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Opinion >  Syndicated columns

Jennifer D. Jenkins: I’m a Florida school board member. This is how protesters come after me.

By Jennifer D. Jenkins Special to the Washington Post

My 5-year-old daughter was on a playdate last month when an investigator from the Florida Department of Children and Families sat at my kitchen table to question me about how I disciplined her, and then accompanied me to the playdate to check for nonexistent burn marks beneath her clothes. Someone had falsely reported that I abused my child. The report was quickly dismissed, but this was the low point in the short time I have been a Brevard County School Board member.

I’m a speech language pathologist in the Brevard public school system, where my husband is a teacher. I ran for school board last year because I was concerned about issues such as teacher pay, student equity and, oh, yeah, covid-19. As a progressive in a red county, I expected to be a target of conservatives; I did not expect to be called a Nazi and a pedophile and subject to months of threats, harassment and intimidation. But school board meetings in Florida and across the country, including Virginia, Illinois, Texas, Wisconsin, Wyoming and Tennessee, have increasingly erupted in chaos over politicized issues such as masks, bathrooms and critical race theory - and the chaos, now with menacing if not outright violent overtones, has spilled out of the meetings and into the private lives of public servants.

In Brevard, the protests began with Moms for Liberty, a purported grass-roots organization founded after my election by the incumbent I’d unseated. Supplied with matching blue T-shirts, pocket copies of the Constitution and a hazy notion of critical race theory - which is not taught in the public schools - its members began showing up at school board meetings. Their first battle, in March, was over bathrooms. Moms for Liberty had zeroed in on the county’s LGBTQ+ guidelines for administrators, a document outlining the rights of students as delineated in state and federal laws. A disinformation campaign spread through social media. Protesters became regulars outside school board meetings. Trump flags waved in the parking lot. Young children, accompanied by their parents, shouted into megaphones, “Don’t touch me, pedophiles!” LGBTQ+ students tried to speak while adults chanted “Shame!” Meetings were packed, and those who couldn’t get in banged on the windows and doors.

By April, protesters began to gather not just at the board meetings but also in front of my house. A group of about 15 shouted “Pedophiles!” as my neighbors walked their dogs, pushing their infants in strollers. “We’re coming for you,” they yelled, mistaking friends standing on my porch for me and my husband. “We’re coming at you like a freight train! We are going to make you beg for mercy. If you thought Jan. 6 was bad, wait until you see what we have for you!”

In July, the battle shifted to mandated masks for students. Brevard is one of 11 Florida school districts to institute mask mandates in defiance of Gov. Ron DeSantis’s executive order banning them. State Rep. Randy Fine, an anti-mask crusader, posted my cellphone number on his Facebook page and encouraged residents to call me. When my voice mailbox filled, he encouraged text messages. During televised board meetings, I still receive texts commenting on what I am saying and wearing.

After DeSantis removed me from a news conference announcing monoclonal antibody treatments and addressing concerns about mask mandates at the county Department of Health last month, more protesters arrived at my home. They claimed to have been sent by Representative Fine. “Be careful, your mommy hurts little kids!” one shouted at my daughter. “You’re going to jail!” they chanted. As I read my daughter a bedtime story inside, they walked outside her bedroom window toward their parked cars. I went out to ensure that they were really leaving. One coughed in my face while another shouted, “Give her COVID!” A third swung a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag near my face. My neighbors told me they had seen them brandishing weapons in the church parking lot behind my house.

The next day, a large “FU” was burned into my lawn with weed killer. The bushes in front of my house were hacked down. That was the day the Department of Children and Families investigator showed up.

I receive hundreds of vile emails and voice mails. Someone has hired a private investigator to follow me. All because I won a school board seat. An outed Democrat in a district that voted for Donald Trump over Joe Biden by 17 points. My opponent and I stood on opposite sides of the mask issue. I defeated a Republican incumbent by almost 10 points. From the beginning of my term to this day, I am the only board member of five who has received these threats and harassment on issues for which there is majority board support.

Two weeks ago, a woman passed me in the lobby of the school board offices and yelled, “There’s the wicked witch!” Outside the building the more restrained protesters hold posters labeling me a dictator and a Nazi. The vocal ones threaten me with jail - again. And this time there’s a king-size bedsheet affixed to two poles; it’s printed with a blood-red hashtag demanding my recall. Sheriff’s deputies stand ready to escort me to the front doors.

Those opposing masks have a right to be heard even if I disagree with them. I will defend their First Amendment rights, up to and including those protecting protests on public easements in front of my own house. If there are differences of opinion about what’s fair for all students, I’m happy to discuss them. But I have rights too, and that includes the right to be free from harassment and assault.

Harassment like this is happening everywhere, not just in my Florida county. And there is plenty of evidence that the current school board battles are not the spontaneous actions of concerned parents who want to solve problems. Conservative organizations have held “School Board Boot Camp” and sent leaders from out of state to speak at school board meetings. According to The Washington Post, Republican megadonors have financed efforts to fight masks in schools. A draft letter one conservative group circulated in its networks provides a script: “NAME is excited to be joining NAME OF SCHOOL this year,” it reads, and “I have to speak up for what is best for my kids.” I agree. They do. And I do. But if their real mission is to sow political division until they get what they want, a mirror of their ideals in public education, they can’t do it through threats and intimidation. If the real mission of protesting mask mandates at school board meetings is to light fires, I won’t stand by and watch them burn.

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Jennifer Jenkins was elected to the Brevard County School Board in Florida in August 2020. She continues to serve her community in child development and as a speech language pathologist.

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