Hostility grows toward CT school officials amid COVID tensions: ‘We’re getting so angry’

In Brookfield, a police officer attends school board meetings to ensure everyone stays calm during discussions on mask wearing.

Nurses in neighboring Bethel have “endured verbal hostility” for implementing guidance from the health department, the superintendent said.

These communities are among many across the country where the public has been antagonistic toward school staff, board members or — in one local case — a student.

“It’s just not OK,” said Fran Rabinowitz, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents. “Our kids are watching us, and that is not something that we want to have them model. Public discourse is incredibly important, but it has to be done with respect and civility.”

In Brookfield’s case, COVID-19 protocols have caused the tension. Other communities in the state and country have seen hostility over claims that “critical race theory” is taught in schools, experts said. Bethel’s problems largely stem from misinformation on social media.

In Easton, Redding and Region 9, Superintendent Rydell Harrison departed last summer after less than a year leading the districts. He had been criticized by local residents for his role in diversity initiatives and his condemnation of the Jan. 6 insurrection. The school board had blamed COVID and other challenges for his resignation. As Guilford schools equity liaison, he’s been criticized yet again.

“This is a small minority of people, but they’re very vocal,” Rabinowitz said.

The stress of the coronavirus pandemic may have contributed to the flare ups, officials said.

“This is part of what I consider the problems as a consequence of COVID and people being forced to stay home, possibly losing their jobs and seeing less activity economically and probably socially,” said Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education.

State and nationwide problem

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has condemned the “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” toward school officials. Earlier this month, he told the FBI and U.S. attorneys across to coordinate with local law enforcement to address the issue.

Garland’s directive followed the National School Board Association’s letter to President Joe Biden asking for federal law enforcement’s help with threats school officials have faced over COVID protocols and “propaganda purporting the false inclusion of critical race theory.”

Connecticut hasn’t had as many incidents as school boards in other parts of the country, Rader said.

“We have boards and superintendents who understand their responsibility and will make sure that the public’s work is done,” he said.

Some school districts in the area, such as Danbury and Ridgefield, did not report problems.

“Danbury has done an excellent job in informing parents, keeping parents aware of what’s going on within the district concerning their children,” school board Chair Gladys Cooper said.

Rabinowitz said she’s heard about these problems particularly in southwestern Connecticut, but it’s affected at least 10 school districts in various parts of the state.

“All of it is troubling, but some of it is alarming,” she said.

She attended one school board meeting where someone screamed for the superintendent to be fired. At another, a man “harassed” a teacher and others at their cars, she said. Speakers during public comment sessions have ignored time limits and the board chair, raising their voices, Rabinowitz said.

The governor was escorted from a school forum in Cheshire in August because of anti-mask protesters. One even followed the governor to his car.

Police were called to school board meetings in Fairfield and Haddam over masks, while Branford Board of Education has started stationing a cop at its meetings to prevent disruptive behavior.

Meeting disruption

Brookfield’s school board ended a mid-September meeting early because anti-mask speakers took over public comment.

“When people disagree, tensions typically rise,” Superintendent John Barile said in an email.

Once the meeting adjourned, community members continued to shout, video from the meetings shows.

“We’re getting so angry,” someone says off camera. “Can’t you guys tell that we’re fed up? Do something.”

Community members shouted over each other as the vice chairman of the board tried to calm the group and a woman at the podium attempted to speak.

“I’ve tried my best to stay polite,” the woman says.

“We’re talking about our kids,” she continues. “I’m sorry if emotions are running high. I don’t know what else to do at this point.”

After the meeting, some parents followed the board’s student representative to his car and “got in his face” about masks and vaccines, said Rosa Fernandes, chair of Brookfield’s board.

“That’s completely unacceptable,” she said.

The board has had police at its meetings since August, but the officer was out of the room at that moment, she said. The officer came in later, helping to “calm the nerves of everybody,” Fernandes said.

“We think that’s really helped to keep the order of the meetings,” she said.

Some members of the public don’t understand that the governor — not the local school board — has control over mask rules, Fernandes said.

It’s been a loud minority that has caused issues, she said.

“We’re not trying to hamper free speech,” she said. “They can make comments at our meetings, but when it actually interferes with the work of running our district, that’s really when it starts to break down.”

In Bethel, public comment on masks have stayed civil, although school board chair Melanie O’Brien said she understands why parents could get worked up.

“As a parent, there is nothing that will get parents more emotionally charged than the health and safety of their child,” she said.

Misinformation

Bethel Superintendent Christine Carver said some members of the public have been hostile or accusatory toward school officials based on inaccurate information.

For example, she woke recently to an email asking her if “...we have lost our minds?”

The emailer was upset about a social media post claiming a student was sent home from school due to a dress code violation.

The incident didn’t happen at Bethel High School, Carver said. The individual who posted the complaint apparently lives on the West Coast. But instead of checking facts, the emailer got angry.

“Instead of just asking the simple question, ‘Is it true?’ Or what’s going on?,’ it becomes an accusation,” Carver said. “It’s happening to my principals, it’s happening to me, it’s happening to my teachers.”

Frustrations have spilled onto school property. Families have sworn at administrators directing traffic at a school, Carver said. Once, someone spit at an administrator, she said.

Carver acknowledged the traffic situation had been “horrific.”

“But the poor person who is directing traffic can’t help that 300 parents all tried to pick up their kids at the same time,” she said.

COVID has heightened stress levels, she said.

“But it doesn’t meant that we shouldn’t strive to be respectful,” Carver said. “That’s what we teach our kids, right?”

Calming tensions

The superintendent association works with various partners, including teachers’ unions, school boards and the principals association, to develop strategies, policies and “whatever it takes” to address the issue, Rabinowitz said.

CABE has held workshops for boards on how to discuss divisive issues. Active listening is important, Rader said. Public comment should be permitted, but regulated, he said.

“You’re required to give everybody the same amount of time to speak, to not defame anyone or otherwise cause a disruption to the meeting,” he said.

A police presence may “unfortunately” be needed, Rabinowitz said.

Brookfield has a “communication protocol” online that explains who families should contact with a concern.

“We have found that reminding all stakeholders about our long established district communication protocol to be quite helpful in resolving matters at the appropriate level of the organization,” Barile said in an email.

Carver has urged parents not to assume social media posts are accurate and to contact the school about concerns, rather than sharing potentially false information online.

“Assume good intentions, and let’s talk about it,” she said.

One way to combat misinformation is a new curriculum website showing what the schools are teaching, O’Brien said.

In her newsletter, Carver asked parents to be respectful toward others.

“In addition to staff, be nice to each other as parents and members of the community,” she wrote. “Model your conversations, emails, and social media engagement the way you would want your children to interact.”