Disruption and discontent at public meetings

The pandemic has rattled our world. But our neighbors, friends, families, and community leaders came together in the early months of the pandemic, especially for our young people. Educators and school staff stepped up, working overtime to meet with students and families via Zoom, deliver meals to homes, find creative solutions for web access, and maintain a sense of community in uncertain times. Students showed remarkable resilience in the face of the most consequential public health crisis in a generation. 

At the same time, there has been a significant shift in the tenor and climate of public discourse in spaces and in meetings across our state. From local school board meetings to official meetings of the state government, disruption has become a prominent theme and a growing threat.   

Usually sleepy and relatively uneventful, school board meetings have become a place of harassment and intimidation. School board members and school leaders have had their meetings overtaken, have been repeatedly threatened, and worry for their own safety and that of their families. 

“The potent combination of misinformation, a combative political climate and a search for control in a chaotic world has raised the temperature at local school board meetings amid discussions about preventing COVID-19 in schools,” wrote Josie Albertson-Grove for the Union Leader when reporting on the shift in in climate in September. 

“Our [school board] meetings have been the victim of politicalization,” Merrimack Valley School Board Member Lorrie Carey told the New Hampshire Bulletin this week. “We have to consider the behavior of those who will attend. You have to think about, how will I get in or out of the meeting? It’s like a time of war. I never thought I’d see that in the United States of America.” 

The safety and well-being of state and locally elected officials nationwide has now gained national attention. Earlier this week, the US Department of Justice announced that the FBI will work with state and local law enforcement to discuss strategies to counter threats of violence against school board members, school leaders, and educators.

“Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values,” US Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a memo announcing the initiative. “Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.”

The climate of discontent and disruption boiled over last week at an Executive Council meeting, where the meeting was abruptly stopped by “unruly” protestors.

“I will not put members of the Executive Council or State Agencies in harm’s way,” Governor Chris Sununu said in a statement after the meeting. “State Police had to escort state employees to their cars after unacceptable, unruly behavior. This meeting is being postponed until our state employees can go before the Council in a safe and orderly manner. The items on today’s agenda will be brought up at a later date.”

The Executive Council meeting has sparked a debate in the state around how to reclaim respectful debate and conversation about critical issues. As the pandemic draws on, the feelings get stronger, and the issues get more complex — and seem to be drawing people further apart. 

In other states, privatization advocates have used these difficult conversations and growing distance as a catalyst to advance a school privatization agenda. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis banned school districts from enforcing mask mandates, and their State Board of Education has allowed students to enroll in their school voucher program to seek a private option if they oppose the measure. In Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey is using federal COVID relief money to expand their school voucher program. 

Here in New Hampshire, the heat is likely to go up before it cools down. Hot-button issues like mask mandates and the authority of state and local school boards are key themes in draft legislation for the 2022 legislative session. 

Respectful, spirited debate is a key part of making critical decisions on these issues. Let’s work towards empathy and understanding, so we can have those conversations. 

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