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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: In age of bully politics, school officials bear brunt of rage

Debbie Long, president of the Central Valley School Board.  (CVSD photo)
Debbie Long, president of the Central Valley School Board. (CVSD photo)

Debbie Long has been on the Central Valley School Board for 18 years.

She was there during the lean years, when voters rejected bond issue after bond issue and the district was forced to make “gut-wrenching” cuts. She was there when they turned that pattern around, passing a construction bond in 2015 and beginning a winning streak at the ballot box

She’s now board president and a past president of the Washington State School Directors Association. During almost two decades on the board, she’s heard her share of criticism. But she had never received anything like the Facebook message that showed up last week.

“Never,” she said. “Never. Are you kidding me?”

The message – from the account of a woman she does not know personally – was a profanity-laced rant of epic proportions, marked by the aggression and invective that is now common among COVID ragers. It can’t be quoted verbatim in a family newspaper but you can fill in these blanks:

“You BLANK!!!!

“Are you a blanking lying blank democrat that is NOT a good choice for our children or their education system! I vow to follow you and your endeavors and do everything in my power to recruit others to take your lying blank blank down.

“Americans WILL prevail and traitors like yourself … will be no more (ANGRY FACE EMOJI!)

“Watch your back you traitorous blank!!!”

That last blank represents perhaps the ugliest word you can call a woman.

It was a shocking communication, even for these angry days and even for the Central Valley School District – where conspiracy-minded pandemic patriots are working overtime against COVID precautions, trying to take over the school board, and running a recall petition against board members, including Long. (One non-COVID element in the recall is an allegation that Long lives outside the district, which she denies.)

Feeling threatened, Long turned the message over to the director of safety and security for Central Valley, former Liberty Lake Police Chief Brian Asmus, who filed a report with the Spokane Valley Police Department. Asmus knows this is a time where people are angry over a variety of things, “but this was a different level,” he said.

It used to be that bullies were a problem in the schools. In the age of bully politics, it’s adults who’ve lost control of themselves – and the people who serve on school boards, in district offices, and in classrooms bear the brunt.

“It’s just gotten worse,” Long said. “I’ve heard foul language that I’ve never heard before at a meeting.”

That’s one story of what it’s like on the front lines of the Central Valley School District.

Here’s another: Last week, the principal of Ponderosa Elementary School sent a message to parents, asking them to please, please, please be kind to the staff.

“Right now our team is being beat up daily for things that are completely out of our control,” wrote Sasha Deyarmin. “I am asking you from the bottom of my heart to treat our staff with kindness and respect. I know you are stressed and a lot of this anger is coming from frustration and love for your kids. Believe me, I can be a pretty big mama bear myself. I am putting in 12-hour days right now and several of these hours are spent de-escalating parents who are angry about COVID protocols.”

Deyarmin’s staff is working harder than ever to keep schools open, comply with the governor’s requirements, follow the smartest and safest protocols to prevent the spread of the virus, and keep kids learning and active. This includes managing contact tracing when a case comes up, and requiring quarantines to prevent the spread.

Every bit of this has been accompanied by objections from some parents – often in a manner that “would not be appropriate for anyone anywhere,” she said in an interview. A lot of it comes from people who oppose masking and vaccination rules, but it also comes from people who believe the district isn’t being cautious enough.

“We’re really getting both sides of it right now, and it makes it really hard,” she said.

Deyarmin was feeling low last week. She wanted to remind people that “We’re better than this. We support each other. We’re kind.”

“When I wrote that email, my heart was hurting,” she said. “It hurt my chest.”

What happened next lifted her spirits. Parents reached out to say thank you, to offer support, to express appreciation. They sent flowers and food. They reminded her who were the many, and who were the few.

“Our community is just awesome,” she said. “We put out a call to help, basically, and they rose to the occasion completely.”

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