Shortly after she arrived at her first school board meeting, Jessica Miley watched a man with his hand on the knife in his waistband scream expletives at a security officer.
She was still wiping away tears when the meeting started. Outside, a crowd kept from entering because of COVID protocols flanked the entrance and chanted “let us in.”
After Miley finished speaking, security insisted on walking her to her car. The officer shone his flashlight on her tires to check for tampering. He told the mother of two to get in her car, lock the doors, turn on the headlights and waste no time leaving. That’s exactly what she did.
Is this normal, she wondered? At a school board meeting?
In many places, it is now. What before the pandemic was an often overlooked part of civic life is back at the forefront of the culture wars: Fights over reopening turned into fights over masks and vaccines, all of that happening simultaneously to districts and boards’ embrace of efforts to make schools more equitable places after George Floyd’s murder.
The vitriol reached a fever pitch this summer across the country and in Hampton Roads, where police have investigated threats to shoot Virginia Beach School Board members before ultimately determining it to be “posturing.” People have screamed at board members that they were going to hell, and several meetings have been gaveled into recess after speakers either screamed profanities or made profane gestures.
Some local board members say they take increased security precautions after their houses have been egged, their cars scratched and firecrackers set off in their yards in the middle of the night. Once the resulting fire was out, the chairwoman of Suffolk’s board said she found a note telling her she better vote to reopen schools.
The Department of Justice said last week it was launching a federal investigation into such threatsto teachers and elected officials. That followed a request by the organization that represents school board members nationally to investigate these threats as “domestic terrorism.” Virginia’s school board association said it wasn’t consulted and didn’t agree with its parent organization but condemned threats and disruptions to meetings in an email to board members.
“Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland wrote.
Those who’ve been critical of school boards recoil at the suggestion that their opposition can even be described as threatening, and that these elected officials refuse to engage with their complaints.
“Who’s the real problem here,” reads a caption on an Instagram post by a Virginia Beach anti-masking parent group. “Talk about the abusers becoming the abused!”
When Saturday Night Live lampooned the state of meetings in a recent skit, board members tried to laugh. It was on point in its accuracy, they said. But that made it less funny.
“(My husband) said it’s really funny but the sad part is it’s really like what you guys are going through,” said Virginia Beach board member Beverly Anderson, who, along with five of her colleagues, faces a recall petition. “He said it’s so much like the real thing it’s almost scary.”
The anger directed at school boards feels new but is part of a long tradition, said Adam Laats, a historian at New York’s Binghamton University who studies the history of cultural battles over schooling and school reform.
“Unfortunately it’s never new,” Laats said. “It’s un-American only in the sense that it goes against America’s best idea of itself. It’s very American in the fact that it keeps happening all across the country, every decade.”
The attacks on school boards over desegregation in the 1950s after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education and later in the 1970s over school busing are probably some of the most recognizable conflicts, Laats said. But they pop up every generation or so, he said.
He sees the most parallels between the current disputes and those of the 1920s.
A century ago, there were broad demographic shifts as the country became less Protestant. The time was also characterized by efforts to make society and schools more progressive, and that prompted fears from some that white youth, in particular, were changing dramatically — in part, by doing things like listening to Black musicians.
“People think if things are changing and kids are in school, the school must be changing the kids — instead of the kids are changing, and they’re in school,” he said.
Those same types of concerns are what’s driving today’s anger, said Eric Ward, the executive director of the Western States Center, a group that studies white nationalism and authoritarian movements. Some of the threats come from the same impulses that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection attempt, Ward said. The intention is the same: to disrupt the process because some people don’t like where things seem to be headed.
“There are two Americas: An America that seeks to move towards inclusion, and there is an America that seeks to move towards exclusion and division,” Ward said. “It seeks to tap into anything, any topic that can divide the American public.”
“In hundreds of communities around the country right now, January 6 is still playing out,” he said.
The chairwoman of Suffolk’s board said she sees an element of “group threat” in all this — the theory that explains how often a group can often feel threatened once it is no longer dominant. Judith Brooks-Buck, who is Black, chairs a school board that for the first time is majority female and majority African American. Superintendent John Gordon is Black.
Some white people in Suffolk resent that, she said.
One of Brooks-Buck’s loudest critics, board member Sherri Story, disputed that her opposition has anything to do with race. Story said she is at odds with the rest of the board because it isn’t transparent — something a judge has agreed with Story and another woman on in two different Freedom of Information Act lawsuits they’ve brought. The district settled a third lawsuit that Story brought.
“In this day and age, if I say I’m not racist, I’m racist,” Story said. “It’s a circular argument I have no defense for.”
Story’s lawyer, Kevin Martingayle, said he sees the district’s continued FOIA violations as an overcorrection against Story’s political beliefs.
“They seem to be trying to avoid controversial discussions in a public forum,” he said. “When you do that, it makes it look like you’re hiding something and you’re up to something that you shouldn’t be doing.”
Attention on school boards arose of late because parents are paying more attention after dealing with the negative effects of school closures, Virginia Beach board member Vicky Manning said. Manning, who is often on the losing side of 8-3 or 7-4 votes, sees the increased engagement as a positive, even if speakers don’t always express themselves in the most effective ways.
“A year ago, people probably couldn’t name one person who was on the school board,” Manning said. “Now they know them all by name and they’re showing up interested. They want to know what’s going on and they want to be a part of the process.”
What are schools for?
Many of the parents protesting school boards right now say they want a return to “basics.”
Schools are going beyond their sole responsibility to teach students about reading, writing and math, one woman told Chesapeake’s board.
“Anything else doesn’t create jobs,” said Vic Nicholls, a frequent speaker at meetings in multiple cities. “And that is what we are paying you for.”
“This is not the kind of stuff that Chesapeake needs,” Roman Hartman told the board in August as it considered whether to adopt policies, required by the state, to protect transgender students.
“Teachers are not licensed doctors and should not be talking to our children about emotions,” Amy Solares told Virginia Beach’s board in August.
In addition to a return to basics, critics have said they see changes in schools as taking rights away from parents. Letting students use restrooms of their choice does that, they say, as does letting children be referred to by pronouns a parent may not know about, or requiring student-athletes to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or tested weekly.
“When we talk about inclusion, the most excluded parties in all of this stuff are parents, and Christians specifically,” Kenny Smith told Gloucester’s school board at a town hall in July. “Our views as Christians … are described as discriminatory. That’s a hard word.”
Parents say they’ve lost trust in schools.
“Students were not being put first in Virginia Beach and elsewhere,” said Tim Mack.
Mack, along with Manning and Paula Chang, founded the Students First VA political action committee to push back. Their group announced a recall effort against six Virginia Beach board members earlier this month, alleging their votes on reopening schools ignored medical advice and the desires of parents. Manning declined to speak about her involvement in the recall.
In Virginia, a recall petition needs the signatures of 10% of people who cast a vote in the last election. For board members like Anderson, elected at-large in a race where 304,598 votes were cast, that means recall supporters must get signatures from more than 30,000 people.
Dan Chang, Paula’s husband and a frequent speaker at meetings along with their daughter, Tara, told the Tidewater Libertarian Party that the chances of removal are slim, according to a video of the event posted on Facebook. He encouraged the group to frame success differently.
“We have to change our metrics for success,” Chang said. “If we make (Vice Chairwoman) Kimberly Melnyk’s life … so miserable, I think that’s good.”
Dan Chang declined to comment. Mack said he couldn’t speak for him but that his own goal is to remove the six board members from office, not make their lives difficult.
“That could happen, but the goal is actually to have a recall,” he said.
When she heard about Dan Chang’s comments, Anderson said she just shook her head and asked “really?”
“My experiences the last few months make me dread going to meetings,” she said.
Linda Johnson, the former Suffolk mayor who stepped up to fill a temporary vacancy on that city’s school board earlier this year, said she’s no stranger to political opposition. Someone tried to run her off the road the night before she lost her last election for mayor, she said.
But, she said, she’s never seen anything like the level of anger directed at school boards now. There were disagreements before, but not the profanity, not the screaming. Every time she and a few other board members leave meetings now, they get escorted home by police because of the threats they’ve received. She worries about what lessons children are learning from seeing this play out.
Johnson had mulled running to fill the seat after her appointment ended but has decided not to.
“Frankly, I don’t want any part of it,” she said. “I don’t want to sit there and go through that.”
Brooks-Buck said she’s considered leaving, too, but decided against it.
“I’ve never allowed anyone to run me out of something,” she said. “When I leave, it’s going to be because I want to, not because someone chased me away.”
Miley said she was nervous speaking in the first place because friends had told her how hostile meetings had become.
She arrived early that night and her fears were temporarily allayed when she started talking with another mom who was also waiting to speak. They didn’t agree on the issue — Miley came to speak in favor of adopting policies to protect transgender students, to which the other woman was opposed — but Miley said they had a nice talk about their daughters and found common ground.
Then they witnessed the man screaming at security officers.
For Miley, seeing the opposition strengthened her resolve about the need to speak out in support of LGBT students like her daughter, who came out earlier this summer. But it also worried her. When she came to speak to the board a second time, her husband came with her.
“It makes it harder to feel comfortable standing up … when one side is so angry and visceral with their reactions,” Miley said.
Sara Gregory, 757-469-7484, [email protected]