The National School Boards Association has apologized for its infamous letter to President Biden last September in which it suggested that “threats” and “acts of violence” at heated public school board meetings “could amount to a form of domestic terrorism.” But Attorney General Merrick Garland’s memo to the FBI to investigate parents still stands. And if you want to understand why parents are still upset, look no further than what happened to a Michigan mother who complained to the Chippewa Valley school board.
Sandra Hernden’s son Conor has special needs, and since the Covid pandemic, she has complained that board policies — from closures to virtual learning — caused her son’s GPA to drop to 1.5 from 3.5. Board members responded to her criticism by first reporting her to her then-employer, the Harper Woods Police Department, and then to the Department of Justice.
Now she is suing. On Thursday, Ms. Hernden plans to file a federal lawsuit with the help of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, seeking an apology and an assurance that this overreaction will not happen again. “I don’t want any parent to have to endure what my family endured,” she says. Lest anyone accuse her of being in it for the money, she demands $1 in damages.
School board trustee Elizabeth Pyden complained to Ms. Hernden’s employer about her emails. “I don’t think you want anyone expressing this level of anger, disrespect and veiled racism in your community,” she wrote. Although her email states that she is not asking Ms. Hernden’s boss “to take any adverse action,” the question is: why write that?
Some of Mrs. Hernden’s remarks were over the top, such as comparing the board’s mask policy to Nazi Germany. But Ms Hernden was frustrated that the board seemed deaf to Conor’s problems.
More disturbing is how school board president Frank Bednard responded. He alerted his board colleagues that he had forwarded an email from Ms. Hernden to the DOJ along with a complaint against her and Mothers of Liberty (an apparent reference to the conservative Moms for Liberty, which Ms. Hernden had joined). It is noteworthy that Mr. Bednard’s email was dated October 5, 2021. That’s the day after Mr. Garland’s memo directing the FBI to investigate complaints of threats against school officials.
Perhaps Mrs. Hernden was angry. But as far as we can tell, she didn’t threaten anyone with violence, and the First Amendment protects even angry and inappropriate speech. We sent Mr. Bednard emailed and asked what Ms. Hernden did that merited the attention of federal law enforcement, but he did not respond.
Courts will now have a chance to vindicate parents’ First Amendment right to criticize school policies without fear of retaliation. Meanwhile, Mrs. Hernden is running for the L’Anse Creuse school board in the district where Conor now attends school and is showing improvement.
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Published in the print edition on September 29, 2022.