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School board meetings have gotten heated; this one in California is on a new level


I'm sure you've heard - across the country, protesters have been disrupting school board meetings over masks, vaccines and the teaching of American history. The problem has gotten so widespread that the attorney general is directing the FBI to help. But as NPR's Anya Kamenetz reports, what happened at a school board meeting in California last month is far beyond what's been seen anywhere else.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: The Poway Unified School District in San Diego County was planning a pretty typical school board meeting this September - hearing reports from student representatives, honoring their teachers of the year. Because of the pandemic, the general public is asked to join and comment via livestream, but that hasn't stopped protesters from showing up in person. Darshana Patel is a member of the board.

DARSHANA PATEL: The Let Them Breathe, anti-CRT, recall Governor Newsom - they're kind of a catch-all group of protesters. It wasn't the first time that they were there. They had been there several meetings in a row.

KAMENETZ: Anti-CRT means opposed to critical race theory, which has become the rallying cry for right-wing objections to how race and history are taught in schools. And Let Them Breathe is a California-based group opposed to masks and vaccine mandates.

PATEL: In the August meeting, they were pounding on the windows. So little by little, it's been escalating.

KAMENETZ: In September, they got through the doors.

PATEL: We were just coming out of closed session, and we heard a loud kind of ruckus downstairs in the atrium.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No one's doing anything wrong. As you see, we're all just standing, waiting for the people we elected.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right, so the cops are here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The people that we pay.




KAMENETZ: An elaborate video posted to YouTube shows the protesters waiting in a downstairs meeting room.

PATEL: They were shouting and throwing verbal assaults at some of our staff members that were downstairs. They were accusing them of certain things, threatening them.

KAMENETZ: Patel and her fellow board members decided that the best way to deescalate the situation was to immediately adjourn the meeting. Here's a clip from the local ABC affiliate.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: We have been advised by law enforcement to adjourn this meeting at 7:11.

KAMENETZ: But the night didn't end there. The protesters came upstairs into the board's now-empty meeting room. And then this happened - from the same YouTube video.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: They have not adjourned the meeting, so we are the people. So we can go ahead and replace the board. So let's take a vote. Who's willing to become the president? Let's...

KAMENETZ: A man steps up in a Let Them Breathe T-shirt with a yellow smiley face on it, with no mask on, of course.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: You're willing to be the president? What's your name?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Derek? Last name.

GRECO: Greco.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Greco. Who's in favor of voting for Derek Greco to be president of the school board?


KAMENETZ: Here's a selfie video Greco shot later that night and posted to Instagram. He's breathless and sweaty.


GRECO: Hey, good evening, everybody. Had a pretty interesting night here at the Poway Unified School District board meeting.

KAMENETZ: NPR could not reach Greco for comment. He and the others who had just declared themselves the new school board voted to remove critical race theory from the school, which is not being taught, and to stop requiring masks. Later, Greco and four others filed notarized oaths of office with the San Diego County Clerk.


GRECO: And we voted in a new board. You are looking at the new president of the Poway Unified School District, apparently.

PATEL: It was very disturbing and unsettling.

KAMENETZ: To be clear, none of what happened on September 9 was legal or legitimate in any way. In his video, Greco invokes the idea of constitutionalism, which is a far-right ideology that means, in essence, that people don't have to recognize any laws or authorities that they don't like.

MELISSA RYAN: It's a national effort. They use social media to fan the flames.

KAMENETZ: Melissa Ryan is a consultant who tracks right-wing extremism.

RYAN: It is basically the same groups and funders that were funding the Tea Party. And, frankly, it's the same tactics.

KAMENETZ: Let Them Breathe's founder is Sharon McKeeman, a mother of four.

SHARON MCKEEMAN: I had been part of the school reopening movement. And once my kiddos were back in school, I could see they still weren't back to effective in-person education because of the forced masking.

KAMENETZ: Let Them Breathe is a fairly new group, but they've grown fast. They've raised nearly $160,000 in the past three months on GoFundMe.

MCKEEMAN: We are in the middle of legal action against California's mask mandate.

KAMENETZ: They also have a podcast that's broadcast on a San Diego conservative radio station. They have a professional videographer to record their events and produce what they call mini-documentaries.

MCKEEMAN: We had a smile fest. We had a couple marches that were really positive, full of kids, and - just to help the community come together

KAMENETZ: On its Instagram page, Let Them Breathe has promoted dozens of mask choice rallies at school board meetings all over the state of California, including the September one at Poway. But McKeeman says their organization doesn't tell anyone at those meetings how to behave.

MCKEEMAN: Any parents that attend a school board meeting - that is a public meeting. It's not a Let Them Breathe event. So their dialogue, their actions - that is all a personal - you know, their personal decisions, their personal responsibility.

KAMENETZ: Patel calls the whole thing surreal, as well as antidemocratic. She has a Ph.D. in biophysics. Her family moved to San Diego from the Bay Area when they were expecting their third child, so she could take a step back from her career and spend more time with family. But instead, she found herself drawn into public service. And now she's coping with a situation that seems completely irrational.

PATEL: Ever since the beginning of public education, where there have been school boards, we've had passionate parents come in and give us their opinions and defend their children and speak to their rights and their values. We expect that. We welcome it. This is a whole different level.

KAMENETZ: The San Diego city attorney has assigned a prosecutor to investigate what happened. Two protesters were arrested for trespassing at the October board meeting. Patel says her staff is still afraid of holding a meeting that's fully open to the public because they don't know what's going to happen next. Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the protestors entered the board's secure closed-session upstairs meeting room. Instead they came into the board's community meeting room, which is downstairs.]

(SOUNDBITE OF THE IRONSIDES' "THE RAVEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 24, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the protestors entered the board's secure closed-session upstairs meeting room. Instead they came into the board's community meeting room, which is downstairs.
Anya Kamenetz
Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.