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Ricketts, Nebraska school board group object to call for federal threat intervention

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Gov. Pete Ricketts

Gov. Pete Ricketts

As the extraordinary school year comes to a close, education leaders say reopening was the right decision.

The Nebraska Association of School Boards and Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday that they disagree that federal assistance is needed to stop threats and acts of violence against school officials.

Ricketts urged members of the Nebraska State Board of Education to “push back” against what he called “overreach” that threatens the First Amendment rights of parents.

On his monthly radio call-in show and again at an afternoon press conference, Ricketts called the Department of Justice action an “absolute outrageous abuse of federal power.”

“This will have a huge chilling effect, and it’s meant to, to browbeat those parents into not going to school board meetings,” he said. “It’s just beyond the pale. We don’t live in the old Soviet Union here.”

The Nebraska association said it had no part in drafting the letter sent by the National School Boards Association to the Biden administration requesting help from federal law enforcement.

The Sept. 29 letter has drawn criticism from conservatives who feel that it equates parents upset over mask policies and critical race theory with terrorists.

“We did not approve of the letter and had no role in its drafting,” the Nebraska group said.

The national group, in its letter, asked for the DOJ, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service to investigate and prevent threats and acts of violence against school officials.

The letter cites several incidents at school board meetings nationally.

On Oct. 4, Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Offices to meet with federal, state, tribal, territorial and local law enforcement leaders to discuss strategies for addressing such incidents.

Garland cited an increase in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members, teachers and workers in public schools.

The Justice Department said it will launch a series of efforts to address the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel, including the creation of a multiagency task force to determine how federal enforcement tools can be used to prosecute such crimes.

The department also indicated that it would create specialized training and guidance for local school boards and administrators. The training, it said, would help potential victims understand the type of behavior that constitutes threats.

Ricketts said threats and other illegal activity directed against school board members and school officials “absolutely” should be dealt with by local law enforcement, not the federal government.

Ricketts accused the Justice Department of directing the FBI to investigate parents who are showing up at school board meetings to ask about their children’s education. He also accused the department of calling such parents “domestic terrorists,” although neither the DOJ memo nor a press release use the term.

Questioned about the source of that accusation, the governor said he had read it in news reports about the controversy. It was in the letter from the national school boards group.

Ricketts noted that education groups in some states have pushed back on the federal intervention. For instance, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association cut ties with the national group.

Maureen Nickels, president of the Nebraska State Board of Education, said that she had no comment and that the governor should direct his concern to the Nebraska school board group.

The state group said it “will be reevaluating its membership in the National School Boards Association at the appropriate time.”

It said it supports school districts “coordinating with local law enforcement to immediately address all threats to safety and security.”

“We agree with a call for civility in public discourse and a desire to protect school board members and school leaders from violence,” the group said.

Sen. Deb Fischer is among a group of Republican lawmakers calling for Garland to clarify the circumstances under which a parent’s speech would be prosecuted.

“It is not the job of the federal government to institute a witch hunt against parents effectively penalizing them by investigating dissent,” she said., 402-444-1077

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Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-670-2402

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