Free speech concerns spark opposition to national school group

CHEYENNE — Members of the Laramie County School District 1 Board of Trustees debated a draft resolution Monday night intended to express dissatisfaction with the National School Boards Association, and to request the Wyoming School Boards Association leave the national organization.

The consideration follows a letter sent by the NSBA to President Joe Biden at the end of September, asking for federal law enforcement support, as well as state and local agencies to focus on and investigate threats of violence and acts of intimidation against public school officials. It also sought a joint expedited review by the U.S. Departments of Justice, Education and Homeland Security.

But some trustees believe the interpretation of critiques and open dialogue in school board meetings as threats may be dangerous.

“I think it’s heavy handed and can have a chilling effect on the free speech rights of our community,” said Trustee Christy Klassen.

The association’s reasoning was stated in the letter as being due to concerns for personal safety of students, educators, board members and their families. Tensions have risen across the nation within school board meetings as officials try to handle coronavirus recovery operations, mask mandates and fight “propaganda purporting the false inclusion of critical race theory within classroom instruction and curricula.”

The letter went so far as to label disruptions and threats as possible forms of domestic terrorism. “As these acts of malice, violence and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes,” it stated.

Parents and stakeholders in the district have voiced their concerns over these portrayals by the national association, but trustees are now calling for action.

“Because I don’t want my children or my friends and neighbors to live in fear,” Susan Edgerton told the board. “Because there’s a link to CRMC with COVID numbers on our school district website. Because I’d rather there be something that talks about how to keep our immune system strong. Tell me, does that make me a domestic terrorist?”

Klaassen and Alicia Smith both brought forward resolutions Monday to workshop with the board, which could result in leaving both the state and national organizations, withhold dues and reprimand the letter to the president. Monitoring the NSBA’s actions as the upcoming year goes on and “seeing if they turned over a new leaf” also were among the proposals.

“They started this process of the federal government looking into citizens expressing their right to share their viewpoints at school board meetings,” said Klaassen. “And that’s the whole point of why we have a board elected: we’re supposed to be listening and representing our community.”

She said she believed it was important to take a strong and clear stance on the idea these parents were neither threats nor terrorists. But doubts were cast on the language used in the resolution, and multiple amendments were made related to how to properly reiterate their perspective to the WSBA.

And although trustees supported a letter stating their opinion and disapproval of the “offensive” words, as well as monitoring future actions of the NSBA, some questioned whether political discussions were being raised.

“Efforts to politicize this issue are misplaced, in my opinion,” said Trustee Rich Wiederspahn. “We are here having this discussion because of that inappropriate language that was used by the National School Boards Association, not to make this a political issue. We’re not raising Republicans or Democrats here, we’re educating students.”

Other members questioned leaving the organization or not attending conferences with the national organization because they believed there were important connections to be made.

“I don’t want to leave us without some national practices of education as an educational institution,” said Trustee Brittany Ashby. “I think it’s critical that we are able to get some of that as trustees. If we’re not learning, I don’t know why we’re on the board.”

The board came to a conclusion about the contents and demands within their letter Monday night after more than an hour of debate, but it was unclear Tuesday what the defined requests were. The resolution will be available for viewing Wednesday, with the finalized version sent to the WSBA.