Protesting masks and racism education, the ‘patriots’ take on Arizona’s school boards

By: - May 27, 2021 2:34 pm

Photo by Peoria Unified School District via AZEdNews

It all seemed to have started in the small Southern Arizona town of Vail, where a school board meeting in late April was overrun by an angry and yelling crowd furious that students were required to wear facemasks in schools — one seemingly led by people not from the small town of 10,000. 

Among those leading the crowd was Steven Tyler Daniels, a self-identified conservative “patriot” activist who is trying to launch a new fringe-right political party. After that happened, Daniels said “Robert’s Law” gave them the authority to elect a new school board from those present, and the right-wing mob did just that, nominating and “electing” a new board. State law explicitly regulates how and when school board members are elected and those chosen at the April 27 meeting have no official standing. 

Two days later, Daniels was again leading an angry crowd at the Dysart Unified School District board meeting, repeating similar falsehoods about mask use in schools and that the self-styled “patriots” could replace the governing board on a whim. 

“The parents were the ones that started their own school board meeting,” Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, said at a rally in May, repeating the lie that the parents in Vail had elected themselves and praising the group for what they did. 

Education advocates say the whole purpose of the organized disruptions is to intimidate school boards — and if the far-right activists can’t affect a policy change, they can halt the boards from conducting their business at all.

“I don’t think we have seen anything like what we saw in Vail,” Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, told the Arizona Mirror. “The win seems to be if they shut the meeting down.” 

Arizona school boards, particularly in Maricopa County, have been seeing an unprecedented number of disruptions by far-right agitators in recent months, many organized efforts from outside groups led by Daniels and those associated with him. 

The disruptions have led school boards to change how they’re conducting their meetings and assessing their safety as the movement continues to gain momentum. Vail was a starting point that ignited discussions among a community of people who are now going from district to district. 

The main concerns being raised by the agitators, led by Daniels and a conservative group called Purple For Parents that formed as a counter to the teacher-led Red for Ed movement in 2018, is mask mandates and the teaching of critical race theory. Daniels and the leaders of Purple For Parents don’t live in or have children who attend the Vail District or many of the other districts they’ve been disrupting. 

“They’ve been at our board meetings consistently since December 10,” Trina Berg, President of the Peoria Education Association told the Mirror. Before Vail, they were coming in smaller groups, but have since become much larger and organized, Berg said. 

“Right now, they do feel very empowered, and there were people who spoke at our board meetings who cannot vote on our board members and do not pay taxes in our districts,” Berg said, adding that the public comment section at meetings has recently felt more akin to a political rally.

Peoria has become a major target for many in the far-right “patriot” community. AZ Patriots founder Jennifer Harrison and Patriot Movement AZ founder Lesa Antone both live in the area, and Harrison even attended a recent Peoria school district meeting that was disrupted, despite not having any children currently in the district. 

At a recent Peoria Unified School District board meeting, many of those who showed up with Daniels and Purple for Parents had to stand in the back of the room — most of them unmasked. 

“There will be class actions brought and you will be individually named,” Daniels shouted at the board as many others yelled threats and condemnations when the board said it was going to move to a virtual meeting. “If they walk out, elect a new board!” 

Weeks earlier, the Peoria governing board voted to make masks optional for summer programs and the fall semester. But the board left the existing mask mandate in place for the rest of the Spring semester, which outraged the far-right anti-maskers. 

A common theme at each of the meetings is a belief that, if there are enough members of the community present and no board present, a new board can be elected under “Robert’s Law.” 

But the idea is pure fiction. 

“There’s no Robert’s Law,” Chris Thomas, general counsel and associate executive director for the Arizona School Board Association, said. “The nonsense that they appointed their own board, it’s really clear in Arizona statute how boards are constituted.”

In order to join a school board, an Arizona voter has to gather signatures to qualify for the ballot or be appointed by the county superintendent of schools. School board members must have lived in the school district for at least a year. 

What the people coming to the meetings might be referring to is Robert’s Rules of Order, a set of parliamentary procedures. While school boards do use some of Robert’s Rules of Order as guiding principles for how they conduct meetings, state law governs who actually sits on the boards. 

Limiting access to shut down disruptions

“We’ve had people foaming at the mouth, screaming and yelling ‘Nazis’ at us,” Katie Nash, president of the Chandler Education Association, said to the Mirror

Chandler has decided to take a different approach to dealing with disruptions in the wake of Vail and the continued far-right disruptions across the state. 

The district has closed off its parking area so it can’t be used as a major demonstration space, something that happened recently at a Scottsdale Unified School District meeting that got particularly heated

Those who come to protest have to be in the public space to do so, and only those wishing to speak and doing business with the board can be in the parking lot. Just outside the main gate, the district has put up a table with request-to-speak forms. Speakers are allowed inside on a first come, first served basis. 

Chandler is still requiring masks, and is asking those who refuse to wear one to wait outside. When it’s their turn, they are then escorted to a separate microphone near the door. 

“We found that the more we can have them one at a time, the more it curtails the meeting getting out of hand,” Nash said, adding that they found speakers would “egg each other on” and many people came just for the public comment portion of the meeting. “In order to maintain the safety for everyone involved, we felt this was the best plan.” 

For Nash, it was about taking away the audience for the groups aiming to disrupt the meetings — and once that happened, things became much calmer. The result, she said, is that the group of outsiders can’t effectively intimidate the parents of actual students who show up at the meetings. 

“When you pull up and see an angry mob outside and you have a different opinion, you don’t speak up,” Nash said, adding that it then creates a false view of the opinion of the community. In one meeting Nash recalled, they didn’t have a single parent speak publicly in favor of a proposal, despite having a significant number of emails in support. 

“I’m hoping that summer break gives people the opportunity to do other things,” the AEA’s Thomas said, adding that he thinks things will die down eventually. 

Others don’t share that optimism. 

“I would love to say that it’s going to go away and that COVID has brought out the worst in people,” Nash said. “But we have kind of seen board meetings as a platform for people to push their political agendas.”

Other states like Utah have been seeing similar disruptions at their school board meetings, and former Trump aide Steve Bannon recently advocated similar action

Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, was also present at the contentious SUSD meeting which was disrupted by Daniels and Purple for Parents and filled out a request to speak form, asking to speak on the subjects of “masks and critical race theory.” 

“We just really need to focus on the stuff that brings us back together and makes us positive role models for our kids,” Nash said. “Our kids are watching.” 

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joined the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.