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School board members believe ongoing threats, harassment part of organized effort

School officials nationwide dealing with threats over mask mandates
Posted at 9:43 AM, Oct 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-22 09:48:43-04

TAMPA, Fla. — School board members Jennifer Jenkins and Shirley Brown reveal the extent of the threats they’ve received since last year.

"Parents are going to kick down my door and drag me out by my hair," Brown said. "I had to have my husband go through my emails for about a week because they were so nasty. It's a lot of, 'We're going to take you out,'" explained Brown, a Democrat, who serves on the board in Sarasota.

Brown also served as a state lawmaker but said the recent attacks over school mask mandates have been worse than any political attacks she ever received in the Legislature. At one point protesters filed outside her home, which is in a gated community.

Sarasota County school board member, Shirley Brown

For Jennifer Jenkins, the threats have been ongoing since last year, starting with LGBTQ, then critical race theory and now mask mandates.

"They were going to come at me like a freight train, and I was going to have to beg for mercy," Jenkins, a Democrat on Brevard County's school board, explained about the threats she received recently. "There have been postcards sent to my home, vile phone calls, voicemails, emails and it started to escalate in April when the first protest showed up at my house."

Jenkins made national headlines last week after she revealed during a school board meeting how her attacks have included people protesting outside of her home with guns, even complaints to the state's child welfare agency alleging abuse against her daughter.

"I have to take a DCF investigator to her playdate so they can go underneath her clothing and check for burn marks. That's a credible threat," she told colleagues.

Reporter Katie LaGrone asked Jenkins if the DCF complaint was a turning point for her.

"If I was being honest, no. I've been attacked so often and so viciously that I have been desensitized to the things that have been happening to me," she said.

Jennifer Jenkins, Brevard County school board member speaks on harassment
Jennifer Jenkins was elected to the Brevard County School Board in November 2020.

It's a problem playing out across the country.

School board meetings, once a place for peaceful rants and anti-climactic debates, have become open forums for hostile crowds, political outbursts, shouting matches, and arrests.

Despite calls by the National School Boards Association (NSBA) to the feds to investigate threats against school officials, Florida's School Boards Association (FSBA) is one of several state school board associations pushing back, describing any federal actions as an "overreach."

"Illegal acts, violence against any public official should not be tolerated. Period," said Andrea Messina, executive director of Florida's Association.

However, even after hearing the extent to which school board members across the state are dealing with threats, Messina believes any action should come from local law enforcement first.

"We don't have the expertise to determine that level, but we do know school boards are local governments, and we believe in local control and we have relationships with our local law enforcement," Messina said.

Andrea Messina, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association
Andrea Messina has been the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association since 2015.

For Jenkins and Brown, local law enforcement is involved in the threats they’re receiving. But both also believe who and what's behind their harassment cuts deeper than passionate parents.

"I wholeheartedly believe this is an organized, concerted effort. I'm not going to put it on one organization, but this is a lot deeper than what I think people realize," said Jenkins who also revealed she believes she is being followed by a private investigator.

Messina, with the FSBA, has heard the rumblings of outside influence.

"I've had people question and say is this is an organized effort by some outside group, not parents. So, there are questions being asked," she said.

But Messina stopped short of supporting any federal investigation into a more organized effort.

"I can't speak on behalf of the board," she said.

As school mask mandates lift across the state, the volume of threats these board members are receiving appears to be simmering down. Extra police now attend every school board meeting, and Brown said she is also now being escorted by police to her car.

Neither Jenkins nor Brown have plans to leave their board seats, despite having little confidence the tempers flaring inside and outside of school chambers will end anytime soon.

"They're just hopping from topic to topic to stir chaos and controversy," Jenkins said.

"I think there's an anger out there and that somebody is poking the hornet's nest and getting people to be angry, and I think it's for political purposes," Brown said.

The National School Boards Association is still reviewing concerns raised by Florida and several other states.