Florida school board member accuses anti-maskers of 'calculated and contrived' intimidation campaign

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An embattled Florida school board member told Yahoo News in a video interview that she believes she’s been the victim of a “calculated and contrived” campaign to harass and intimidate educators and school officials across the country “for political gain.”

“I have been a member of the school board for almost an entire year now,” Jennifer Jenkins, who serves on the Brevard County, Fla., public school board, said in a recent interview with Yahoo News. “I have kind of been the target of the hate and vitriol within my community from the day I was sworn in.”

Jennifer Jenkins.
Jennifer Jenkins. (Yahoo News)

Jenkins first attracted national media attention last week after she revealed at a school board meeting disturbing details about threats of violence and harassment she says she and her family received in response to her support of a recent school mask mandate. In a video clip of the remarks, which quickly went viral on social media, Jenkins described how opponents of the mandate had protested with bullhorns outside her house, brandished weapons in front of her neighbors, followed her around in her car and even made a false report to child protective services alleging that Jenkins was abusing her daughter.

Jenkins provided Yahoo News with video footage from a protest that took place outside her home on Sept. 1, days after she called an emergency school board meeting that resulted in a 3-2 vote in favor of instituting a 30-day policy requiring that masks be worn inside public schools. According to local news coverage, she called the meeting after a Florida judge ruled on Aug. 27 that the state’s constitution requires public schools to keep students safe, giving school districts the right to impose health-related policies such as mask mandates. The ruling came as Brevard County's public schools announced a record increase in COVID-19 cases and quarantines during the previous week, with 784 students and staff testing positive and more than 4,000 people quarantined.

The video footage provided by Jenkins, which she says local law enforcement advised her to record, shows about 25 protesters waving American flags and carrying “Recall Jenkins” signs outside her house. In one recorded exchange, a protester can be heard coughing loudly in her face as she holds her hand up for protection. Jenkins also provided photographs of the damage she says she discovered on her property the next morning: chopped-up plants and the letters “F U” burned into the grass with weed killer.

An earlier report by NBC News confirmed that the day after the protest, local police and an investigator with the Florida Department of Children and Families came to Jenkins’s home in response to a report they’d received accusing her of burning and slapping her daughter. After subjecting the 5-year-old to a physical exam, which showed “no marks on her body consistent with being abused,” police concluded that “the allegations are unfounded,” noting in a police report that “the Jenkins household has been dealing with various forms of harassment over the last few days.”

People demonstrate inside a school with placards reading: I will not be forced to comply with tyranny, Just say no, and Masks harm kids.
Demonstrators at an emergency meeting of the Brevard County, Fla., school board to discuss whether face masks in local schools should be mandatory. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

But these incidents are just some of the latest of the harassment Jenkins says she has encountered since she was first elected to the Brevard County school board last November.

Jenkins, a speech pathologist and former Brevard Public Schools employee, knew she’d likely face political opposition when she decided to run as a Democrat against Tina Descovich, a Republican incumbent who opposed teacher raises and mask mandates.

“I am in a very Republican state and a very Republican county and a very Republican district,” said Jenkins. And yet she beat Descovich by 10 percentage points, something she notes would have been impossible without Republican support.

But getting elected was just the beginning.

After being unseated by Jenkins, Descovich co-founded a group called Moms for Liberty, which seeks to harness frustrations among conservative women over what they see as a growing infringement of parental rights in public schools on a range of issues. Since January, according to the Washington Post, Moms for Liberty has rapidly expanded to 135 chapters in 35 states and counting, claiming more than 50,000 members and supporters.

Demonstrators in a school hold placards above their heads reading: Keep masks optional, Let me breathe, No mask mandate, and I will not be forced to comply with tyranny.
Protesters at a meeting of the Brevard County school board, Aug. 30. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

In addition to resisting the mask mandate, the group’s original Brevard County chapter has stoked conflict over other issues that have emerged as sources of outrage for conservative parents around the country in recent months. In March, Moms for Liberty criticized the school district’s policies for accommodating LGBTQ students, including measures allowing transgender students to use bathrooms and join sports teams based on their gender identity. Anti-LGBTQ protesters rallied outside Jenkins’s home after she expressed support for the guidelines at a school board meeting. The organization also falsely accused Brevard Public Schools on Friday of teaching critical race theory to school staff, citing screenshots of text messages and diversity training materials that school board officials said were taken out of context.

Though the group’s founders have denied playing a role in the harassment of Jenkins, Jenkins describes Moms for Liberty as “the match” that ignited “an uprising of parents who probably would have never even known who I was in the first place.”

“I believe that you don’t get to look at a pile of gasoline, light the match, and then as somebody grabs it and throws it into that gasoline claim that you have nothing to do with that fire,” said Jenkins.

In an emailed statement to Yahoo News, Descovich said Moms for Liberty’s members “are instructed not to participate in harassment, intimidation, or threatening behavior,” and provided links to examples of previous statements in which the organization has publicly denounced the behavior of protesters outside Jenkins’s home.

“We have publicly and consistently condemned the egregious behaviors directed towards Mrs. Jenkins by people not affiliated with our organization,” said Descovich. “It is time that she stops making unsubstantiated claims about our members.”

Kristina Foreman and her 6-year-old daughter stand in the grass next to a road with signs reading: Masks harm kids, and Keep masks optional.
Kristina Foreman and her 6-year-old daughter outside the Brevard County school board meeting on Aug. 30. (Paul Hennessy/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Across the country, local school board members and educators have been subjected to acts of intimidation and harassment similar to those described by Jenkins. Anti-mask protesters have disrupted school board meetings from California to Georgia, with reports of physical attacks on officials — like the one that resulted in the arrest of an Illinois man for aggravated battery and disorderly conduct following an altercation at a school board meeting last month — becoming increasingly common.

However, it wasn’t until last month that Jenkins realized she was not alone. On Sept. 28, the National School Boards Association issued a letter to President Biden calling for federal law enforcement assistance to respond to the “growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation occurring across the nation.” The letter, which prompted Attorney General Merrick Garland to order the FBI to work with local leaders to address this trend, described the recent increase in “acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials” as “a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes” — a statement Jenkins agrees with “wholeheartedly.”

“I agree, it’s domestic terrorism,” she said, adding that she believes some parents’ “irrational fears” over things like COVID safety protocols and “critical race theory” are “being used and manipulated for political gain across all levels of our government.”

“It is taking people and turning them into enemies, into villains, into threats,” she said.

Beyond the immediate concerns for her family’s safety, Jenkins said she worries that such tactics will discourage other people who care about their communities from seeking public office. After all, she said, the reason she was elected in the first place was her support for COVID-19 mitigation measures, like mask mandates.

“I was elected to keep our students and staff safe,” she said. “And because I’m doing the job I was elected to do, I am now a part of these calculated efforts to threaten, harass and intimidate.”

Additional reporting by Kate Murphy.

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