Recently, chaos and vitriol have dominated many school board meetings around the state and nation. Verbal attacks and threats of physical violence targeted at board members and educators have become far too common.
What’s driving this angry rhetoric?
Safety measures put in place to protect students and employees, as well as efforts to be open and honest in educating students about American history.
These attacks are just plain wrong and need to end – and the power to do that rests with parents, educators and communities standing together to respectfully raise opposing voices.
Harassment and threats have stemmed from anger over mask mandates and vaccines, as well as “critical race theory” and the unfounded distortion that it is part of Michigan K-12 curriculum. Driven by right-wing personalities and online misinformation, followers have been encouraged to protest at school board meetings, with results often going far beyond simple disruption.
Public shaming, intimidation and bullying have no place in our society, especially when talking about dedicated educators and volunteer school board members committed to student success.
When a group in Clarkston turned their anger from the board and administration to individual educators, Clarkston Superintendent Shawn Ryan rightly pushed back, saying, “When it comes to our tireless public school teachers and support staff, there is no acceptable level of disrespect or public shaming.”
We must set an example for our children by opposing harassment, threats and other tactics that undermine efforts to serve students’ social, emotional and academic needs. This negative rhetoric and lack of respect may be part of what’s driving disturbing, violent student behavior in social media videos.
All this exacerbates the severe educator shortage in our public schools. Last month, Eastpointe Middle School moved classes online for a week due to a lack of teachers following a wave of resignations – and the worsening shortage may lead other districts to soon face similar situations. These angry attacks dissuade aspiring educators from entering the profession and may lead many education professionals to follow their colleagues out the door.
Unfortunately, these attacks are not limited to school personnel. An angry driver attempted to run the Kent County Health Department director off the road hours after he issued a mask mandate for some county schools. The Barry-Eaton County health officer has received death threats, with one angry resident suggesting he should be put in a gas chamber as a result of safety measures imposed on local schools.
The majority of Michiganders support necessary steps to keep people safe in this pandemic. Parents want their children to receive a well-rounded education that cultivates critical thinking skills – without glossing over parts of our history because of uncomfortable truths about race and gender.
We cannot afford for those voices to be a silent majority. In too many places, negative opinions are the only ones being heard.
MEA will continue to vigorously defend our members against ill-informed attacks. We will continue to publicly defend school board members, administrators and public health officials who are trying to protect our students and keep our schools open for in-person learning.
And we hope parents, community members and others who believe as we do raise their voices as well.
But, even if we disagree, we can do so in a respectful way. The intimidation, verbal attacks and bullying need to stop. We must tone down the rhetoric and return to civil discourse before someone gets hurt.
Paula Herbart is president of the Michigan Education Association.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Ray Curry, Teamsters President James Hoffa and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.