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Parents in Michigan, Virginia sue DOJ over response to school board threats

A lawsuit accuses Attorney General Merrick Garland of trying to criminalize free speech by ordering a review of threats made against school personnel.
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Parents in Washtenaw County, Michigan, have accused a school district near Ann Arbor of trying to "indoctrinate" students when it comes to transgender policies, sex education curriculum and the teaching of critical race theory.

In Loudoun County, Virginia, a suburb of Washington and a hot spot for the friction surrounding diversity and equity programs, several parents claim that a school district supports critical race theory and promotes transgender policies.

Now, some of those parents with children in the Loudoun County Public Schools and Saline Area Schools in Michigan are turning their attention to a new foe: Attorney General Merrick Garland.

A federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in Washington on behalf of several parents by the American Freedom Law Center, a conservative public interest law firm based in Ann Arbor, says Garland is attempting to stifle free speech when he announced this month that he is directing federal authorities to address a rise in threats against school board members and educators at public schools across the country.

The school districts in Michigan, Virginia and elsewhere are advancing "harmful, immoral, and racist policies of the 'progressive' Left," according to the suit.

On Oct. 5, Garland asked FBI Director Christopher Wray to act within 30 days and work with various federal, state and local agencies on how best to protect school board members and school staff, possibly opening up the potential for prosecutions as well.

"While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views," Garland wrote in a memo to Wray.

The request came days after the National School Boards Association, a federation of state associations, wrote to President Joe Biden that "education leaders are under an immediate threat."

In the wake of racial justice protests in 2020, right-wing groups and conservative media outlets seized on critical race theory, a decades-old academic framework that suggests racism is embedded in American laws and institutions, and warned it was being taught in public schools as part of a wave of diversity programs. One nationwide study in June, however, found that the vast majority of teachers in public schools said the theory was not a required teaching tool.

Yet, lawsuits are mounting nationwide and attempts to recall school board members have gained traction in several states related to parents' dislike for classroom curriculum they perceive as being too progressive, discriminatory or infringing on their own rights. The pandemic has also created another layer of divide over mask enforcement at schools and other Covid-related learning requirements.

David Yerushalmi, a co-founder of the American Freedom Law Center, says parents are concerned that Garland's involvement shows he is seeking to effectively use the federal government to "criminalize public criticism" of local school boards, which would violate constitutional rights.

"Why is the federal government getting involved even if there are threats that would amount to criminal threats? Why is that a federal matter, and not a state law or local matter?" Yerushalmi asked.

"By announcing and putting in place a policy that politicizes the DOJ and criminalizes what is otherwise protected speech, that is clearly a chilling of free speech rights," he added. "We would think everyone — left, right and center — would be behind such a lawsuit."

One parent in Saline identified in the suit as Raelyn Davis, a mother of 10, said some of her children are now homeschooled in response to the school district's "progressive" policies. According to the complaint, she and other unnamed parents take issue with a "cultural responsive consultant" hired by the district and allowing the display of Black Lives Matter flags at school.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday about the suit, which seeks to have the courts halt Garland's effort and declare it unconstitutional. Garland is scheduled to testify Thursday before the House Judiciary Committee in a hearing about oversight of the agency.

Officials in Saline declined to comment, while Loudoun County did not immediately respond to an email about the suit. Neither the Loudoun County Public Schools nor the Saline Area Schools are named as defendants in the suit.

In July, Saline Area Schools Superintendent Steve Laatsch told school board members that critical race theory was not being taught in the district.

However, he said he was supportive of "focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion and culturally responsive teaching so that all of our students feel part of our schools and our curriculum."

The Loudoun County Public Schools said in March that it has not adopted critical race theory. Schools Superintendent Scott Ziegler told NBC News last spring that while he's been in multiple meetings about racial discrimination and equity with high school students, they were focused on other issues and not bothered by national debates that have consumed many other school boards.

"They want us to do something about the bullying that occurs in school and out of school," he said. "They just want us to make the day better for them and their friends."