Scott Ziegler saw “the shift” in the spring of 2021. Some parents and community members had been frustrated by his district’s response to the pandemic. When the school board started talking about equity and transgender rights, their anger only grew.
On June 22, as board members for Virginia’s Loudoun County Public Schools prepared to debate a policy on the treatment of transgender students, more than 250 people signed up to speak during public comments. Many of the speakers were angry about the policy. Others were upset about the district’s equity initiatives, which they claimed was evidence that Loudoun is teaching students critical race theory (CRT).
The meeting quickly turned contentious. Holding up signs—“We the Parents Stand Up” and “Protect Every Kid”—and loudly booing or applauding speakers, dozens in the audience ignored repeated warnings from board chair Brenda Sheridan. After the 51st speaker, the board voted to end public comment and asked the crowd to leave the building, only to be greeted by more jeers and a man standing in the crowd holding up both middle fingers. Before night’s end, two attendees had been arrested.
“We’re in a newish era of political activism and political response,” says Ziegler, who became interim superintendent of the 82,000-student district in January and later was promoted to the full-time role. “People think they have a right to respond violently—not necessarily physical or destructive violence, but disruptive violence—to the things with which they disagree.”
For generations, K-12 schools have found themselves caught in the crosshairs of the culture wars, but the level of vitriol, outbursts, and threats against educators has reached new heights in a deeply divided nation. School boards are feeling the brunt of public anger over vaccine and mask mandates, policies involving LGBTQ rights and anti-racist curriculum, and distrust fueled by the contentious 2020 presidential election and its aftermath.
School board members are, for the most part, elected officials, and they serve as the community representatives in the district. Public discourse and communication with parents and community members are essential to board governance. However, the scenes at board meetings over the past several months show that the goal of many speakers is not to participate in reasoned debate. Instead, it is disruption, intimidation, and threats of violence, often for a social media audience.
“The individuals who are intent on causing chaos and disrupting our schools—many of whom are not even connected to local schools—are drowning out the voices of parents who must be heard when it comes to decisions about their children’s education, health, and safety,” says Chip Slavin, NSBA’s interim executive director and CEO. “We need to get back to the work of meeting all students’ needs and making sure that each student is prepared for a successful future. That’s what school board members and parents care about.”
Local through a national lens
School boards are used to dealing with public frustration at the local level. Changes in school calendars, start times, or school attendance lines guarantee large and upset crowds at board meetings. Historically, it has been rare to see districts in multiple states become engulfed in national debates. Not anymore.
“As a country, we have transitioned from communities discussing property taxes and how much we’re willing to spend on schools to issues such as how we teach race and how we treat students who are gender nonconforming,” says Daniel Hopkins, author of The Increasingly United States: How and Why American Political Behavior Nationalized. “For decades, we worried that Americans were disengaged. Now we’re worried that extremists are too engaged. And these are the kinds of issues that don’t lend themselves to ready compromises, but national emotive issues that stir people up.”
Photo credit: KATHY IMAGES/STOCK.ADOBE.COM
Hopkins, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says the “erosion of local networks” and the decline of local news has led to an “anti-expert strain in our politics.”
“People are seeing more things through a national lens, but they’re channeling their activities locally,” he says. “People are taking what they see on Fox News and read in The New York Times or on social media, and there’s no filter of a local reporter or editor to point out how accurate this is [locally]. It should not come as a surprise that a national set of debates around race and policing would become contentious when people’s exposure to them is almost solely through social media or polarized news media outlets.”
Gina Patterson, executive director of the Virginia School Boards Association, says boards are being “brought into day-to-day operations because of the nature of what the issues are,” even though, in many cases, districts are following state law. For example, students and staff are required to wear masks in Virginia, and the state requires districts to have policies that protect transgender students.
“A lot of times, the community doesn’t know the difference between the governance role of the board and day-to-day operations,” Patterson says. “They don’t know that school divisions are dealing with federal and state laws they have no control over. Crowds are coming out now and asking boards to go against what the law says to accommodate their locality. Board members have to abide by the law, so it’s definitely a delicate dance in many of our communities.”
Ziegler says the issues involving schools are “a petri dish for national politics,” with CRT—an academic framework that says systemic racism is ingrained in U.S. history—at the forefront. “You have an easy enemy in CRT because it’s ill-defined. For different people, it means different things,” he says. “Now you can say, ‘I’m going to defend whatever I’m for, and I can attack whatever you’re against,’ under the umbrella of CRT.”
Adam Laats, an education and history professor at New York’s Binghamton University, believes some parents have attached themselves to CRT and transgender debates because they worry they are losing control over what their children can and should learn in school.
“Part of the fuel for these fires is a sense of demographic change,” Laats says. “There’s this sense that our kids are changing. They’re becoming more actively anti-racist, more accepting of LGBTQ+ differences. Instead of pointing to YouTube, social media, and the signposts of a changing culture, parents say, ‘The school board just passed a new bathroom rule and a new pronoun rule and therefore it’s the school board that’s causing this stuff.’”
Changes in demographics
Demographic shifts over the past three decades certainly have had an effect in Loudoun County, an outer ring suburb of Washington, D.C. In 1995, Loudoun was largely rural and white, but that changed dramatically as high-tech industry and large government contractors moved into the area to take advantage of Dulles International Airport, part of which is in the county.
Loudoun County now is ranked as the richest county in the U.S. by a wide margin, according to Kiplinger, and more than 25 percent of its population is from overseas. That has changed the way the county—along with others in the fast-growing Northern Virginia suburbs—now votes. Once solidly red like most of the state, Loudoun is now considered purple/blue and is one reason Virginia has turned Democratic in recent presidential elections.
The district also has seen major growth and demographic shifts. In 1995, 83.5 percent of the district’s 51,000 students were white; today, Loudoun has more than 81,000 students, only 43.4 percent of whom are white.
A scene from a Loudon County School Board meeting. Photo by Glenn Cook.
In 2019, two reports—one internal and one by the Virginia Department of Education—found evidence of widespread racism in the district. Students of color face large disparities in discipline, graduation rates, and admissions to the Academy of Loudoun, the district’s STEM academy. Over the past two years, Ziegler says, the district also has seen “upticks in racially charged incidents of behavior at the school level,” which mirrors similar counties where demographics have shifted as dramatically as Loudoun’s.
Loudoun’s board meetings started seeing large audiences as the district issued a public apology for segregation, banned Confederate symbols in schools, and began bias training for teachers.
“How we deal with systemic racism and how we respond to incidents has evolved in the two years I’ve been here,” says Ziegler, who came to the district in 2019 as an assistant superintendent. “Now we give those incidents credence. We speak out against it every time it happens, whereas years ago, that wasn’t happening. Students and families of color weren’t feeling welcome in Loudoun County.”
Since the June meeting, the school board has remained under the national microscope. Board members are not talking to the press, limiting their comments to open business meetings, and referring media calls to Ziegler. Public comments at board meetings stretch deep into the night, although the number of speakers has slowly decreased.
In August, after 4½ hours of public comments forced a one-day delay, the Loudoun County board voted 7-2 on a policy that allows transgender students to play on sports teams and use bathrooms based on their gender identity. Teachers and staff must refer to students by their preferred names and pronouns while at school, and all employees must receive “training on topics relating to LGBTQ+ students, including procedures for preventing and responding to bullying, harassment, and discrimination based on gender identity/expression.”
Tensions remained high during the board’s two September meetings, as groups gathered in the administrative building parking lot with signs that said, “Defund the School Board,” “School Choice Now,” and “Loudoun County’s Worst Nightmare: Educated Parents.” The Free to Learn Coalition, a national group that has launched a $1 million ad campaign “advocating for classrooms independent from political influence” in New York, Virginia, and Arizona, parked a box truck outside with video screens that said, “Our Kids Deserve Better” and “Academics Not Activism.”
In late September, conservative political commentator Matt Walsh rented a house in the county—only residents are now allowed to speak during public comment—so he could call the board “child abusers” because of its transgender policy. In early October, Fight for Schools, a parent organization founded by a former Department of Justice official under former President Trump, said it is seeking to recall five of the board’s members who have been characterized in media reports as holding progressive views.
That same week, “Saturday Night Live” ran a skit on how difficult it is to run a school board meeting.
Take critics seriously
Given all of these factors, what can school leaders do to stay focused during such contentious times?
Kay Douglas, a senior consultant with the Texas Association of School Boards, says you should start by defining the district’s vision and then talking about “how you’re going to improve achievement for all students.”
“It sounds really basic, and it is, but that’s the bottom line,” she says. “It’s our everyday challenge. Ask people, ‘Do you believe every child should be educated?’ Start with that basic premise, tell people in plain English that’s what you’re doing, and then put it in context. Here’s what we’re doing for kids today, tomorrow, and 10 years from now. And stick to it.”
Douglas says the tendency for school boards is to “hide out” when tensions are high, but that is “exactly the wrong thing to do.”
“When you turn on the TV or watch videos of really contentious board meetings, the tendency is to think that the really loud and in-your-face people represent the majority, but most of the time they don’t. They’re a very vocal minority,” Douglas says. “You need to find ways to hear from the majority of your constituents, whether it is through town halls or surveys, so you can make clear decisions that are in the best interest of kids.”
Disrupting meetings is “depressingly easy,” Laats says. “Disruptors want to spread fear to make something seem scary, but it’s on the board to shift the topic from the scare tactic back to the actual tactic. It’s hard, but you have to focus on issues and policy instead of rumors and fear-mongering.”
Looking back on that June meeting and the ones since, Ziegler says his regret is the demonstrations “take away an opportunity to have constructive dialogue.”
“On some of the issues, I don’t know if we’ll be able to meet their concerns or find middle ground,” he says. “Now we always must be aware that the room may erupt at any time, which is unfortunate. I didn’t expect this level of hateful rhetoric or the threats that the board and I have gotten.”
Ziegler says his role with the board is to help develop budgets and policies that are best for students moving forward.
“It’s a little harder for board members not to be distracted because it’s their names and their images out there, and they’re the ones who are criticized most harshly for their policy decisions,” he says. “But I’m confident that if we keep the focus on the students, the rest will die down. If students are having a good experience in our schools, these things that are controversial now will become less so. That’s the way I have to look at it."