A Republican resolution to condemn federal action against parents at school board meetings and reaffirm their rights to bring grievances to local boards of education failed Monday in the Delaware Senate along party lines.
On Oct. 4, the federal Department of Justice issued a one-page memo instructing the FBI and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to meet with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to discuss strategies for addressing harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members.
The memo came after months of raucous school board meetings becoming battlegrounds over hot-button issues like masking in schools and the perceived introduction of critical race theory into curricula.
“Threats against public servants are not only illegal, they run counter to our nation’s core values,” wrote Attorney General Merrick Garland. “Those who dedicate their time and energy to ensuring that our children receive a proper education in a safe environment deserve to be able to do their work without fear for their safety.”
Senate Resolution 22, introduced by Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Little Creek, said the DOJ memo “does not accurately reflect the reality of what is occurring nationally and in Delaware.”
While introducing the resolution, Bonini said he included language to condemn violence and harassment but argued that the federal government should not be intervening in matters of free speech at the local level.
“If I disagree with you, I will absolutely defend your right to say what you want to say and I’ll defend your right to condemn whatever I say,” Bonini told the Senate. “But when the federal government — think about the power of the federal government — says we’re going to keep a special eye on you, we should all be very very concerned.”
He said he and his team worked hard to draft a resolution that could garner bipartisan support and argued that if the same thing happened under a Republican administration, he’d run the same resolution.
Senate Democrats weren’t having it
Sen. Bryan Townsend, D-Brookside, said Bonini should think twice about even bringing the resolution to a vote.
“I don’t understand how one could start off by saying they support school boards and then support this resolution,” Townsend said. “There are so many members of school boards, both locally and nationally, in recent weeks and months that have undergone treatment and harassment and threats and stress in all kinds of ways that no school board members should ever have to — particularly at a time when school boards are grappling with very difficult decisions about how to try and implement learning for our students in the midst of a historic pandemic.”
He said he believes in free speech “absolutely” but argued that Bonini’s resolution served as a “silent-head nod” to people who have conducted themselves beyond the pale.
Bonini’s efforts to make the resolution’s language agreeable across party lines were, in Townsend’s view, just “trying to walk some kind of tightrope.”
“It’s not something I want to be a part of,” he said.
His Democratic colleagues agreed. A roll call vote on the resolution revealed a tally of 14-7, with no Democrats supporting the measure.
In an interview with Delaware LIVE/Town Square Delaware, Bonini said he was surprised that the resolution didn’t pass the Senate unanimously.
“I really thought that this would be one that everybody could say ‘hey, that [memo] was overreach’ and our job is to help protect people’s rights.”
He doesn’t know why Democrats didn’t see the issue the same way, other than that politics has become so much uglier in the past few years, he said.
Bonini said he fears if local elected officials don’t stand up for the rights of their constituents, there will be nobody to stop federal overreaches.
“Especially concerning is when the federal government talks about using law enforcement to intimidate people, which was the reality of what the memorandum from the Attorney General is,” Bonini said. “It was clearly designed to put a chill on free speech.”
He said Democrats had plenty of notice that he planned to run the resolution but that nobody reached out to discuss it with him.
Moving forward, Bonini plans to work with Democrats to draft language they can agree with and run the resolution again.
Delaware schools don’t want help from the federal government
In October, the Delaware School Boards Association penned a letter saying that it did not agree to the national association’s request for President Joe Biden to offer federal law enforcement and other assistance to deal with the “growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation occurring across the nation.”
“The Delaware School Boards Association was not consulted prior to the release of this letter, nor do we agree with the letter,” said John Marinucci, the Delaware association’s executive director. “The comments and representations contained within the letter do not reflect the position of our organization.”
The Delaware Association of School Boards said it continues to provide guidance to school boards on how they can help ensure their meetings run smoothly, even when there are contentious issues on the agenda.