Parents who protest public school policies on race, gender and COVID-19 are crying foul after Attorney General Merrick Garland promised to "discourage" and prosecute "harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence" against school boards, administrators, teachers and staff.
His "mobilization of [the] FBI against parents is consistent with the complete weaponization of the federal government against ideological opponents," Rhode Island mother Nicole Solas, who is waging a public records battle with her school district over race-related curriculum, told Just the News.
"It ought to be the parents that need protection" from intimidation by school boards and superintendents, civil rights veteran Bob Woodson told Just the News. He cited Virginia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe's recent statement that parents shouldn't tell schools what to teach.
"Nobody's making a case that lawlessness is being tolerated," said the founder of the Woodson Center and its 1776 Unites project, which advises school boards on history curricula and publishes its own lessons. The Department of Justice is creating the impression that parents are "firebombing school board meetings."
Former President Donald Trump told the John Solomon Reports podcast he was "somewhat surprised" by Garland's move, though "nothing surprises me too much anymore." He said parents were "very wounded by what's taken place by, in many cases, radical left school boards."
Garland's Monday night memo said the FBI and U.S. attorneys would convene meetings with federal, state and local leaders to discuss "strategies for addressing threats."
DOJ said in a press release that it would create "specialized training" for school boards and administrators to identify threats, report it to law enforcement and "capture and preserve evidence" to aid in prosecutions.
A task force is also planned that includes the department's Criminal Division and National Security Division. It will determine how to prosecute these crimes and assist state and local law enforcement "where threats of violence may not constitute federal crimes," the agency said.
The federal response closely follows a letter from the National School Boards Association (NSBA) claiming to face "domestic terrorism and hate crimes" from critics of mask mandates and promoters of "propaganda purporting the false inclusion of critical race theory" in classes.
It cited incidents including a man who "yelled a Nazi salute" in a Michigan school board meeting, though WDIV reported he was comparing supporters of mask mandates to Adolf Hitler. The man's employer told Detroit Metro Times it fired him after the incident.
"These incidents are beyond random acts," CEO Chip Slaven told Education Week. "What we are now seeing is a pattern of threats and violence occurring across state lines and via online platforms." The NSBA letter cites "interstate commerce" to justify federal intervention.
A coalition of parent activist groups led by D.C.-area Parents Defending Education (PDE) told the NSBA it used "a tiny number of minor incidents in order to insinuate" that parent-led protests against secrecy, race essentialism and "pandemic-related learning losses" are punishable under the Patriot Act.
"The association of legitimate protest with terrorism and violence reveals both your contempt for parents and your unwillingness to understand and hear the sincere cries of parents on behalf of their children," said the signatories, who claim to represent more than 400,000 members.
"We will not be bullied," they said. "We will not have our speech chilled."
"Civic participation is not domestic terrorism," Wenyuan Wu of signatory Californians for Equal Rights Foundation tweeted.
The Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism asked Garland to ensure "any measures taken by the federal government will be fully authorized, appropriately tailored, and consistent with the broad civil and constitutional liberties" owed activists.
"[W]e are confident that state and local law enforcement will use their legal authority to address" unlawful conduct, the membership group, which includes prominent black intellectuals John McWhorter and Glenn Loury, wrote in a letter. It said the "overwhelming majority" of concerned parents "are engaged in peaceful and lawful conduct."
PDE is now promoting a grassroots email campaign asking DOJ to drop its effort to "criminalize" advocacy for "high-quality education." It's also taking the fight to Garland by highlighting his own alleged conflict of interest.
The attorney general has a personal connection to a firm hired by Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) to "data mine kids" without parental consent, according to PDE's investigative chief, former Wall Street Journal correspondent Asra Nomani.
FCPS confirmed to Nomani that it classified Panorama Education, which counts Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as an investor, as "school officials" to qualify for an exemption from the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
"Panorama Education will profit from Garland's outrageous silencing of parents who are challenging its data mining of K-12 students," Nomani wrote Tuesday. "This is federal law [FERPA] that Garland would have to enforce and Big Tech is now circumventing."
Wealthy Northern Virginia has faced some of the most heated debates at public meetings in recent months. The Loudoun County School Board shut down public comments and cleared the room in the face of protests about a gender identity policy and critical race theory (CRT).
Woodson criticized the county for threatening to fire any school personnel "that even complaints" about CRT. It's like stopping a tenant from complaining about how the owner is maintaining the apartment, he said.
"This is all in protection of the school bureaucracies" and hand in hand with unions to turn "children into combatants," he told Just the News. "Most of the intimidation and the hostility toward civic order is coming from the school system."
SLF general counsel Kimberly Hermann told Just the News the DOJ memo targets litigants as well as participants in school board meetings. "The Biden administration's use of the awesome power of government to investigate, stifle, and silence criticism is the hallmark of totalitarian tyranny," she wrote in an email.
Critics of the Garland memo and DOJ statement emphasized the feds didn't cite specific incidents of threats or violence, suggesting First Amendment activities were fair game for investigations and prosecutions.
"They went from 'critical race theory doesn't exist' to 'unleash the FBI against its enemies' in less than 90 days," tweeted Christopher Rufo, the activist behind several disclosures of school and corporate race training.
While Garland said he wouldn't target "spirited debate about policy matters," the agency didn't respond to a request from Just the News to specify examples of incidents it would prosecute, such as the Nazi salute in Michigan.