Three Bend-La Pine School Board members — all people of color — have become targets of harassment and intimidation, said board Chair Melissa Barnes Dholakia.
She said the actions have taken place on social media, in emails to the board, public comment and through the district’s official complaint process.
Barnes Dholakia took a strong stance at a school board meeting Tuesday night, calling the behavior “intolerable” and saying it cannot continue.
“That this is happening at all should be a red flag for our greater community who are committed to democratic principles,” Barnes Dholakia said. “That it is disproportionally targeted at our board members who are Black, Indigenous, Latina and Pacific Islander needs to be a wake-up call.”
She said there appears to be a new “playbook” for treating elected officials that has been adopted by those who do not feel that their views are represented.
“I want to engage with the public. But that is not what this is,” Barnes Dholakia said. “This is about harassment. It is about intimidation. And it is about working to try and ensure that people in elected office — who were elected by the majority — do not seek reelection and to discourage others from running.”
Tuesday’s meeting drew protesters organized by the Deschutes County chapter of Moms for Liberty, who gathered outside of the school district building. The conservative activist group has protested curriculum related to race at school districts throughout Central Oregon.
Others tied to conservative groups and the Republican Party have also frequented school board meetings since July, creating disruptions. In-person meetings over the summer had police presence and drew crowds of more than 200 people protesting mask and coronavirus vaccination requirements and lesson plans related to race and gender identity.
The similar trend has affected school boards nationwide.
Barnes Dholakia said she has offered to meet with nearly 100 people to discuss their issues and concerns over the last two years, with only seven taking her up on the offer. It leads her to believe those most vocal just want a stage, she said.
In a letter to President Biden in early September, the National School Boards Association asked for federal assistance to stop threats and acts of violence against school boards and others in education.
“America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat,” the letter said.
“As the threats grow and news of extremist hate organizations showing up at school board meetings is being reported, this is a critical time for a proactive approach to deal with this difficult issue.”
In response to the letter U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland directed federal law enforcement to strategize with law enforcement.
Barnes Dholakia said, “This is disheartening in that it should have never had to occur.”
Just in the last six weeks, she said the board has received an unusual number of complaints. Two were filed through the district’s complaint process and one filed at the state level, and all three involve board members of color. So far, one has been determined to be unfounded, and the others are still being reviewed, Barnes Dholakia said adding that complaints filed through the district are reviewed by an independent third-party investigator.
The board is also encountering national attention.
Turning Point USA, a nonprofit organization that advocates for conservative values in schools, recently featured school board member, Janet Sarai Llerandi Gonzalez, on it’s “school board watchlist” on Instagram.
The nonprofit organization, which has 1.6 million followers on the social media platform, said the watchlist “finds, documents and exposes school board leadership across America that supports anti-American, radical, hateful, immoral, and racist teachings in their district — such as critical race theory, the 1619 Project, sexual/gender ideology, and more.”
Llerandi Gonzalez was chosen because of a quote by Angela Davis, a political activist, she included in her biography on the school district website. The post drew thousands of likes.
Llerandi Gonzalez, who was elected to the school board in May, affirmed Barnes Dholakia’s statement, saying board members who are people of color, including herself, are being disproportionately targeted.
“And it’s going to be evident by the amount of money that the district is having to spend on investing resources for these bogus, inflammatory, unfounded ethics complaint violations that they’re taking as far as the state,” she said.
Llerandi Gonzalez said she has been threatened on multiple occasions.
“It’s plain to see their hatred and their anger and frustration because they lost as a party, is being directed at people of color that are taking roles in leadership that haven’t been before,” she said.