The Mississippi School Boards Association is making it known it had no part in the National School Boards Association’s request for federal assistance to protect school board members, students and educators from threats and harassment over issues such as mask-wearing and critical race theory.

The Mississippi School Boards Association (MSBA) Board of Directors will also consider whether it will leave the national group at its November meeting, according to MSBA Executive Director Denotris Jackson. 

The National School Boards Association, which offers resources to and advocates for local school boards, in late September wrote a controversial letter to President Joe Biden.

The group asked the U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies to assist local law enforcement in protecting school board members, students and educators from threats and potential violence stemming from debate over issues such as masks and critical race theory. 

“The letter was sent without knowledge, input or approval from the Mississippi School Boards Association,” wrote MSBA Executive Director Denotris Jackson. “MSBA does not support the action taken by NSBA.”

The National School Boards Association, or NSBA, cited a “growing number” of instances across the country of disrupted meetings and sometimes violence in the letter. The organization asked for the federal government’s help in identifying threats and suggested that some of the actions could constitute domestic terrorism or hate crimes.

“NSBA believes immediate assistance is required to protect our students, school board members and educators who are susceptible to acts of violence affecting interstate commerce because of threats to their districts, families and personal safety,” wrote NSBA President Viola Garcia and Interim Executive Director and CEO Chip Slaven.

The letter mostly cited threats via mail and social media, disruptions and some instances of violence stemming from the debate over mask-wearing policies in schools. 

Shortly after the letter was sent, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to begin meeting with state and local law enforcement officers to address these threats. The directive also said a task force will be created to determine how federal enforcement tools can be used to prosecute the crimes, “and ways to assist state, Tribal, territorial and local law enforcement where threats of violence may not constitute federal crimes,” in addition to other efforts. 

Slaven, the NSBA CEO, praised the action.

School boards make and approve school policies, among other duties. In states like Mississippi where no executive order mandating masks in schools was issued this school year, board members are feeling the pressure of those decisions.

Jackson told Mississippi Today that her group has not heard from any board members who have received threats or intimidation.

“A few boards have mentioned that they have experienced an increase in requests by stakeholders to address the board, while others have not been impacted at all,” she said.

The NSBA’s letter to the president also mentioned that school board members are on the receiving end of strong opinions — and sometimes, actions — regarding another hot topic: critical race theory. The theory, which centers around the idea that racism is systemic in the nation’s institutions, has been banned by some states from being taught in schools. 

 Although State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said recently this theory is not being taught in Mississippi schools, state leaders, including Gov. Tate Reeves, have said they intend to do the same.  

“Coupled with attacks against school board members and educators for approving policies for masks to protect the health and safety of students and school employees, many public school officials are also facing physical threats because of propaganda purporting the false inclusion of critical race theory within classroom instruction and curricula,” said National School Boards Association leaders in the letter to Biden. 

“This propaganda continues despite the fact that critical race theory is not taught in public schools and remains a complex law school and graduate school subject well beyond the scope of a K-12 class,” they continued. 

Jackson, however, said the language in the letter was detrimental to educators and undermined schools’ local control.

“The terminology used in the letter was inflammatory and has created great dissension, much unproductive discussion, and a rise of distrust in public school board members and educators,” she wrote. 

Several state school boards associations, including Louisiana, Virginia and Arkansas, have denounced the NSBA’s letter. The Pennsylvania School Boards Association left the national group

The NSBA offers resources to local school boards, including the Center for Public Education, Council of School Attorneys and others. It also advocates for policies that help public schools.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.