by Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor
One philosophy of the union bargaining team at Clarkston Community Schools says if it’s a problem for one, it’s a problem for all.
For local president Daryl Biallas, that value now extends to a spate of attacks on school boards, administrators and educators – happening since last year but growing in the vitriol and bullying on display in Michigan and across the U.S.
In these related events, people appearing at school board meetings – often as part of organized groups – follow patterns that include berating school officials with name-calling and intimidation tactics.
Viral videos have shown hecklers shouting down and threatening administrators, board members, public health officials and others with differing viewpoints.
‘At some point as educators, we have to stand up and support our administration, support our school boards and stand together – all stakeholders – to do what we know is best for our kids,” Biallas said.
Last month nearly 200 Clarkston Education Association members made visible their support for school leaders by attending a board meeting dressed in red shirts. Educators just want to work together in a supportive, connected community where mutual respect guides disagreement, Biallas said.
“Even if we don’t agree 100% of the time, our administration and our board of ed are 100% behind our teachers. We do good work. Our relationship is solid. We collaborate on a lot of things, and we work together when we have problems and issues that we need to face.”
A few days before the school board meeting, Clarkston Superintendent Shawn Ryan issued a statement to the community addressing “recent interactions with some vocal citizens who have been less than respectful toward our learning community.”
“As public figures, the Board of Education and I can tolerate and even accept a certain level of negative behaviors, tactics, and campaigning aimed to damage our personal or professional reputations and impede our work,” the statement said. “But when it comes to our tireless public school teachers and staff, there is no acceptable level of disrespect or public shaming.”
The protest group in Clarkston began clashing with the board over a school masking mandate issued by the Oakland County Health Department. That morphed into a disinformation campaign stoking rage with false rhetoric toward the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) practices.
Shouting turned to public shaming and intimidation when a Facebook group, Clarkston Parent Advocates, targeted individual teachers. The group posted a so-called “Woke Incident Report” – a live online Google form for reporting supposed “CRT/DEI curriculum in classrooms.”
The form directed people to turn in teachers for using LGBTQ-respectful pronouns, discussing social justice or unconscious bias, and “Grooming students with intent of converting them into Gestapo agents,” among other items listed.
Users were invited to link accusations to photos or documents, and for a time submissions could be viewed by anyone who clicked on the form. It was taken down and reposted at least once, and a commenter offered a reward to anyone who succeeded in getting a teacher fired.
The form is not an authorized or acceptable tool for filing a complaint, Ryan said in the statement. Instead it was intended “to deny us opportunities for respectful and constructive dialogue by supporting a national narrative that seeks to fracture teacher-parent trust.”
The district has met with individuals about concerns, yet the group continues to spread falsehoods, Ryan said. “Managing this misinformation distracts from our core business of educating children.”
In Grand Ledge, west of Lansing, a June 14 school board meeting ended without completing the agenda when the crowd would not stop yelling and board members could not hear each other. When a recess was called, one audience member was heard threatening to physically take over the seat of the school board president during the break. Shouting continued after the meeting.
The protesters were riled over the district’s school masking mandate and about supposed teaching of “critical race theory,” a set of ideas studied at the graduate level in colleges and universities but not in K-12 Michigan schools.
At the next board meeting, members of the Grand Ledge Education Association met in the parking lot and walked in together. Some who spoke during public comment shared a message of caring, kindness, and compassion to convey that students are the top priority, GLEA President Melissa Mazzola said.
Many staff members are parents in the district, Mazzola said. They want what is best for kids, and everyone agrees that attending school in-person is best for students’ learning and social-emotional health.
While the Eaton County Health Department has not mandated masks in schools, the district did—making the case that mask use reduces spread of the virus and cuts down on how many people must quarantine after exposure, so schools stay open and kids stay in school.
“Teachers are just really excited to have our kids back in the building and to have the opportunity to meet their needs and build those relationships,” Mazzola said.
However, during the GLEA members’ appearance at the board meeting, they were shouted at outside pre-meeting, in the auditorium during public testimony, and returning to their cars.
Afterward, lists of teachers who attended began circulating on social media. Other educators’ names were added to the list based on their Facebook posts, and all were spread as undesirable teachers. Many have expressed fear and anxiety about becoming a target, Mazzola said.
The threats and harassment must stop before someone gets hurt, says state Sen. Dayna Polehanki, a former New Haven English teacher and MEA member elected in 2018 to represent Canton, Livonia, Plymouth, Northville and Wayne. “I’m going to fight like hell against this becoming the new norm,” she said.
Polehanki has warned of a growing threat of violence against public officials since May 2020 when she tweeted a chilling photo of “unmask” protesters in the gallery above the Senate armed with rifles. Two were later charged in a violent plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
“I know school board members who have had to be escorted out of a back door by police after a meeting,” said Polehanki, who has been open about her decision to keep a bulletproof vest, helmet and mace under her desk on the Senate floor.
“I’ve heard of people testifying at school board meetings who’ve been jostled and pushed and screamed at on their way out because they’re testifying in favor of a mask mandate. I know personally a school board member who was stalked outside her home because of her stance on masks.”
Polehanki was among seven Democratic state senators who wrote a letter in late August urging the Wayne County Health Department to consider a K-12 mask mandate in the state’s largest county amid rising case numbers and the threat of the more transmissible Delta variant.
School officials want local control, but they also need expert guidance to make decisions in a public health crisis, she said. “Hopefully the heat will be turned down. It’s just unbelievable that it’s come to a point where the police have to have a presence at school board meetings.”
The volatile atmosphere is driving some elected leaders from office. In Ottawa County’s Grand Haven schools, the school board president cited harassment and threats in resigning his post in September after 22 years of service. Four days later the six-year superintendent announced his retirement.
Again the uproar has centered around mask mandates amid a pandemic and a K-12 curriculum – critical race theory – that does not exist and is not taught in Michigan.
Despite repeated attempts to clear up misconceptions about what is taught and what is not, the board struggled to keep control of meetings through outbursts of shouting and threats of recall and retaliation, said Amy Cahalan, president of the Grand Haven Education Association.
“What it feels like is the angry mob with pitchforks is storming the village after the ogre,” Cahalan said, “and public education has become the ogre.”
In Grandville, a suburb of Grand Rapids, a small but angry crowd has disrupted school board meetings for several months. One protester threatened school board members during public comment at a meeting in September.
As a history teacher, Grandville EA President Blake Mazurek believes in the importance of civic engagement, but he’s troubled by the behavior of these groups: name-calling, booing, mocking, and personal attacks on the character of board members, administrators and educators.
The atmosphere has harmed educators’ morale and the mental and physical well-being of school employees, he said. That’s why dozens of members and supporters answered a call to attend the next board meeting “in solidarity with all who believe in our public schools and those who defend them.”
In public remarks, Mazurek thanked district leaders for standing as a bulwark to shield staff and urged board members to “use the powers given through policy to take immediate action when members of the audience engage in the behaviors I describe. Bring dignity back to our district and community.”
The current climate underscores the importance of having people committed to public education step forward to run for school board seats—and for MEA members to help elect them, said Ken Ferguson, a teacher and local union treasurer in Grosse Pointe who is a school board member in West Bloomfield.
Ferguson, who completed NEA’s powerful two-day See Educators Run training on how to run for office, said there will always be loud voices of opposition, but it’s important on the local level to cultivate and support leaders who are willing to stand up for the public good.
“What’s kept me going is knowing I’m making a difference,” Ferguson said. “I’m not driven by one topic. I have even-keeled reasoning ability. I’m one of seven members, and although we may have dissenting opinions, we make decisions by finding consensus and then we move on.”
NEA President Becky Pringle, visiting Michigan in September as part of her nationwide Joy, Justice & Excellence Tour, heard from Ferguson and other MEA members and staff facing this challenge amid even bigger struggles.
The 30-year science teacher praised the organizing happening around values and principles that stake the higher ground for educators. “As I’ve traveled around the country, I have never been more proud to be a teacher, to be an educator, to be a unionist than in this moment.”
Pringle, elected to lead the national union just over one year ago, said her vision of the future would build community coalitions to unite the nation in reclaiming public education as a common good and building an equitable system that prepares every student to succeed in a diverse world.
Much work remains, she noted, but “As difficult as it is, I see you, I thank you. You are not alone. Don’t give up.”
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