Extremists and Contentious Language at School Board Meetings: What You Can Do

School board meeting

ABC11 Orange County (NC)

Proud Boys at a school board meeting, November 2021.

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December 26, 2021

School board meetings are often venues for contentious discourse. While common topics of controversy vary over time depending on national and local issues, we saw a significant increase this past year in extremists’ leveraging these meetings to express their beliefs around COVID-19 mandates and state laws banning “Critical Race Theory (CRT)” and “divisive concepts.”     

As schools find themselves in the crosshairs of implementing critical public health measures and fraught debates around CRT, there has been a documented increase in threats, harassment, and doxing targeting school board members around the country. Doxing, which is publicly posting a person’s name and contact information without their permission so that they may be contacted and, in some cases, harassed by those who now have access to this information, is especially pernicious because it can be difficult to identify or sanction those responsible. Some school board members have even been targeted with white supremacist propaganda because of their leadership role. In addition to the impact on those in attendance, hateful rhetoric used at school board meetings can negatively impact staff, students’ and community members’ sense of safety and inclusion. 

School board members are increasingly forced to contend with deteriorating discourse, the presence of extremists, and in some cases direct threats. Some extremist entities have also seized on these heightened tensions around COVID-19 mandates and anti-CRT laws as fertile ground for recruitment efforts.  

What examples have we seen of this type of targeting? 

Why might an extremist group be interested in making their voices heard at a school board meeting or at a protest outside of a school? Traditionally, these spaces have not been significant targets of extremist activity. However, after the Insurrection on January 6, 2021, some extremist groups have re-strategized to maximize their presence and impact. Schools’ policies and curricula have provided convenient opportunities for them to increase their presence and fight for anti-mask mandates and anti-CRT positions. 

To illustrate the scope of this issue, the following examples highlight some of the most egregious instances of extremists targeting school board meetings in the past year:   

  • On May 23, 2021, an Arizona neighborhood was reportedly targeted with white supremacist leafleting by the Aryan Nations due to recent CRT debates. Aryan Nations is a longstanding neo-Nazi group in the United States that dates back to the 1970s.  

  • On June 17, 2021, Fairfax Station, Virgina School board members were reportedly targeted with racist, antisemitic and homophobic propaganda by the KKK.  

  • On October 26, 2021, members of the Proud Boys and an anti-government group called “People’s Rights” attended a school board meeting in Portland, Oregon; racist remarks and mask policy violations caused the meeting to be moved online.  

What might indicate an extremist presence at a school or school board meeting?  

ADL defines extremism as “a concept used to describe religious, social or political belief systems that exist substantially outside of belief systems more broadly accepted in society (i.e., “mainstream” beliefs). Extreme ideologies often seek radical changes in government, religion or society. Extremism can also be used to refer to the radical wings of broader movements, such as the anti-abortion movement or the environmental movement...” 

ADL identifies a range of extremist groups and movements that vary in ideological underpinning, each of which has unique characteristics and identifying factors. To determine if a member of an extremist group is present at a school board meeting, it is helpful to examine flyers and social media posts from extremist groups posted prior to attendance, as they are likely the best way to indicate in advance that there might be an extremist presence. Footage or photos that include clear extremist symbols or affiliation or self-admission of attendance can help determine whether members of an extremist group were present.  

Some other indicators of extremist presence can include the “uniforms” or clothing specific to extremist groups, signs or flags indicating group affiliation, tattoos or other symbols that might indicate support or familiarity with a certain extremist group, and self-admission of group membership to reporters afterwards on a group’s social media page. However, not all extremist groups are easily identifiable by “uniforms” or colors that they typically wear, and we have seen evidence of extremists wearing plain clothes in order to blend in at school board meetings. ADL’s Center on Extremism’s Hate Symbols Database is a comprehensive list that can help determine if an extremist sign or symbol was present. 

What about extreme rhetoric from a non-extremist individual? 

Not all contentious rhetoric at school board meetings comes from members of extremist groups. For example, during the past year, there have been many instances where people who are not members of an extremist group or movement have engaged in violent threats and harassment at school board meetings. Contentious debates around COVID-19 mandates and anti-CRT laws have made school board meetings a venue for airing grievances on these topics. It is critical to respect individuals’ First Amendment right to speak on these topics. However, there are cases where rhetoric at school board meetings has escalated to violence. The following examples of actions appear to be extreme responses to current debates around COVID-19 mandates or CRT: 

  • On May 11, 2021, a Los Alamitos, CA school board meeting was cancelled, allegedly due to safety concerns, but protesters reportedly came from out-of-district to protest Social Justice Standards anyway. Protesters were not from an extremist group, but many were allegedly staunchly anti-LGBTQ+.  

  • On June 3, 2021, a self-described white supremacist spoke at a North Carolina School Board meeting in support of a bill to ban the teaching of CRT.  

  • On September 3, 2021, an anti-mask advocate and his “associates” allegedly brought zip-ties to threaten the principal of an elementary school in Tucson, AZ with a “citizen’s arrest” due to the schools’ COVID-19 policies.  

  • On November 9, 2021, noted antisemite Art Larson made several antisemitic comments and another speaker allegedly made anti-LGBTQ+ comments during a school board meeting in Bucks County, PA. 

What is the outlook for this continued behavior?  

Unfortunately, extremist groups have found success by using school board meetings to gain publicity and potentially new recruits to their cause. It is unlikely that we will see this strategy go away if these debates continue, and we could see other types of groups start using this tactic on other issues. Extremists and others have been emboldened by the mainstreaming of divisive and inflammatory rhetoric around these issues and have sometimes been compelled to show up themselves to make their opinions heard. Identifying and reporting extremist activity at school board meetings is important, but it is also essential to have practical tools for ensuring safety and improving discourse at school board meetings, while adhering to the right to freedom of speech.  

Strategies to Prevent and Counter Contentious and Biased Discourse at School Board Meetings 

The free expression of ideas and viewpoints is vital for any community to learn, thrive and grow. During school board meetings, it is an important and constitutionally protected right that members of that school’s community be able to voice their opinions and perspectives. At the same time, this free expression can and has resulted in bias-based behavior and expressions at school board meetings. There are still things that school boards can do to help promote a safe environment and convey messages of inclusivity to the community. Consider the following suggestions that school boards and their members can take to counter biased speech, no matter the source or ideology of the speech.

Because public schools are public institutions, First Amendment free speech principles apply to open school board meetings. Since questions regarding what speech may be restricted—and in what way—may arise at school board meetings, we recommend that you consult with your legal counsel or your school board’s by-laws for guidance on how to respond to specific situations. This document is not intended to provide legal advice. These suggestions do not include information on security, law enforcement involvement, codes of conduct or any other issues that potentially raise issues of free speech or public safety. 

Before the Meeting: Inform and Prepare 

Preparation for school board meetings will help the meeting run more smoothly and aid in preventing confrontational, harassing, or violent behavior. Here are some suggestions for how to prepare for these meetings: 

  • Review and update school board meeting policies about security, communications, speaking guidelines, media relations, etc. Disseminate these policies in advance to relevant stakeholders and post them clearly on relevant websites. 

  • Review your school board’s by-laws or other legal documents setting out the school district’s values and principles, especially around issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. As a school board, discuss how you will address hate speech in the moment and prepare yourself to highlight and reaffirm your school board’s mission and values when biased and hateful speech is expressed. 

  • Consider assigning different staff members to assist with sign-in, communicate with media, offer assistance as needed to attendees, monitor social media, address misinformation and other tasks.  

  • Encourage attendees to register in advance to attend the meeting. Provide an online sign-in for those who wish to speak. However, recognize that many people may not feel comfortable registering in advance or may not have the necessary technological access. Ensure that other options are also available, such as signing up at the meeting. 

  • Prepare Chair (and facilitator) for hot-button issues, especially those that are currently taking place in your school, district or community. Familiarize yourself with those issues by building background knowledge and talking with relevant stakeholders. You may also want to review the code phrases, symbols and signs of extremist groups if you anticipate extremist activity (see above).  

During the Meeting: Address and Respond 

As much as you may prepare in advance, school board meetings can quickly escalate into bias-based expressions, behaviors or incidents. In addition to the Chair/facilitator, others should be mindful of what’s happening both inside and outside the meeting. Here are some suggestions: 

  • Have all meeting attendees sign in. Upon entry, have those who wish to make public comments register to speak. 

  • Communicate your school board and community values of respect, inclusivity and anti-bias principles.  

  • Share speaking guidelines before the meeting begins, which could include the following: 

    • Communicate how much total time is allotted for public comment (e.g., 30 minutes) and how much time each individual person can speak (e.g., 3 minutes). Use a timer consistently for every speaker, to ensure equal speaking time.  

    • If there are more speakers than the total amount of time allotted, you may have to either extend the overall time for public comment or reduce the individual time for speakers. This must be done fairly (e.g., if a reduction in individual time is instituted, that must apply to all speakers) and communicate with everyone the change in time allotments.   

    • Establish and communicate a neutral order of speaking (e.g., first, those who registered in advance, then those who signed in to speak, then those who spontaneously raise their hands to speak). 

    • Consider how to handle a large number of attendees. If space cannot accommodate all attendees safely, provide overflow space or virtual participation. This will need to be arranged in advance. 

  • During the meeting, all attendees have the right to speak. Keep in mind that most hate speech is allowed under the First Amendment, with some exceptions (e.g., true threats, incitement to violence). However, when hate speech is expressed, you can respond by taking the opportunity to reiterate and re-state your district’s values. You may also choose to call out the hate speech when you hear it. For example, if someone says something racist or expresses anti-trans bias, you can say, “comments like that are deeply problematic and inconsistent with our values and mission.” That person has the right to say it and continue speaking with the allotted time, and you have the right to respond to it. 

After the Meeting: Communicate, Heal and Educate  

When biased language, a bias incident or extremist group presence/activity occurs at a school board meeting, there could be residual and long-term impacts on a school community. It is important that the school community has the opportunity to communicate, heal and learn from the experience after a challenging school board meeting or similar event. Here are some important steps to take: 

  • Provide minutes or a brief summary of the meeting to the school community to prevent rumors and misinformation. Use as clear, specific and intentional language as possible. If there were any incidents or disruptions, communicate what happened and what steps you have taken and plan to take to address them, but do not use specific names or identities. To avoid reinforcing the harm that has already been done, summarize it rather than repeating it verbatim (i.e., do not repeat a racial slur if one was used) but do name the hate (i.e., call it a racist incident if that is what it was). If discretion is required, simply state that those issues are being addressed. This is another opportunity to re-state your values as a school district, especially around diversity, equity and inclusion. Use a variety of strategies for communicating (i.e., digital, print, in-person/verbal, etc.). For more information, see page 8 of ADL’s A Guide for Responding to School-Based Incidents.  

  • Prepare a media response, especially if there were incidents that invite media attention. 

  • If there were any biased incidents or hateful comments, provide opportunities for members of the school community (e.g., students, staff, parents, families, school board members, community members, etc.) to discuss and process their thoughts and feelings. At the same time, be mindful not to give undue attention to the instigators or extremists. If a hate group or movement whose goal is publicity is involved, consider ways you can provide important information that will make the community feel knowledgeable without publicly highlighting the hate group or hateful speech.  

  • Be particularly mindful of those individuals or identity groups who may have been targeted or negatively impacted during the meeting. Provide time and space to discuss what happened and identify what they may need. Address individual harm or trauma as necessary. You may want to bring in a counselor or specialist for this purpose. 

  • Continue to educate the community about the issues that arose from the meeting. This can include school climate and other issues that may need to be addressed, both short- and long-term such as anti-bias education, educating about extremism, social and emotional learning, or other topics.