Louisiana AG backs parents after authorization for FBI to investigate school board disputes

By William Patrick | The Center Square

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry said he will challenge the U.S. Department of Justice if federal law enforcement infringes on Louisiana parents’ free speech rights at local school board meetings.

Landry was responding to a recent DOJ memo from U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland ordering the FBI and U.S. attorneys’ offices to investigate “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators.”

The controversy stems from clashes between parents and local school boards across the country, mostly because of social studies curriculum changes and COVID-19-related polices, such as K-12 mask mandates.

Critics see the DOJ effort as a crackdown on dissent, particularly over critical race theory, an educational concept that focuses on race and society. Proponents view the order as protecting school board members amid the rising backlash.

“What have we become as a nation?” Landry said Tuesday.

“Parents have constitutional rights, including the freedom of speech. Parents have a right to have their voice heard in front of elected officials, including their elected school board members. Parents also need to have their voices heard by local, state and federal education officials who are employed to work for the people and paid by the public treasury,” Landry said. “If a parent’s free speech rights are being infringed, especially by the Attorney General of the United States, I will stand up and fight back to protect them.”

Louisiana has had several high-profile school board confrontations in recent months.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), the state’s top school board, ended a public meeting early in August as angry parents protested the reimplementation of a statewide K-12 mask mandate.

Parents and attendants packed the meeting room and shouted their displeasure throughout the hearing, some saying they took time from work and drove hours to Baton Rouge to be heard.

The BESE panel issued repeated warnings for order and for the audience to wear masks – required by gubernatorial executive order. The meeting was adjourned early when the crowd refused a final warning.

A Social Studies Standards Steering Committee meeting was overwhelmed similarly in July when parents spoke against proposed updates to U.S. History and race-related topics in public schools.

A follow-up meeting occurred Sept. 25 and included only a handful of parents during the public comment period. The steering committee passed the proposed changes, 19-1.

A final vote will occur in December, though parents and interested state residents can submit public comments through Oct. 31 at a Louisiana Department of Education online portal.

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley announced the launch of the portal Monday and said the Louisiana Social Studies Standards Draft 2021 will “integrate the historical perspectives of people from all different backgrounds.”

Comment review and future meetings could involve law enforcement. According to the DOJ memo, Garland has authorized coordination between the FBI, state and local enforcement agencies and school board members to combat “threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views.”

“These meetings will facilitate the discussion of strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers and staff, and will open dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment and response,” Garland said.

The memo was issued on the heels of a National School Boards Association letter to President Joe Biden, saying, “America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat.”

Landry said he would not stand by if the DOJ and FBI used school board concerns as a pretext to “threaten or intimidate” Louisiana parents, especially during upcoming school board elections.

“If we should find that the Attorney General of the United States or officials directed by the Attorney General are seeking to interfere or intimidate these individuals we may need to further examine whether those actions could constitute a form of voter intimidation or election interference,” he said.

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