It was only days after Sami Al-Abdrabbuh was reelected to the school board in Corvallis, Ore., that the text messages arrived. The first, he said, was a photo taken at a shooting range. It showed one of his campaign's lawn signs — "Re-Elect Sami" — riddled with bullet holes.
The second was a warning from a friend. This one said that one of their neighbors was looking for Al-Abdrabbuh, threatening to kill him.
Like many school board races this year, the one in May in Corvallis, a left-leaning college town, was especially contentious, swirling around concerns not only about the pandemic but also the teaching of what Al-Abdrabbuh called the "dark history" of America's struggle with race. Even months later, Al-Abdrabbuh, chair of the school board, is still taking precautions. He regularly speaks to police and scans his driveway in the morning before walking to his car. He often mixes up his daily route to work.
"I love serving on the school board," he said. "But I don't want to die for it."
Since the spring, a steady tide of school board members across the country have nervously come forward with accounts of threats they have received from enraged parents. At first, the grievances mainly centered on concerns about the way their children were being taught about race and racism. Now, parents are more often infuriated by COVID-19 restrictions like mask mandates in classrooms.
It is an echo of what happened when those faithful to the Tea Party stormed Obamacare town halls across the country more than a decade ago. In recent months, there have been Nazi salutes at school board meetings and e-mails threatening rape. Obscenities have been hurled — or burned into people's lawns with weed spray.
In one extreme case, in suburban San Diego, a group of people protesting mask mandates disrupted a school board meeting in September. After taking an unauthorized vote, they summarily installed themselves as the district's new board.
While there has not been serious violence yet, there have been a handful of arrests for charges such as assault and disorderly conduct. The National School Boards Association has likened some of these incidents to domestic terrorism, though the group eventually walked back that claim after it triggered a backlash from its state member organizations.
Sitting at the intersection of parenting and policy, school boards have always been a place where passions run high and politics get personal. Especially since the nationwide protests over the murder of George Floyd, many boards have struggled with the question of how to include the subject of race in their curricula.
Some protesters who have caused a stir at school board meetings in recent months have defended themselves by saying that they were merely exercising their First Amendment rights and that schools are better when parents are involved, arguments echoed by Republicans in Congress and in statehouse races.
Parents who have been vocal in their opposition to the Corvallis school board said they were unaware of any threats against Al-Abdrabbuh or other board members.
They said it would be counterproductive to threaten violence because it would allow school officials to paint dissenting parents as hateful bigots. They said their frustrations, however, were legitimate and stemmed from the board's lack of transparency.
"I would definitely say there is brewing tension, but I'm not at that place; that's not in line with my character," Alisha Carlson, 36, a life coach with two children in the local schools, said of the threats. "I'm not going to personally attack or assault somebody, whether that's verbally or physically. I don't think that's going to create long-term, lasting change."
While acknowledging that parents have a right to be heard, Al-Abdrabbuh and other school board members have argued that the recent rash of menacing disruptions is different from occasionally heated conversations between school board officials seeking to set rules and people looking out for their children.
"What's happening now and what has been happening," Al-Abdrabbuh said, "is much more serious than simply listening to excited parents who want what's best for their kids."
The federal government apparently agrees.
Last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo announcing that the Department of Justice would respond to what he called "a disturbing spike of harassment, intimidation and threats of violence" against school board members and administrators.
He ordered the FBI and federal prosecutors to work with local law enforcement to monitor threats against people working in the nation's 14,000 public school districts.
The memo suggested that federal officials saw the issue as the latest example of a troubling trend: ordinary people using threats of violence to express their politics. This summer, seeking to counter a similar problem, the Justice Department established a task force to curb attacks against election workers.
But far from calming things, the DOJ's initiative was seized upon by GOP officials as a political issue.
GOP attorneys general in 17 states published a memo, describing the proposal to monitor threats against school officials as a threat itself. Whatever problems were taking place at school board meetings were best handled by local law enforcement, they said, and bringing in federal authorities could result in "intimidating parents away from raising concerns about the education of their children."