A Waterville-area anti-vaccine group’s pledge to stage protests outside individual school board members’ houses marks the latest example of Maine school boards coming under intense pressure as they’ve made controversial decisions this year over masking and vaccination.
Maine school boards have been facing more protests from irate parents, and are, in turn, more often requesting a police presence at board meetings to ensure civility, said Steven Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association.
The pledge to protest outside individual board members’ homes marks an escalation of those protests.
The same dynamic is playing out at school boards across the U.S., where a plethora of factors such as fluctuating public health protocols, parental anxieties about remote learning, and culture debates about anti-racist education and masking mandates have ignited a backlash against elected officials, often leading to threats and arrests.
Pandemic politics have imbued public offices in Maine with a heightened sense of scrutiny and rancor. Education experts say that board meetings’ low barrier to entry, frustrations with public health protocols and political polarization have made them an easy target for irate parents. Some parents are backed by national groups that, flush with cash, are invested in helping them upend school board policies.
In the last week, protests have broken out in Maine over school districts’ decisions to mandate masks in schools and provide vaccine clinics to newly eligible children.
Nick Blanchard, a right-wing activist who leads an anti-vaccine group in Waterville, announced that he would start teaming up with parents to protest outside school board members’ homes in response to school mask mandates.
“Going to our school board meetings isn’t working,” he said in an Instagram video posted last week. “It’s time we start holding these school board members accountable for the decisions they are voting on.”
He said the group would organize a protest at a “lucky school board member’s house” once a week, in order to make them “just as uncomfortable as our kids do going to school in a mask.”
Blanchard said he welcomed suggestions for school board members to protest in the video. The Morning Sentinel first reported on his plans.
Blanchard told the BDN that his group planned to picket school board members’ houses statewide, but didn’t give any other details.
Blanchard’s video came the same week that protestors picketed China Middle School, outside of Waterville, for three days to object to MaineGeneral Health operating a vaccine clinic inside the school.
Superintendent Carl Gartley said none of the protestors had children who attended China schools. Some concerned parents called the police even though the protests were legal, he said.
“I think some people don’t like the vaccination and they have every right to feel that way and to protest, as long as they’re peaceful and respectful,” Gartley said.
Teachers took advantage of the opportunity to educate their students about civics and their constitutional rights, Gartley said.
Bailey said that he’s seen more protests against school board policies in recent months, a phenomenon that he chalked up to general pandemic fatigue and pushback against mask mandates after the governor rescinded a state of emergency in June.
In the absence of a statewide mandate, school boards and superintendents are setting their own policies to preserve students’ safety and security, Bailey said.
“It seems like people feel as if their individual freedoms are being stripped because there’s not an executive order,” Bailey said. “No one has the authority to tell them that they have to mask or not mask, and so then they’re taking it to the extreme in terms of not honoring what previously we’ve seen as being pretty socially accepted mores of what you follow when you attend a public meeting.”
Before announcing his group’s new protest effort, Blanchard told a Skowhegan-area school board on Nov. 4 that its decision to mandate masks was “child abuse,” echoing another Minot parent who told a Poland-area school board in October that its mask mandate policy was akin to child sex trafficking, citing a Biblical verse about divine retribution.
While they aren’t isolated incidents, anti-board protests in Maine pale in comparison to the aggressive conflicts seen in states like Virginia, Florida and Tennessee, where protestors have sent harassing emails and letters to public health officials and school board members, and meetings have ended prematurely after threats of violence were made against board members.
In response to heated school board meetings, the Maine School Management Association has begun providing clearer guidance for how school boards can conduct public comment periods in a civil manner with student and staff safety in mind, Bailey said.
More districts are also reaching out to local police or their school resource officers to ask them to attend meetings and to ensure “a sense of calm and respect” during the public comment period, Bailey said, a tack that the Cumberland school board took last year during contentious board meetings.