in many forms.”One West Michigan school board president resigned in September over the threats and harassment he said he’s received from the public as meetings grew more antagonistic. At a spring Hudsonville school board meeting, people wanting masks to be optional got angry when locked out of the meeting due to capacity limits and began banging on the door and shouting “let us in” until security guards asked them to leave.U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland on Monday directed the FBI to work with local leaders nationwide to address what he called a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” against educators and school board members.How did we get here?The rise in hostility toward school officials really boiled to the surface last spring, when people started feeling fed up with pandemic-related restrictions like mask mandates and school closures, said Dan Behm, superintendent of Forest Hills Public Schools.School mask mandates have been fiercely contested by some parents across West Michigan who believe the decision whether or not to mask up should remain up to parents, not school leaders or government officials.“I think it goes back to the public health orders, and a sense of people believing that the orders were wrong, or that the orders were not consistent with the law or violated fundamental principles of the country,” Behm said. “And if you didn’t agree with that viewpoint, you were not only in the opposition, but you were not to be trusted.”The divide over school mask mandates eventually devolved into a deeper polarization over other hyper-political issues, resulting in some parents feeling an “us vs. them” mentality toward public school leaders, Behm said.“There’s this sense of, if you’re on the other side of this issue around public health, you must be on the other side on a whole host of other things, and that quickly stretches into, ‘You people aren’t like me,’” Behm said.The superintendent said there’s also been a national campaign to energize parents in public schools across the country over issues like critical race theory, in an effort to motivate voters ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.Critical race theory (CRT) isn’t taught in K-12 schools in Michigan – it’s not part of the state’s academic standards, Behm explained. It’s an educational framework that is mostly taught at the college level.But many parents are deeply concerned over the thought of CRT being taught in K-12 schools, because they fear it will make students feel divided by the color of their skin.RELATED: Critical race theory isn’t taught in Michigan schools, so why is it such a hot topic?“There is a fear that’s being driven right now as a way to mobilize people to vote, and I think fear is a powerful motivator,” Behm said. “There’s a narrative that says – erroneously, I believe – that public schools are places that aren’t teaching the basics of learning, but instead are spending their time indoctrinating kids in a political viewpoint.”The superintendent said that just isn’t true.“On a daily basis, I see our teachers providing all kids with the building blocks to learn anything,” Behm said. “The ability to read, the ability to write, the ability to compute and do mathematics, understand their world, whether it’s geographically or economically or through history, understand basic science. That’s the type of work I see every day.”When it comes to an issue like critical race theory, and the political campaign surrounding it, local school board members just aren’t equipped to handle that kind of nationally organized effort, said Rebecca Jacobsen, a Michigan State University professor of education policy.School board members often have no political experience, only running for the board because they care about their local public schools. So, when parents attend meetings in droves to complain about CRT, school board members are often left flustered because they just don’t know how to respond, Jacobsen said.“They can say, ‘we don’t teach Critical Race theory,’ which is a true and honest response, but it’s not a slick campaign message to counter this other very strong narrative,” Jacobsen said. “They’re just so caught off guard.”How is the rise in tension impacting school districts at the local level?When things get out of hand at a school board meeting, it makes it hard for school leaders to do the work that needs to get done.Rockford Board of Education President Geoffrey Downs saw that happen firsthand during an Aug. 23 school board meeting, where parents spent over four hours of public comment fiercely criticizing a school mask mandate imposed by the county three days prior.“We respect people having a difference of opinion, there’s no doubt about that,” Downs said. “But on Aug. 23, it was ridiculous. We had people violating our guidelines, addressing the crowd to get things riled up, shouting insults. It’s just not achieving anything. I’m not going to tolerating somebody just shouting insults at our superintendent. We’re not going to tolerate any rude behavior or threats to us anymore.”Wotruba said he’s heard the same thing from school board members across the state.“When the board has just sat through their own pressure cooker, they just don’t feel that they have a capacity after that kind of meeting to really get to the business side and so they’re left recessing the meeting,” Wotruba said.RELATED: Manchester school board adjourns meeting when parents refuse to wear masksSome educators are also concerned the pressure school board members are under this year could impact their willingness to serve in the future.Downs, who ran for the school board in 2015 after retiring from Rockford as a teacher, joined the board because he cares deeply about the district and its students. He never expected to be put under such fierce public scrutiny, he said.“The abuse – and I will highlight that word, the abuse – is not something we signed up for,” Downs said. “We’re getting these disrespectful comments slung at us about masks, and I’m perplexed that we’re looked at as, you know, people that are harming kids.”John Siemion, president of the Grand Haven Board of Education, resigned last month so he could focus on his mental, emotional and physical health following months of increasingly hostile school board meetings, he said.“I have put my heart and soul into trying to become the best board member I can be over the past 22 years,” Siemion wrote in an email announcing his resignation to the Grand Haven community on Sept. 2. “For the most part, my time on the Board of Education has been enjoyable. I can’t say that anymore.”Wotruba said he’s concerned the pressure on local school leaders could force other board members to resign or reconsider their willingness to serve.“Right now, it’s a very difficult place to be an elected school board member, and not many people recognize that the (board members) are no different than (community members), they chose to run for office to try and help their community, and they’re just getting beat up for it,” Wotruba said.“We’re starting to see board members who are like, ‘yeah, I’m done with this.’”But Mary Vonck, the Forest Hills school board president, said that despite backlash from some parents this year, she remains optimistic that the community will be able to band together and unite.“I have incredible faith in this community, and the people I have met over the years are amazing,” Vonck said. “There are good people who know we want to educate our kids, we want to keep them safe and healthy and happy, and I know there are people out there that want to continue this work.”More on MLive: Parents sue Ottawa County over mask mandate; county attorney calls lawsuit ‘nonsense’‘I need help’: Kent County’s top health official tells commissioners after threats, road rage over COVID-19 response455 infected across 95 new COVID outbreaks at Michigan schools, per Oct. 4 reportNote to readers: if you purchase something through one of our affiliate links we may earn a commission.
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