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Civil conversation welcomed at Forsyth school policy meetings

CUMMING, Ga. — Forsyth County Schools officials acknowledge passions are running high in the community regarding best practices in schools, but they believe most in the community continue to support the district and its staff.

“It has been disappointing, though, that a small few have chosen to be unkind to our staff and board, which has caused more work and stress on our side,” director of Communications Jennifer Caracciolo said.

She confirmed there has been a sharp increase of speakers at monthly school board meetings over the summer expressing views primarily on curriculum and race relations. However, there were no instances of threats or violence directed at board members or staff at these meetings as seen elsewhere in the country.

Last week, federal law enforcement was pressed into action to address the “increase in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members” and other education staff, according to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

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The nation’s top law enforcement officer is directing FBI and local law enforcement to devise strategies this month to deal with what he describes as a “disturbing trend,” in a statement released last week.

This action was in direct response to a plea from the National School Boards Association asking federal authorities to protect schools from the "imminent threat" of parents harassing school staff. The group requested parents who push back against school policies in threatening manner be charged as “domestic terrorists.”

Caracciolo pushes back from the characterization of those who attend the board meetings or express their opinions on other platforms.

“We consider them our essential partners…our staff, parents, taxpayers, senior citizens, and our students,” she said. “We all collectively want the same thing [which is] what is best for our children.”

That perspective is also shared by PAGE, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, the state’s largest educator association of 95,000 educators, administrators, and school personnel.

“Parents and community stakeholders are vital partners in public education,” PAGE executive director Craig Harper said. “These voices must never be silenced or ignored even when strong disagreements exist, and that partnership is strained.”

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He noted PAGE is aware of reports of threatening behavior toward some school policymakers, and actions should be taken.

“Those incidents must be addressed by local law enforcement rather than a federal response, which could suppress public comment,” Harper said. “To date, PAGE members have reported a limited number of incidents.”

The Georgia School Board Association also issued a statement separating itself from the national perspective on parent protestors, stating those issues are local matters.

“Elected officials and appointed leadership who are closest to the community are best suited to make those decisions, especially the hard ones,” said the GSBA statement issued Oct. 5.

Caracciolo said police officers were present at the board meetings this summer. However, that was not a reaction to the expected crowd size, but the standard protocol when large groups gather.

“Any time we expect a large crowd, such as at high school athletic events, we do have law enforcement present,” said Caracciolo. “We follow this practice for our board meetings and public forums, so we have had law enforcement at these meetings.”

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Most of the public comments this summer centered on Critical Race Theory and the district’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion curriculum. Fewer people were concerned about mask mandates or COVID protocols, which have fueled much of the national debate in schools.

“We understand that emotions are heightened in our country over these issues, so we are focusing on practicing grace when engaging with them,” Caracciolo said.

Face masks have never been mandated in Forsyth County Schools, and CRT is not part of the district’s curriculum, she added.

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