Watch: What are causing parent meltdowns at school board meetings?

ProPublica reporter Nicole Carr explains the spike of unruly parents getting arrested at school board meetings.

School board meetings can get a little heated between parents and school board members. That’s expected when discussing hot-button topics like LGBTQ+ student rights, banning library books, and teaching children about systemic racism. But recently, these meetings have escalated from shouting matches to arrests over the past two years.

ProPublica reported nearly 90 incidents in 30 states going back to the spring of 2021. Reporter Nicole Carr joins theGrio’s Eboni K. Williams to discuss her reporting on the spike in unruly parents, finding most of these incidents involved white people in suburban areas.

The following is a transcript of their conversation.

Eboni K. Williams [00:00:09] Welcome to theGrio. I’m Eboni K. Williams. Have school board meetings become the Wild, Wild West? Well, it’s a real question because there’s been an increase in unrest and sometimes even violence over hot-button topics such as book bans, LGBTQ+ issues, and race.

Williams [00:00:54] A report from the nonprofit news organization ProPublica has found that nearly 90 incidents going back to the spring of 2021 and most of those incidents involved white people in suburban areas. So what’s behind the spike and why are some parents becoming so unhinged at these meetings?

Well, joining me now is ProPublica reporter Nicole Carr. And she’s covered this topic extensively. Nicole, thank you so much for being with us today. Now, tell us a bit about what your reporting has been able to uncover.

Nicole Carr [00:01:27] Sure. Thanks for having me, Eboni. Some of those key points that you just pointed out here, this started with a question last year. You know, what happened to all of these people who were hauled out of or arrested at school board meetings, these viral moments that we’d seen. And so myself and research reporter Molly Simon started tracking through a database that we built, these arrests across the country to see these trends.

And we looked at an 18-month period, spring of 2021, when everyone went back in person to these meetings, to the fall of 2022 and saw that the folks who are arrested were charged with everything from assault and making threats to trespassing, disrupting a public meeting. So from that physical contact to whatever fallout you saw from the comments made at the board podium and saw that most every participant in our database, which then included unrest that didn’t result in arrests and charges were white, were in the suburbs, and prosecutors dropped most of the charges. The toughest punishment that we saw was in Arkansas.

Just this summer, there were some pro-trans rights college student protesters at a Conway, Arkansas, meeting who were arrested and then they actually were sentenced to jail. And that was the toughest punishment that we saw. They got ten-day jail sentences just this summer, and that was the toughest we saw in the entire country. And so in most cases, prosecutors dropped these charges almost immediately.

Williams [00:03:19] Well, you know, that’s unfortunate, but I guess a little unsurprising. But what we know from that, Nicole, is when the prosecutors just dismiss the charges outright, as you’re describing here in your reporting, versus either a deferred prosecution program that tends to require anger management or some other kind of condition.

It removes any deterrent from preventing other parents from being this unruly and this hostile at other meetings. So, Nicole, what seems to be the catalyst causing people to lose all sense of responsibility and respectability at the school board meetings?

Carr [00:03:53] Well, you know, we’ve been talking a lot about what the some of the unrest means, Right. So we can say that, okay, people are passionate about COVID protocols or not masking or the books in a library or whatever the issue is. But what we’ve seen in these deeper narratives that we explore throughout the series is a real sense, an anti-government sentiment, right?

No one has the right to control me, that I have the final say in what happens here because I pay for you. We often heard parents telling school board members, “I pay your salary.” “You’re here because of me.” There’s a man in our second chapter in North Carolina who was recruited for the bonds, for the wind movement and for people who don’t know what that is, it’s called the Paper Terrorism Movement. It’s when they go to the school board members with this intent to sue over critical race theory or COVID protocols or whatever the grievances.

And they say if you don’t adhere to what we demand, we’re going to sue you against your bonds. It’s a faux movement. It has no legal standing. That’s why you don’t hear of the outcome. But he was recruited on the encrypted site Telegram, which is an instant messaging site that is primarily used by the “right.” And his whole thing, his whole ideology was anti-government. You know that. I get to tell you what happens here, so.

Williams [00:05:34] Yeah, you know, it’s interesting, Nicole, because, you know, I think this notion of having a hiding essentially behind anti-government or states rights movements, but when really what we’re talking about is a lot of anti-blackness, a lot of homophobia, transphobia and the like.

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