Profanity, screaming, threats: Hampton Roads school boards become battleground

Jessica Miley arrived at her first school board meeting shortly after being seated. She saw a man in his waistband with a knife in his hand yell at a security guard.
When the meeting began, she was still shedding tears. A crowd outside, who were unable to enter due to COVID protocols, stood guard at the entrance and shouted "Let us in!"

Miley had finished her speech and security demanded that she be escorted to her car by security. To check for any tampering, the officer shined his flashlight on Miley's tires. The officer instructed the mother-of-two to get in her car and lock the doors. He also told her to turn on the headlights so she could quickly leave. She did exactly that.

She wondered if this was normal. A school board meeting

It is happening in many places. It is now that what was often forgotten in civic life before the pandemic has returned to the forefront of culture wars. Fights over reopening became fights over vaccines and masks, all this happening while districts and boards embrace efforts to make schools more equal after George Floyd's murder.

This summer, vitriol reached fever pitch across the country, including in Hampton Roads. Police investigated threats to shoot Virginia Beach School Board Members before determining that it was posturing. Several meetings were rescheduled after speakers made profane gestures or scream profanities.

Local board members claim they have taken increased security measures after their homes were egged, cars scratched, and firecrackers started in their yards at night. After the fire had been put out, the Suffolks board chairwoman said that she discovered a note instructing her to vote for reopening schools.

Last week, the Department of Justice announced that it would launch a federal investigation into threats to teachers and elected officials. This was in response to a request from the national organization representing school board members to investigate threats to teachers and elected officials.

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U.S. Attorney general Merrick Garland stated that those who devote their time and energy to making sure our children get a quality education in a safe environment should be free to do their work without fear.

Critics of school boards are frightened by the suggestion that their opposition could be called threatening and that elected officials will not address their concerns.

A caption on an Instagram photo by a Virginia Beach antimasking parent group asks who is the real problem. Talk about the abusers becoming abused!

Board members tried to have a good time when Saturday Night Live mocked the state meetings in a skit. They said it was accurate. It was still funny, however.

(My husband) thought it was funny, but the sad thing is that it's very similar to what you guys are going through. Beverly Anderson, a Virginia Beach board member, faced a recall petition along with five other colleagues. He said it was almost frighteningly similar to the real thing.


History repeats itself

Although the anger directed at school boards feels fresh, it is part of a long history, according to Adam Laats, an historian at New York's Binghamton University, who studies the history and culture of cultural battles over schooling reform and schooling.

Laats stated that it is not new. It is un-American in that it goes against America's best ideas of itself. It is very American because it continues to happen every decade across the country.

Laats stated that the most well-known conflicts are the attacks on school boards for desegregation, in particular in the 1950s following the Supreme Courts Brown v. Board of Education ruling. He said that they are a common problem in every generation.

He sees most similarities between the current disputes, and those from the 1920s.

As the country became more Protestant, large demographic shifts occurred a century ago. There were also efforts to make schools and society more progressive at the time. This prompted concerns from some that white youth were experiencing dramatic changes, such as listening to Black music.

People believe that if things are changing and children are attending school, then the school must be changing their kids. He said.

These same concerns are driving today's anger, according to Eric Ward, executive director of Western States Center, which studies white nationalism, authoritarian movements, and other groups. Ward stated that some of these threats stem from the same impulses as the Jan. 6 attempted insurrection. It is the same intention: disrupt the process because some people don't like the direction things are heading.

Ward stated that there are two Americas. One is one that aims to be inclusive and the other is one that focuses on exclusion and division. It aims to tap into any topic, anything that could divide the American public.

He said that January 6 still plays out in hundreds of communities across the country.

According to the Suffolks board chairwoman, she believes there is a sense of threat from all of this. This theory explains why a group may feel threatened when it is not dominant. Judith Brooks Buck, a Black woman, is the chairwoman of Suffolks board. This is the first school board to be majority-female and majority African American. John Gordon, the superintendent, is Black.

She said that some white people in Suffolk are resentful of this.

Sherri Story, Brooks-Bucks board member, was one of its loudest critics. She denied that her opposition had anything to do race. Story claimed she is not at peace with the rest of Brooks-Bucks' board members because it isn't transparent what a judge has agreed to with Story and another woman in two Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. Story filed a third suit against the district.

Story stated that in this day and age, I can't say Im not racist if I don't believe it. This is a circular argument that I don't have any defense for.

Kevin Martingayle (storys lawyer) stated that he views the continued FOIA violations by the district as an overcorrection of Storys political beliefs.

He said that they seem to be trying not to have controversial discussions in public forums. This makes it appear that you are hiding something or that you are doing something you shouldn't.

Vicky Manning, a Virginia Beach board member said that attention on school boards has increased recently because parents are paying more attention to the negative effects of closing schools. Manning, who often loses to 7-4 or 8-3 votes, sees increased engagement as a positive even though speakers may not always be the most effective.

Manning stated that a year ago, most people couldn't name any one member of the school board. They know each other by name now and are showing interest. They want to learn more about what's happening and to be part of it.


What is a school for?

Many parents are protesting school boards and stating that they want to return to basics.

One woman spoke out to Chesapeakes board that schools are doing more than their sole responsibility of teaching math and writing to students.

Vic Nicholls, who is a frequent speaker at many cities' meetings, stated that anything else does not create jobs. That is what we pay you for.

Roman Hartman, a Chesapeake resident, told the board that this is not the type of stuff they need. He spoke to the board in August, as the board considered whether to adopt policies to protect transgender students.

Amy Solares, Virginia Beachs board member in August, stated that teachers are not doctors licensed and should not talk to children about emotions.

Critics also see school changes as a violation of parents' rights. They claim that students can use the restrooms of their choice, and children can be referred to using pronouns that a parent might not know about.

Inclusion is a topic that concerns parents and Christians. Kenny Smith spoke to Gloucesters school board in July. As Christians, our views are viewed as discriminatory. This is a difficult word.

Schools have lost their trust in parents, say some parents.

Tim Mack stated that students were not given priority in Virginia Beach or elsewhere.

To counter this, Mack founded the Students First VA political-action committee with Manning, Chang, and Paula Chang. Their group launched a recall campaign against six Virginia Beach board members earlier in the month. They claimed that their votes to reopen schools were influenced by medical advice and parents' wishes. Manning declined to discuss her role in the recall.

A recall petition in Virginia requires signatures from 10% of voters who voted in the previous election. Anderson was elected as a board member at-large in a race that saw 304,598 votes cast. To recall Anderson's election, supporters of recall must collect signatures from more people than 30,000.

According to a Facebook video, Dan Chang, Paula's husband, and a frequent speaker in meetings with Tara, their daughter, Tara, said that there are very few chances of them being removed. He encouraged them to think differently about success.

Chang stated that we need to adjust our metrics for success. If we make Kimberly Melnyks (Vice Chairwoman), miserable, I think that's great.

Dan Chang declined to comment. Mack stated that he could not speak for him, but that his goal is to remove six members of the board from office and not make their lives more difficult.

He said that while this could be possible, the ultimate goal is to recall the product.

Anderson said that she was shocked to hear about Dan Chang's comments.

She said that my experiences over the past few months have made me dread meeting up.

Linda Johnson, a former mayor of Suffolk, was elected to fill the temporary vacancy on the city's school board. She said that she is not unfamiliar with political opposition. She said that someone tried to drive her off the road on the night she lost her last election as mayor.

She said that she has never witnessed such anger directed at school boards. There have been disagreements in the past, but nothing like the swearing or profanity. Because of the threats she's received, every time she leaves meetings with a few board members, they are escorted home from their meeting by police. She is concerned about the lessons that children will learn from this.

Johnson considered running for the seat, but she decided against it.

She said that, frankly, I don't want any part. I don't want to do that.

Brooks-Buck stated that she had considered moving, but decided against it.

She said that she has never allowed anyone else to take me out of anything. It will be because I want it, and not because someone chased after me.


Speak out

Miley stated that she was nervous about speaking because of the hostile atmosphere at her meetings.

She arrived on time that night, and her fears were temporarily dispelled when she began talking to another mom who was waiting for her turn. Although they didn't agree on the topic Miley came to speak to support policies protecting transgender students. The other woman was against but Miley said that they had a pleasant conversation about their daughters and reached common ground.

They then saw the man screaming at security guards.

Miley found that seeing the opposition strengthened the resolve to stand up for LGBT students, like her daughter who came out earlier in the summer. It also worried Miley. Her husband joined her when she spoke to the board for the second time.

Miley stated that it is difficult to stand up when someone on the other side is so angry or visceral about their reactions.

Sara Gregory, 757-469-7484,