Surrounded by select parents, lawmakers and law enforcement officers, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday declared his intention to “fortify” parent rights when it comes to dealing with the public schools.
He took issue with the plan by President Joe Biden’s administration to have federal law enforcement review threats made against school board members. Citing an increase in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against board members, teachers and other school employees, the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this month announced it would monitor the situation.
The National School Boards Association sent a letter to Biden raising concerns about “domestic terrorism” targeting boards. Although the association did not mention parents, and the Justice Department did not call for investigations, DeSantis and others have framed the issue as a federal attempt to curtail parent rights.
DeSantis said Wednesday that federal officials were trying to intimidate parents from speaking their minds on controversial issues at board meetings.
“As we continue to see the use of fear and intimidation to suppress opposition to the regime, we’re going to find new ways to be able to empower parents’ rights to decide what is best for their children,” DeSantis said. “Parents across the state should know that their freedoms are going to be protected here, and that the state of Florida has your back.”
His comments raised eyebrows among many school district officials, who said they agreed with the governor’s support for public participation in school governance.
“I don’t think it is necessary for the governor to say it,” said Pinellas County School Board Chairperson Carol Cook, referring to the governor’s vow to protect parental rights.
Some board sessions in Florida have grown heated in recent months over issues such as mandatory masks and the use of race in history lessons. The Brevard County School Board recently had the public removed from its meeting over masks, saying the audience had become disruptive. Sarasota County residents protested outside one board member’s home recently, calling her a tyrant for her support of a strict mask mandate.
Cook helped draft a recent letter on behalf of the Florida School Boards Association that deplored the national organization’s attempts to get federal government involved in local conversations about contentious school issues. The state association, which withheld its membership payment to the umbrella group, also adopted a resolution supporting parents’ First Amendment rights and welcoming “civil civic discourse.”
“We have a good working relationship with our (local) law enforcement,” Cook said. “If the law enforcement agencies determine there need to be any investigations, that’s them. We’re not asking for it.”
The Pinellas board regularly extends time for members of the public to speak on agenda items and on general issues during a portion of the meeting after official actions are completed. The board this week decided to stop live streaming the participation section, though it will still have that time available.
Hillsborough County School Board Chairperson Lynn Gray presented the state association’s letter and resolution to her colleagues, and they also supported the statements. Gray noted that the board has sat for hours at a time hearing residents speak about masks, charter schools and a host of other concerns.
“They’re passionate,” Gray said. “I don’t find it too annoying at all. We need to let them have that vessel of opinion. It’s important for them to share. It’s their children.”
The Pasco County School Board on Tuesday discussed the state association’s position and took it a step further by preparing its own resolution encouraging the Florida School Boards Association to not rejoin the national group until it changes its operations and actions. Board member Colleen Beaudoin called the language about domestic terrorism “particularly offensive” and supported steps to hold any such view at arm’s length.
“That’s our job to listen to parents,” said Board Member Megan Harding, who introduced the topic. “I never want our parents or community members to think we don’t want to hear from them.”
Florida School Boards Association Executive Director Andrea Messina said the response has been similar across the state.
Some local boards are adjusting the timing at which they accept public comment, she acknowledged, noting the desire to balance required district work with the need to listen to community members. They also are drawing the line at actual threats and harassment, which some board members have experienced, Messina added.
But “there is no dispute. Board members are not opposed to parents having opinions about their children’s education,” she said.
DeSantis acknowledged the Florida School Boards Association’s letter and resolution during his comments, saying they were right to step back from the federal intrusion. Still, he and others pointed to specific individual examples where they said schools forced their opinions on students, or stopped people from speaking out, and said it should not happen.
Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey, who has refused to enforce his local district’s mask mandate, cautioned people listening to pay attention to these issues when they vote.
“Be careful who you put in these seats,” he said. “Put someone in those seats who is going to stand up for the U.S. Constitution, like our governor does every single day.”