Even during the height of the civil rights movement, there were no reports of Durham’s elected officials receiving death threats during those volatile times in the city’s history.

But last week, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel issued a statement condemning violent threats that targeted members of the county’s board of education after the board narrowly approved students’ return to classrooms on Monday.

“Durham is a rough-and-tumble political town, and that can be a good thing,” Schewel says. “But when school board members are being threatened because of a difficult, heart-wrenching decision, when someone threatens publicly on social media to ‘shoot down every member of the DPS school board,’ we’ve got to make a change.”

Schewel says all of the board members have been subjected to “vitriolic attacks and even threats.”

But he noted an uncomfortable racial component since the school board’s vote to reopen in-person learning was four to three, with the board’s four Black members voting in the majority. He added that the four Black members are justified in feeling the threats are real.

As previously reported in the INDY, board member Matt Sears, who voted against reopening, believes teachers were blindsided by the decision and that reopening would undermine the trust the school board has established with Durham teachers. “Delaying the reopening would help teachers,” he says.

Board vice-chair Mike Lee, who is Black, says after he and his fellow board members voted to reopen he was subject to vitriol, bullying, and personal threats from unlikely sources—school employees.

“The hatred, the threats to myself, and the mention of my children in a few different comments showed me everything I needed to know,” Lee says. “Because it was all coming from staff. It was all coming from teachers.”

Schewel says public officials are consistently attacked in emails and over social media and that he’s wounded when personally targeted.

“How much more threatening, then, and how much more legitimate is the fear for our Black and Brown board members?” he says. “We must acknowledge the inequality of the harm suffered here at the same time that we denounce these kinds of attacks on all board members.”

The mayor focused on a Facebook post by a parent who threatened all of the multiracial board members.

Board member Jovonia Lewis shared a screenshot of the post with the INDY

“People are only worried about the teachers being vaccinated,” the post read. “What about the students’ health? Why can’t it wait till (sic) the students are vaccinated … A full “herd immunity” as they call it … Sure, Maybe it’s less likely to spread in younger kids. But if my child is that one that gets it and develops serious symptoms … I’ll shoot down every member of the dps school board. Save it, write it down…Chisel it in stone. But YOU WILL NOT put my child in any danger.”

Schewel called it “horrifying and scary.”

“This is a threat that must be taken seriously, and I am glad that local law enforcement has investigated this threat.”

Lewis says racial considerations did not guide the board’s vote to reopen the classrooms.

“It might be a point of concern for the community, but I think that our board members have a variety of perspectives,” with some members believing that students, particularly ones from economically vulnerable households, should have the opportunity to return to classrooms.

“We know that children are better prepared to learn if they have breakfast, which we provide for free,” Lewis says. “We have learned with COVID that children are not able to thrive when they are in isolation. There’s a loss of learning around issues of connectivity, and teachers not having access to artifacts needed to assess kids, or how to move them along.”

The board member also pointed to a virtual learning process beset by technical issues, like audio challenges between student and teacher who can’t hear one another.

“We can’t continue like that and allow students to be left behind,” she says.

Lewis echoed the sentiments of Durham Superintendent Pascal Mubenga, who in November said that more than 50 percent of students who matriculated from kindergarten during the previous academic year were below grade level and current kindergartners may face insurmountable odds without the benefit of in-person learning.

Schewel says the African American members who voted to reopen “were responding most powerfully to the families, including Black and Brown families, who desperately want their children back in school to (combat) the learning loss of the COVID year.”

“But here is what is more important,” he concludes. “All of the school board members—all seven of them—have a solid history of fighting for the success of all of our children as well as fighting for the rights and working conditions of teachers.”

Reopening has not been an easy sell to the public.

In November, the school board voted to allow elementary students to return to in-person learning in January despite receiving nearly 500 comments from parents and educators in which opposition outnumbered support by about five to one. The plan was scrapped in January after a rise in COVID cases. 

In February, however, the board voted to begin in-person learning in March, then reaffirmed its decision with its four to three vote.

“The school board has been faced with the impossible task of making a good choice about when to return to in-person schooling when there are no good choices available,” Schewel says. “We never had a decision as difficult as this one.”

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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