Race, masks and vaccines are fueling school board threats Karen Watkins ran for her local school board because she wanted to be involved in her children's education. Since her election in 2020, she's been yelled at, threatened and followed to her car.

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

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SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Mask mandates, police in schools and how to teach American history - protesters all over the country are bringing these issues to school board meetings. But many educators say the debates have grown vicious and personal, and school board members say they fear for their own and their children's safety and that their public service mission is harder than ever. NPR's Anya Kamenetz has been reporting on this, and she takes us to Gwinnett County, Ga., to meet one school board member.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Karen Watkins works in supply chain management and has two children in the public schools. She says she was one of those moms who was always very involved in her kids' education, so much so that local officials urged her to run for school board last year.

KAREN WATKINS: They said, you - this is probably going to be a good thing for you, and you could probably make a difference on here. But didn't realize it came with a package (laughter), a big package...

KAMENETZ: The package, meaning the blowback Watkins started getting as soon as she put up her Facebook page to announce her campaign.

WATKINS: Even before I actually took office and took seat, I would get - I was getting hundreds of messages, hundreds. They would send it via Facebook, via my website, whatever means they could reach me - right? - calling. Oh goodness, I used to - I was called a demon. I was Satan's spawn.

KAMENETZ: Some of the messages used similar language to this online video ad from last fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And here in Gwinnett County, our kids face a grave threat. A ticket of radical liberals is running for school board.

KAMENETZ: The ad connects Watkins and the other school board challenger candidates to teen pregnancy, Marxism and, because of their position on school resource officers, the Parkland school shooting in 2018.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And the root of their ideas helped lead to the Nikolas Cruz shooting in Florida. What a disaster.

KAMENETZ: The Family Policy Alliance, a right-wing Christian lobbying group, produced the ad. Family Policy Alliance is now called Frontline Policy Action, and its leader, Cole Muzio, told NPR...

COLE MUZIO: We saw a tremendous need to step in and protect the kids in Gwinnett County and protect the parents of Gwinnett County.

KAMENETZ: This northeastern Atlanta suburb is the 13th-largest public school district in the country. The schools have a solid reputation here. The county and its politics have changed rapidly over the past two decades, and it's now one of the most diverse in the United States.

WATKINS: Over a hundred different languages are spoken here. How do - you know, it's beautiful. I think that's beautiful. You pretty much get the globe in one county.

KAMENETZ: When Watkins, who is Black and Filipina, and Tarece Johnson, who is Black and Jewish, were elected last November, they flipped their school board to be majority Democrat and majority people of color. And when they took office, disgruntled protesters who are overwhelmingly white started showing up at school board meetings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Dozens of Gwinnett County parents caused a stir at last night's board meeting when they wouldn't back down about masking up. Nearly 100 parents, many donning unmasked...

KAMENETZ: Here's Watkins in a clip from Atlanta's local TV news Channel 11Alive at their meeting in May, facing down an unmasked crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WATKINS: In an effort to proceed with our meeting this evening, we ask everyone wear a mask, as that is...

(CROSSTALK)

WATKINS: ...As that is the policy. If you are unable to comply, please leave the premises.

(CROSSTALK)

WATKINS: It got a little testy in there, people saying, stand your ground; they can't remove all of us. Literally, stand your ground - that's enough for me (laughter). When you're saying things like that, they trigger things in my brain.

KAMENETZ: Watkins and Johnson felt so personally threatened that they left the room and watched the public comments on the livestream.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE SMITH: So two cowards left the building and...

KAMENETZ: A man who gave his name as Steve Smith called them cowards. There were almost 60 people signed up to comment that night, and many of them, like Smith, sounded really angry. He was protesting the idea of diversity, equity and inclusion.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SMITH: And anyone who supports this poisonous ideological cult, we the parents of Gwinnett County are coming for you.

KAMENETZ: We are coming for you - that's not the first time Watkins had heard that kind of language.

WATKINS: You know, I had a parent call me - call me and told me that, you know, they're coming for me. How am I supposed to take that? You know, you're - we are coming for you. We are coming for you.

KAMENETZ: She's been followed to the parking lot after a board meeting.

WATKINS: There's a person just lurking, videotaping you. But why are you videotaping my car?

KAMENETZ: And it's not just Gwinnett County. Incidents like these have gotten so widespread that Attorney General Merrick Garland has directed the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI to address threats against school personnel.

MELISSA RYAN: There's been a lot of growing anger over the past couple of years just over COVID in the schools.

KAMENETZ: Melissa Ryan consults with organizations on combating right-wing misinformation and extremism. She compares the upheaval at school boards to the early days of the Tea Party movement.

RYAN: You know, everyone has been pushed to the brink. Parents in particular have been pushed to the brink. And the same bad actors that, you know, are always there to exploit anger have really tapped into something.

KAMENETZ: But what Muzio at Frontline Policy Action in Georgia sees is the federal government trying to silence parents.

MUZIO: So in no way do we encourage, you know, attacks on school board members. I think there's a rhetoric and tone that need to sometimes be dialed down. But what these kids are facing in schools is a direct attack on what parents have worked to instill in them.

KAMENETZ: I spoke to school board members in California, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania. They told similar stories to Watkins and Johnson - being yelled at in meetings that are sometimes brought to a halt entirely, being threatened by letter or over the phone, followed to their car, trashed on social media, photographed and filmed.

NIKKI HUDSON: I think in the beginning, I was honestly just really shocked. Like, I had never received anything like this before.

KAMENETZ: Nikki Hudson, who is white, is a nonpartisan school board member in the small district of Worthington, Ohio, outside Columbus. Last month, she received a letter that read in part...

HUDSON: You've become our enemies, and you will be removed one way or the other.

KAMENETZ: The letter was also sent to the boards of four surrounding school districts with language implying that she, Hudson, would be made an example of for all of them. Hudson dates the personal ire to her 2020 vote to remove police officers from high schools, as well as the district's policies on masks and diversity, equity and inclusion. Hudson went public with the letter. And she's running for reelection.

HUDSON: You know, I have a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old. And we've - my husband and 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.

KAMENETZ: Watkins in Georgia is starting to feel paranoid, she says. There's been people showing up in her neighborhood. Recently, a car pulled up at a stop sign.

WATKINS: I was jogging, and the man asked me - he's like, is your husband home?

KAMENETZ: Watkins took that as a threat. She feels like she's being targeted, as a woman and as a Black woman. The thought brings her to tears.

WATKINS: I don't want our kids to get hurt or other people to get hurt because of me, because of a thought of me 'cause that's not what - I didn't sign up for that. I signed up to, you know, protect these kids, make sure that they're nurtured, make sure that they are in a happy, healthy environment that allows them to achieve, no matter what they do.

KAMENETZ: She says she just wants to get back to what her focus was intended to be all along - the kids.

Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.

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