This article first appeared on Bari Weiss’s substack channel Common Sense
I am a mother of four, a criminal defense attorney and a lifelong liberal who is deeply concerned about the direction of New York City’s public schools. I’ve been outspoken about my views, along with an untold number of frustrated parents. For that, the FBI is considering using the PATRIOT Act against me.
Let me explain: late last month, the National School Boards Association, an umbrella organization representing thousands of local elected school board officials, sent a letter addressed to President Biden. It warned that “America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat.” But not just any threat: “the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.” The letter implored the White House to enlist the support of Homeland Security, the FBI and the Department of Justice to investigate the threat — adding that the alleged crimes fall under the purview of the “PATRIOT Act in regards to domestic terrorism.”
I read the letter with grave concern, as would any American who cares about our public schools and the safety of teachers and students. What was the nature of this threat? And would my own children be at risk?
As it turns out, the threat is me. The threat is parents showing up to dress down school boards over their dereliction of duty. That is what the NSBA considers a crime.
I urge you to read the letter in full. You will see that it contains 24 footnotes. The worst of the so-called crimes include prank calls; a single individual in Ohio yelling a “Nazi salute in protest of masking requirements”; another individual in Washington State whose disorderly conduct prompted the board to call a recess; “spreading misinformation” online, and disorderly conduct arrests. In New York, where I live, disorderly conduct is not even a criminal offense.
And yet within days of the NSBA letter, the top law enforcement official in the country, Attorney General Merrick Garland, publicly responded to the letter with a memorandum to the director of the FBI. Garland agreed with the NSBA that “there has been a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” against board members — without providing any evidence. He further announced specialized training for board members to “aid in the investigation and prosecution of these crimes” and, more worryingly, the creation of a task force composed of FBI and Justice Department representatives to “determine how federal enforcement tools can be used to prosecute these crimes.” The FBI’s clear message to parents is that the NSBA is on the right track.
Many of the parents who are on the receiving end of the federal government’s chilling message are new to school boards, new to speaking up and, to say the absurd part out loud, clearly not domestic terrorists. The combination of extended Covid-related school closures; mask mandates; an increasingly extreme race- and gender-focused curriculum; and the removal of tests, honors classes and merit-based admissions has created a bumper crop of engaged — and, in many cases, enraged — parents rightfully concerned about what is happening in their children’s schools. The videos of their pleas, sometimes with kids in tow, have gone viral precisely because they are so authentic and heartfelt.
I have witnessed some of them myself. Over the last four years, I have actively participated in many raucous school board meetings where board members, and even the New York City school chancellor, have been shouted down by parents who refused to be ignored. I have never raised my voice to make a point, but I have sat next to those who have. They are sincere parents exercising their civil liberties.
I also know what it’s like to be on the other side of the table. From 2017 until June of this year, I was elected to two consecutive terms on Manhattan’s largest school board in what is our nation’s largest school system. I chaired many school board meetings attended by hundreds of parents often voicing contentious opinions around the highly charged topics of admissions and curriculum. Ultimately, I became the board chair.
As a school board chair, I was harassed, bullied, smeared and subjected to online campaigns demanding my resignation. Activists who disagreed with me regularly showed up at my school board meetings to give me a piece of their minds. When I decided to run for City Council in 2020 they continued their public attacks, accusing me of “harming” students because I would not agree with their policy proposals, including eliminating merit-based admissions, scrapping objective tests and dismantling gifted and talented programs. Some protesters even crashed an outdoor, pro-merit rally I organized with fellow parents.
It is not fun to listen to people call you names or falsely accuse you of racism. But when you are an elected board member you have an obligation to listen to everyone — everyone —at public meetings.
So, I listened. It was often painful. Yet never in my wildest dreams would I ever have considered their activism to be something best handled by the FBI.
You may disagree with parents like me who do not want our children indoctrinated with Critical Race Theory, masked during recess, or told that their biological sex is is not real. But in a free society, we don’t call the feds to police our fellow Americans because we don’t share their politics.
Actual violence should be condemned without reservation. School board members can and should immediately call the police in the event of a crime or a credible threat. But the incidents cited by the NSBA are not criminal and they definitely do not warrant federal intervention. That’s why the NSBA pulls the “interstate commerce” card: It’s the only way to make angry parents at school board meetings worthy of the FBI’s attention. And based on the response, the FBI seems eager to oblige.
Perhaps the most outlandish aspect of all is the NSBA’s risible complaint that parents are spreading lies about Critical Race Theory being taught in school. The letter states: “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.”
Are you kidding me?
I read the classic Critical Race Theory textbook in law school. I would much prefer to have my children read that impenetrable tome than be subjected to the ideological grooming that takes place in their classrooms — a phenomenon that I and parents across the country witnessed over Zoom this past year-and-a-half. Why should our children — in class, in front of their peers — be required to discuss their sexual orientation? Give their pronouns? Renounce their “privilege”? Plumbing children for this kind of personal information is grotesque and inappropriate, and it has everything to do with the worldview of Critical Race Theory. Anyone who denies as much is lying.
In the summer of 2020, many elected officials joined the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd. Mask and social-distancing mandates were waived, while looting and rioting went mostly unprosecuted. We were told that this was what justice looked like, that this was the price of our long overdue racial reckoning. By contrast, in 2021, few elected officials have publicly aligned themselves with parents — rich and poor and of every color — who are outraged that their children are being denied a decent education by ideological zealots. There will be no waivers for these moms and dads. These people — who dare to question the conventional wisdom, who are not so quick to submit to the powers that be — have no friends in high places. Instead, they are being treated as possible criminals.
They’re not. We’re not. We are parents, and we have every right to speak passionately and publicly about our children’s education. To post on social media. To write open letters to school board members. To submit op-eds to newspapers. To form advocacy organizations with other parents. To organize protests. To show up to school board meetings.
That’s not domestic terrorism. It’s good parenting. It’s patriotism. And it’s a basic American right — one we all need to defend.