FBI tracks threats made to personnel at schools
By Katie Benner
The FBI has begun to track threats against school administrators, teachers and board members to assess the extent of the problem, part of the Justice Department’s effort to grapple with the heated and occasionally violent clashes over culture war issues like the teaching of racism and mask requirements.
Last month the FBI created a “threat tag” to apply to reports of threats, harassment and violence against school officials, to comply with a memo sent by Attorney General Merrick Garland, according to a directive issued on Oct. 20 to the bureau’s criminal and counterterrorism divisions that House Republicans made public on Tuesday.
Such tags are used by the bureau to track trends and share information across offices, and are commonly used for crimes like drug offenses and human trafficking, the bureau said.
Republicans in Congress have seized on the Justice Department’s focus on threats of violence toward school administrators, teachers and school board members to buttress their contention that the Biden administration and Democrats are seeking to intimidate or silence parents who object to local school policies.
Some Republicans have suggested that the participation of the FBI’s counterterrorism division in the effort indicates that the administration is equating parents with terrorists, an assertion that Garland has dismissed as baseless.
Similarly, the FBI said on Tuesday that the creation of a threat-tracking system for school-related issues was intended to deter violence, not to silence or intimidate parents with strongly held views.
“The creation of a threat tag in no way changes the long-standing requirements for opening an investigation, nor does it represent a shift in how the FBI prioritizes threats,” the bureau said in a statement.
“The attorney general’s memorandum simply underscores the FBI’s ongoing efforts to assist state, local and federal partners to address threats of violence, regardless of the motivation,” the statement said. “The FBI has never been in the business of investigating parents who speak out or policing speech at school board meetings, and we are not going to start now.”
Republican lawmakers have excoriated Garland for issuing a memo on Oct. 4 that directed the FBI and the 94 U.S. attorneys’ offices to meet with local law enforcement agencies by early November to discuss how to address the threats against school officials and to open “dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment and response.”
The Justice Department also said that it would begin “a series of additional efforts in the coming days designed to address the rise in criminal conduct directed toward school personnel,” including a task force that would include the U.S. attorneys’ offices, the FBI, the criminal division, the national security division and the civil rights division.
During oversight hearings last month, Republicans cast the effort as an attack on parents who criticized issues like mask mandates, curriculum about race and policies regarding gender issues. As the debates have become more heated, physical fights, arrests, disorderly conduct and threats against school officials have increasingly made headlines.
Some Republicans said the memo had a decidedly political cast, as it was issued just days after public school board leaders asked President Joe Biden in a letter to address safety issues at schools. The educators who wrote the letter later apologized for some of its inflammatory language, including a comparison between protesting parents and domestic terrorists.
Several Republicans on the House and Senate judiciary committees said that the directive to look at harassment and threats — especially one that involved the department’s counterterrorism division — echoed the very language that the educators had retracted and could have a chilling effect on parents who wish to voice complaints, even if that was not the intent.
Garland has denied creating his initiative to appease the White House, and he reiterated several times that his directive was meant only to address violence and threats of violence, and that the department would not crack down on free speech.
Nevertheless, a Justice Department whistleblower recently shared the bureau’s memo about the new threat tag with Republican lawmakers, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, wrote in a letter to Garland on Tuesday.
Republicans suggested that the memo, which directed the FBI’s counterterrorism division to use the tag when investigating possible instances of school violence, showed that Garland had not been completely accurate when he testified before them last month.
Garland testified that he could not imagine a circumstance in which parents “would be labeled as domestic terrorists” and that he did not think that “parents getting angry at school boards for whatever reason constitute domestic terrorism.”
“It’s not even a close question,” he said.
In its statement on Tuesday, the FBI said that the bureau’s criminal investigative division and the counterterrorism division shared responsibility for violent threats. “Before either division can open an investigation, there must be information indicating the potential use of force or violence and a potential violation of federal law,” the bureau said.