Virginia's Nov. 2nd statewide election signaled just how concerned voters are about what's happening in public schools and pointed towards an emerging parent rights movement nationally.
It makes sense to Colleen Leary, a school board member in Chesapeake, Virginia.
"I think people are feeling out of control," she said. "When you look at COVID and all the things that have happened and people want to get back to life. They want to be normal again. And I think that the closest place that they can do that is in their local area and one of those places is, of course, their local schools."
Leary and fellow board member Harry Murphy have watched parent attendance spike at board meetings in the past year but they describe Chesapeake parents as generally respectful.
"They're passionate," said Leary who says she sometimes struggles when parents are heated. "I have to remember that these children are their most valuable possession," she said. "They love their kids and they want what's best for their kids so I try very hard to keep that in mind if they're angry or upset."
Murphy says he's happy to see more parents getting involved.
"Quite honestly I think it's great," he said. "I think they're realizing how important the schools are."
Parents concerned about education demonstrated their political power in the Virginia gubernatorial race last week. A Fox News exit poll found one-quarter of voters called Critical Race Theory their top issue when deciding who to support for governor and more than two-thirds of them voted for Glenn Youngkin.
Helping to feed that political momentum: political action committees like the American Principles Project. It reports its online education ads targeting Virginia voters garnered more than 6 million views prior to the election.
Outside of Virginia, the parents' movement is building momentum as well. Axios reports that the 1776 Project Pac backed conservative school board candidates in seven states and won three-fourths of its targeted races last week.
In addition, the parents' rights organization Moms for Liberty started in January and already has 60,000 members and 152 chapters spread across 33 states.
It all points to an emerging movement that radio host Erick Erickson describes as organic and bipartisan.
"If you look at the demographics and the polling on this there are a lot of liberal parents as well who are deeply concerned about school closures, mask mandates for children," he said.
But as parents become more active at school board meetings some are causing security concerns. That has led Attorney General Merrick Garland to order the FBI to get involved, citing a "disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence" against educators. On October 4th, he ordered the FBI to identify and discourage any such threats.
Leary and Murphy see that as inappropriate.
"I think this was strictly a political move. It was a threat to try to get parents to be quiet," said Murphy.
Former Trump faith advisor and president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, believes it's dangerous political targeting.
"I see the actions of Attorney General Merrick Garland and the DOJ as an egregious act exhibiting totalitarian, authoritarian inclinations that more look like, smell like the vestiges of communist Russia, the Soviet Union and what the Chinese communist government looks exhibits today," he said.
National security expert Dr. Paul D. Miller, a former White House staffer for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, holds a different perspective. He says it is appropriate to investigate threats.
"Threatening violence is a threat of terrorism when you're threatening to attack people over a difference of public policy," he said. "So yes, law enforcement has a role to play here, whether it's state or federal depends on which statute we're talking about."
He and other national security experts are closely monitoring domestic violent extremism as it seeks to capitalize on political and social tensions. A 2020 Department of Homeland Security report warned that pandemic conditions could accelerate the radicalization of some individuals towards terrorism.
"There's just a lot of agitation and a lot of frustration out there and people are feeling greater permission to act outside the bounds of what we used to consider normal political activity," said Miller.
Already, there are signs of a growing acceptance of political violence.
An American Enterprise Institute 2021 poll found close to three in ten Americans show at least some support for political violence in certain circumstances.
Security experts are expressing concern that extremists may try to recruit those with legitimate grievances, like parents. They want to prevent the potential for more political violence, such as the 2017 congressional baseball shooting, pipe bombs mailed to members of Congress in 2018 and the Jan. 6th Capitol riots.
Miller says it's difficult to predict what might happen, but doesn't rule out violence at state capitols or at 2022 campaign events and the mid-term elections.
For now, it's possible, says Erickson, that the Biden administration may soften its stance on schools following Youngkin's win and the prominent role of education in the race. Such a move could tamp down some of the more heated meetings and perhaps encourage the political empowerment many parents are beginning to pursue.
For Leary and Murphy, the way forward includes getting students back to their normal routines and finding more ways to come together.
"We're going to have to find some way to understand that there are things that are beyond our control sometimes that we're just going to have to deal with," said Leary. "They may not be fun and they may not be easy and we're just going to have to deal with them – and if we deal with them in a united way then it's only going to be better for our kids, our teachers, our school boards."
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