Pennsbury’s board president received threats of death and rape. She’s not alone.
With school board elections historically garnering low turnout, small numbers of energized voters could elect a “disproportionate number of people with extreme views," says one expert.
The messages flooded Christine Toy-Dragoni’s inbox, social media and voicemail. Some threatened to share her personal information far and wide, while others wished for all the women in her family to be raped. Also, for her to die.
“You better grow eyes in the back of your head,” one warned.
“My husband would say, ‘This is crazy, you need to get off the school board,’” said Toy-Dragoni, president of the Pennsbury School Board. “I just explained to him that I would never do that for the people who voted for me. But it definitely gives you pause.”
Many school board members this last year have borne the brunt of parents angry over COVID-19 closures, critical race theory or masking orders. But some of that outrage, often mirrored in conservative media, has translated into outright threats of harm or death, leaving some wondering whether it’s worth it, and experts warning of a future of extremes and stifled engagement among the broader public.
With school board elections — to be held Tuesday in Pennsylvania — historically garnering low turnout, it would take only a small number of voters to elect a “disproportionate number of people with extreme views,” said Jon Valant, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution. At a time when boards are charged with spending billions in federal funding and addressing pandemic learning gaps, “that to me is frightening,” he said.
School boards have garnered heightened attention since the start of the pandemic. But the vitriol some have been facing became a greater focus in the last month, as the U.S. Department of Justice directed the FBI to look into what Attorney General Merrick Garland called a “disturbing spike” in harassment, intimidation and violent threats against school administrators, board members and teachers.
The move — which had been requested by the National School Boards Association — drew fierce criticism from Republicans, who called it an effort to silence parental speech. And several state school board associations — including Pennsylvania’s — dropped out of the national organization, objecting to what they said was the suggestion that parental protests amounted to domestic terrorism.
To Tina Stoll, president of the North Penn School Board, the outcry over federal intervention has minimized what she and others have experienced.
“I think that’s their objective — to try to make us resign,” said Stoll, who went to the police after she received a Facebook message threatening to disclose her personal information online and says she has continued to be stalked on social media by someone who no longer lives in the area. Personal attacks have grown common; the other day, Stoll said, someone called her and other board members pedophiles.
“Other people look at it and want no part of it. And then who’s left to serve?” she said. Stoll, a Democrat, decided to run for reelection because “I’m not going to give up.”
The stress isn’t affecting just board members. Some educators have been quitting after facing harassment, said Andrea Kane, professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, who recently left as superintendent of Queen Anne’s County, Md., public schools. Kane, who is Black, was targeted by a conservative group after she declared that “Black Lives Matter” and called racism a problem in her community and schools.
“My concern is for those school and district leaders who just say ‘I’m not doing this’ and don’t stay in the field, because it has reached that level,” said Kane, who said Black leaders, in particular, have faced pushback in predominantly white school systems. “It’s going to take some years to regain what we lost. If we can do it.”
Some of the current conflict stems from a disconnect over the role of school boards, said William Gaudelli, dean of Lehigh University’s College of Education. While boards are meant to be accessible — and people rightfully feel ownership — state laws limiting their authority render them less powerful than some in the public might believe, Gaudelli said.
The pandemic has also presented new demands. Before Pennsylvania imposed a school mask mandate this fall, many boards had to reach their own decisions — spurring heated meetings in some local districts. A board member who voted against requiring masks in the Central Bucks School District resigned after receiving a voicemail that said “You should ... die.”
In North Penn, the board moved its meetings to the high school for added security after an August meeting was shut down due to an argument over masks. Stoll said people have threatened to follow home her and other board members.
“I just feel at some point somebody’s going to get hurt at a school board meeting,” she said, noting a Republican candidate for Northampton County executive who recently threatened to show up at board meetings with “20 strong men” to oust board members and end mask requirements.
In its request for federal help, the National School Boards Association — which has since apologized for “some of the language” in the letter — cited a variety of incidents at board meetings, including in the Garnet Valley School District in Delaware County.
That was in August, after the district had decided to require masks. About 20 to 30 parents arrived at a school board meeting and refused to put masks on — calling board members “cowards” and “Marxists,” said Superintendent Marc Bertrando. The board recessed the meeting, and the district called the police.
It was the first time in Bertrando’s 32 years in education that he says he considered the topic of safety at a school board meeting. But he sees other ripple effects.
“When you see grown adults behaving in this way, what’s the trickle down of that?” he said. “What does that mean about what rules we will follow?”
In Pennsbury, Toy-Dragoni said she would share with the FBI the threatening messages sent to her and fellow board members.
“Your lucky those parents dont kill you and you whole family,” one grammatically flawed email from July read. “... Buy a gun and 1 bullet. Put the barrel into your mouth and pull the trigger. I guarantee not one person on plant earth will miss you.”
Some board members received violent, anti-Semitic messages, while other messages threatened to reveal private information.
Toy-Dragoni traces the backlash to the district’s hiring of a diversity, equity and inclusion director. Opposition emerged, including during a March school board meeting when a resident made comments that others complained afterward were racist. The board struck them from the meeting video.
That set off an uproar — one that didn’t die down after the board restored the comments to the video in May, Toy-Dragoni said.
In June, a clip went viral of former Pennsbury school board member Simon Campbell accusing the board of censorship — and calling Toy-Dragoni “school board president Benito Mussolini” while declaring, “I don’t have to be nice to you. Nobody behind me has to be nice to you.” Campbell went on conservative media outlets including Fox News, Newsmax and Glenn Beck.
“Whenever he gets any airtime, we get a new batch of hate mail,” Toy-Dragoni said. One day, she answered her phone and got a caller from Indiana.
Campbell — who is suing the board along with several other residents, alleging it violated their free speech rights — said in an email that “any insinuation that I encourage harassment is false and meant to distract from the district’s appalling censorship and violation of the First Amendment at public meetings.”
The hostility has taken a toll, Toy-Dragoni said. She doesn’t know where all the hateful emails have come from — police haven’t been able to trace them — but wants to show people there’s a human on the receiving end.
“Me. Your neighbor,” she said. She worries that her daughter recently expressed qualms about going to a neighborhood picnic, asking whether “something’s going to happen.”
Toy-Dragoni’s term ends in December. She says she decided not to run for reelection before the threats started happening.
“Had I known it, I would have stayed in so I could show them that they didn’t scare me out,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described Simon Campbell as a candidate for school board in Pennsbury.