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Reflections of a Board of Education Member in a Time of Politicization and Intolerance


by Heather M. Reynolds - July 18, 2019

This commentary focuses on how the politicization of issues, and intolerance from community members, can overshadow evidence-based data in school policy decisions and create a hostile climate in the district.

Do you think national politics haven’t infiltrated your local school board? Do you think your town is immune to the toxic politicization of issues that impact your children and your community? As a board member and someone who works in the field of education, in a town that looks like many in America, I’d recommend taking a closer look. I ran for the Board of Education in my town in Upstate New York in May of 2016. As a teacher educator and an advocate for high quality public education, running for the Board of Education seemed like a logical avenue for me to serve my community. I was one of three new members elected to the BOE without raising or spending any money. And I had no idea what awaited me after the 2016 presidential election was decided that November.

 

Almost immediately, like many other communities across the country, a groundswell of divisiveness and anger started to bubble up in our school district where swastikas and racist propaganda appeared on public property as well as in schools and classrooms. A history teacher’s use of a political cartoon of Donald Trump for purposes of critical thinking and analysis turned into national news when a few local parents made a decision to go on Fox and Friends with their grievances about “liberal indoctrination” in public schools. This resulted in the superintendent and others receiving death threats from across the U.S. A heartbreaking result, which still persists several years later, is teachers’ fear of discussing controversial issues in their classrooms, which can be a highly effective way to teach students critical thinking skills and, ironically, tolerance.

 

After the tragic events in Parkland, FL, our new school superintendent became aware that some of our grounds monitors, who were also retired police officers, were carrying concealed weapons while on school property, out of compliance with the law. These were school employees who were tasked with monitoring school entrances and parking lots, directing traffic at pick up and drop off points, and other related duties. Although these retired law enforcement officers had state-issued conceal carry permits there was no record that the Board of Education had ever approved this as part of their school employment, as required by law, nor had administrators signed off on this practice in any formal way. The Board of Education was asked to make a determination as to whether this practice, that was now discontinued, should be reinstated. After months of deliberation, public comment, and discussion, the Board voted 5–4 to discontinue this practice. The majority stated that only active duty police officers should possess weapons on school grounds, that our district had a comprehensive safety plan, and that we should focus our energy and resources on prevention and the development and maintenance of a positive school climate.

 

Almost immediately, a similar groundswell of anger, contempt, and emotion erupted in our community. I started receiving emails and communications that included the following, and more: reckless, political decision, dead children, anti-gun, fabricated research, personal opinion, killers love gun free school zones, lack of transparency, liar, irresponsible, gun control, blood of children on your hands, less safe, arrogant, anti-safety, anti-law enforcement, left-winged liberal, gun hater, child killer.

 

Ironically, I have a background and a publication record in school and community violence prevention and have collaborated with some nationally recognized school violence experts and researchers. I believed, and continue to believe, that prevention is critical, and that increasing an armed presence in schools with non-active duty police officers is not a research-supported practice, and can actually negatively impact the school climate. Some vocal community members claimed that our children were now at increased risk of being killed by an active shooter while in school. Some local law enforcement added accelerant to this fire by claiming that our district was now “less safe” without these retired officers being armed due to a slower response time to an active shooter. It didn’t matter that the Board of Education’s decision had been made based on statistics, experience, careful consideration, and research. The five vote majority was accused of making this decision based on opinion rather than facts, bias, and a lack of consideration for children’s safety, and it was said that we dismissed important data from law enforcement. None of the four vote minority provided local or national data that supported armed security increasing the safety of schools. Suddenly, I was an expert, in a political climate where truth doesn’t matter, facts can be invented, and fake news reigns.

 

A well-organized group was formed with the goal of reversing the board decision and “re-arming” the grounds monitors. They had multiple fundraisers, created a website, had a strong social media presence, and recruited a slate of three candidates to run for the BOE this year. In a district that had no record of any candidate ever spending more than $500 on a Board of Education campaign, this group raised over $33,000. One resident donated $12,000 to this group. They spent almost $10,000 on a Florida-based right wing political consultant (Go Right Strategies), and the remainder on mailings, signs, full-page print ads, social media ads, robocalls, and robo-texts.

 

On May 21, 2019, despite the obscene amount of money that was spent on a Board election in a district of 6,200 students, only one candidate who ran on this “re-arm the grounds monitors” slate was elected. I was the only incumbent who ran, and I lost a second term by a narrow margin. I left the Board of Education on July 1st with the knowledge that money couldn’t buy three board seats, and that common sense prevailed in an election where voter turnout was historically high. The only thing that I regret is the divide that continues in our community, and the hostile rhetoric and intolerance that remains. I worry for our children’s safety. Not from an extremely rare school shooting or issues related to response times. But from things like anxiety, depression, and substance abuse that can be worsened by bullying, nastiness, and intolerance. Facts and research do matter, as does civility, particularly when it comes to our children and their education.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 18, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22976, Date Accessed: 10/16/2021 11:38:01 AM

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About the Author
  • Heather Reynolds
    SUNY Empire State College
    E-mail Author
    HEATHER M. REYNOLDS, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Teacher Education at SUNY Empire State College and a former trustee of the Board of Education for the Saratoga Springs City School District in New York.
 
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