Top officials of a national school board group talked to the White House days before Attorney General Merrick Garland ordered the FBI to investigate complaints of threats from parents, newly released emails reveal.
The emails raise serious questions about whether the White House ordered Garland to have the FBI investigate confrontations and other incidents at local school board meetings across the US.
They were obtained through a public records request by the group Parents Defending Education and first reported by the Washington Free Beacon.
In a letter to the president last month, the head of the nation’s largest school board association reached out to the Biden administration before suggesting that parents who object to mask mandates and the imposition of critical race theory in classrooms are engaging in “a form of domestic terrorism,” the emails show.
Garland announced on Oct. 4 that the FBI would take the lead on probing what he called “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff.”
Five days earlier, on Sept. 29, National School Boards Association (NSBA) CEO Chip Slaven had sent the missive — without consulting fellow officials in the organization.
In the letter, Slaven claimed that “America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat” and suggested that “[a]s these acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes”.
Slaven also asked the administration to “examine appropriate enforceable actions” under a raft of legislation — including the post-9/11 Patriot Act.
The newly unearthed emails show that Slaven circulated the letter among the NSBA’s board of directors the same day he fired it off to the White House.
In his initial message, Slaven mentioned that “in talks over the last several weeks with White House staff, they requested additional information on some of the specific threats, so the letter also details many of the incidents that have been occurring.”
The email was met with a backlash from board members who questioned why they had not been consulted about the letter, which was co-signed by Slaven and NSBA President Viola Garcia. Some members also believed Slaven and Garcia went too far by asking Biden to get federal law enforcement involved.
“Rather than helping our cause and calming the waters, this letter has re-awakened hostilities that were just beginning to finally calm down,” wrote board member John W. Halkias on Oct. 1.
Halkias later added that the letter “took a stance that went beyond what many of us would consider reasonable and used terms that were extreme, and asked for action by the Federal Government that many of us would not request … We have given our loudest critics more ammunition to criticize us.”
Another board member, Steven Chapman, wrote Oct. 2 that “[m]y hope for a letter like this, or any letter that we are going to send to the President of the United States and push through a press release is at least reviewed by the executive committee.”
Garcia initially defended the letter, writing that “What we have witnessed are coordinated efforts, playbooks, for creating chaos at school board meetings and in local communities … What we are now seeing is a pattern of threats and violence occurring across state lines and via online platforms, which is why we need the federal government’s assistance.”
On Oct. 11, a week after Garland’s announcement had created ongoing controversy, Garcia acknowledged that she had received feedback “questioning both the letter’s content and the manner in which it was distributed.
“We take this feedback seriously and are implementing a number of steps to understand the chain of events which led to this issue and to consider initiatives which are critical going forward,” she added.
Under questioning Thursday from House Judiciary Committee ranking member Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), Garland denied that anyone from the White House had spoken to him about the NSBA letter, but added, “I am sure — at least, I certainly would believe that the White House communicated its concerns about the letter to the Justice Department.”
When Jordan asked whether Garland or anyone at the Justice Department discussed his Oct. 4 memo with anyone at the White House, the attorney general answered: “I did not. I don’t know whether anyone discussed the memo. I am sure that the communication from the National Association of School Boards was discussed between the White House and the Justice Department and that’s perfectly appropriate.”
During the same hearing, Garland insisted that the department was not going to investigate parents who take issue with school board policies.
“The Justice Department supports and defends the First Amendment right of parents to complain as vociferously as they wish about the education of their children, about the curriculum taught in the schools,” he said. “That is not what the memorandum is about at all, nor does it use the words ‘domestic terrorism’ or ‘Patriot Act’.”
“I can’t imagine any circumstance in which the Patriot Act would be used in the circumstances of parents complaining about their children,” Garland added. “Nor can I imagine a circumstance where they would be labeled as domestic terrorism.”