Winston-Salem, N.C. • Feb. 22, 2022
Wayne Township, N.J. • Oct. 7, 2021
Penfield, N.Y. • June 8, 2021
At a February 2022 school board meeting in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a woman named Laura Lester (first video) drew applause when she stepped to the podium and delivered the first three sentences of her prepared remarks: “Two weeks of ‘flatten the curve’ has turned into two years of a nightmare,” she said. “The mandate needs to end tonight. And when it does end I will not clap, I will not cheer, I will not celebrate for a freedom that should never have been taken away.” Lester did not respond to requests for comment.
A few minutes later, as two women described their plan to wage a legal battle against the school district’s “unconstitutional” practices, a man assisting the women rushed at the school board members carrying a box (it contained supposed documentation of the women’s claims). School security officers tackled him and held him down in an adjacent hallway as he repeatedly bellowed: “You work for me!”
At a school board meeting the year before in Wayne Township, New Jersey, the crowd got even more worked up when the school board president tried to silence a speaker, Pamela Macek (second video), who was protesting a library book that “promotes obscene material and porn” by reading passages from it. (In a story published last month, Macek told ProPublica that she wasn’t trying to get the book banned but wanted it restricted to counselors’ offices and wanted parents to have to approve a student checking it out.)
The board president attempted to hold a vote to end the meeting early. One attendee ran to the front of the room to confront her, pointing his finger at her and yelling: “End the meeting and it’s going to happen in front of your fucking house.”
Months earlier in Penfield, New York, parents challenged the board to take a stand against public health officials and the governor, with one bemoaning the fact that surrounding districts had dropped their mask mandates amid decreasing infection rates. “You all are in very powerful positions up here,” the parent, Lauren Luft (third video), told the board. “But you don’t own my child, OK?”
Luft went on to complain about “scary” diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and insinuate that the board was pushing a transgender agenda on students. “You need to understand that these are God’s children,” Luft said, her voice rising and quivering as the small crowd cheered her on. “You are indoctrinating them to hate their bodies the way that they were born, the way that they were made!”
Luft did not respond to requests for comment.
After three more speakers voiced complaints similar to Luft’s, an attendee loudly complained from her seat that a board member was laughing. “Be respectful. You’re an elected representative,” another attendee yelled at a different board member. “You represent us. This isn’t about you, bud.”
“You’re not going to stand up here and do anything to me, asshole!” the board member yelled back. He stood up and beckoned the parent toward him, saying, “Come on.”
The parent and another man jumped onto the stage. (First video below.) The board member’s colleagues pulled him away from the parent as the video feed of the meeting cut off.
In Chaska, Minnesota, Jonas Sjoberg had just stepped away from the podium, having used his allotted time to thank school board members for enacting a masking policy, when another parent, Thomas Kahlbaugh, got in Sjoberg’s face, telling him, “What you just did was lie to the board” about the level of community support for masking.
Minutes later, Kahlbaugh’s wife tapped Sjoberg’s shoulder, upset that he’d taken a photo of her husband. Kahlbaugh then grabbed Sjoberg’s phone (second video) and pulled him out of his seat by his shirt as bystanders yelled for police.
Reflecting on the incident, Sjoberg said that what happened at the meeting revealed how, as a community, “we rile each other up” and people are confined to “our own little bubbles.” As a result, he said, “we meet in the public square and we can’t communicate, we yell at each other, we scream and shout, and we bicker and fight. Is that really what we want?”
Kahlbaugh was later sentenced to a year of probation for disorderly conduct and was ordered not to contact Sjoberg and to undergo an anger management assessment. An assault charge against him was dismissed. In response to ProPublica’s questions about the incident, Kahlbaugh said the assessment found that he did not need to attend anger management treatment. He also accused a prosecutor of overcharging him in an effort to make him take a plea deal. “My kids will never step foot again in another Minnesota Public School,” he wrote. “These schools have been lost to the corruption of government taking endless taxpayer dollars while continuing to fail our kids.”
In a similarly disruptive incident earlier that year in Salt Lake City, Utah, things got so out of hand that prosecutors filed criminal charges against nearly a dozen attendees.
When the public comment period ended, three attendees approached the microphone and refused to leave, screaming at the board members as members of the crowd began chanting to end the mask mandate (third video). School board members hastily voted to end the chaotic meeting. As they started gathering their things to leave, one of the people at the front of the room encouraged other attendees to join him, shouting: “OK, here we go. Since they’re going to leave, we’re going to take control.” He offered his own motion to end the mask mandate. A group of attendees rushed forward, raising an arm to signal their support.
Eleven people were later charged with disrupting a meeting. Most of the cases were dismissed. Two people pleaded no contest and paid a fine.
Though confrontations at board meetings escalated for different reasons, many ended with attendees being removed by police or security officers.
Many incidents involved attendees protesting mask mandates or COVID-19 protocols.
Other protestors were opposed to the availability of books covering LGBTQ+ issues.
In some cases, attendees were arrested after confrontations with police.
In several places, members of the public filed lawsuits against the school district, alleging that their civil rights were violated.
Some of the arrests and interactions with authorities were by design — conceived and filmed for maximum visibility.
In Brevard County, Florida, a protester livestreamed his intense clash with deputies as he was denied entry to a 2021 school board meeting because he wasn’t wearing a mask. “Move! You cannot touch me, you dumbass,” the protestor, Nicholas Carrington, yelled in the deputy’s face. A separate recording of the confrontation by a fellow protestor continued for more than eight minutes before both protestors were arrested.
In June, Carrington was ordered to pay $331 in legal fees for disrupting an educational institution. His other charges — trespassing, resisting a public officer and disorderly intoxication — were dropped, as was a trespassing charge against the other protestor. (She was found not guilty of her other charge.) In response to ProPublica’s questions about the incident, Carrington described himself as the victim of a “retaliatory arrest” at a time when school district officials “were only letting people in who agreed with their narrative and were married to wearing the masks and being subservient.”
In the suburbs of Rochester, New York, parents livestreamed two separate run-ins with authorities at school board meetings. A parent involved in one of the livestreams was among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against more than a dozen school districts and superintendents accusing the schools of “educational malpractice,” in part for having more stringent COVID-19 protocols in place than the state required. That lawsuit was dismissed.
One parent, who was arrested during her livestream, went on to file a federal lawsuit against the school district and sheriff’s office last year, alleging wrongful arrest and civil rights violations and seeking more than $17 million in damages. The lawsuit is ongoing.
In another lawsuit, stemming from an incident in Round Rock, Texas, two school board meeting attendees claimed their arrests were retaliation for their criticisms of the school superintendent during the public comment period. In the lawsuit, the men refer to school security guards as “hired goons”; claim they “suffered false arrest” and “effective assault” by the school district police; and allege that the incident “concluded with Plaintiffs in the county jail, after an arrest worthy of an Al Qaida operative.” That lawsuit is also ongoing.
While in some districts the school board unrest led to court battles, in other places it resulted in political ones.
In Indiana, a man arrested for disrupting a Penn-Harris-Madison school board meeting subsequently ran for a seat on the board. (Prosecutors had declined to charge him.) His bid was unsuccessful. In Webster, New York, the man who had played a central role in one of the livestreams also made an unsuccessful bid for a school board seat.
Despite those losses, there were seismic political shifts on a number of school boards, aided in part by the passions stirred in the chaotic meetings. Across the country, slates of conservative candidates were able to gain momentum by appealing to some of the parents who’d packed the meetings.
Many of the candidates were endorsed by national groups including the 1776 Super PAC, which supports candidates who back a “patriotic” curriculum, and Moms for Liberty, a Florida-based nonprofit that has made book-banning its rallying cry. The candidates often promised parents more control over what topics could be taught in the classroom, what books could be checked out of the library and what rights LGBTQ+ students could be granted. And the candidates’ successes — in places like Berkeley County, South Carolina, Wayne Township, New Jersey, and Sarasota County, Florida — politically and ideologically transformed those school boards.