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In a better time and place, bills like LD 1939 wouldn’t be necessary. The bill would expand the definition of “public servant” to include people who work in schools, such as principals, teachers, janitors and school board members.
Simple enough, you may think, as these people are serving the public.
But the rationale for LD 1939 isn’t just to clarify who works for and is paid for by the public. Rather, the bill would add those who work in education to the definition of public servants so it is clearer that those who harass educators can be punished under Maine’s Criminal Code.
In other words, this bill is meant to be a deterrent to the increasing harassment and threats against teachers, school board members and others who work in education. Schools have become the focus of debates over COVID masking policies, the teaching of American history, gender identity and other hot-button issues. Sometimes, those debates have escalated into harassment and threats.
Last month, we supported a bill that would increase the penalties for threatening and harassing election officials.
We support LD 1939 in principle, as well.
But, we have to ask. How many definitions need to be changed? How many laws need to be expanded? If the goal is to protect everyone who works in publicly funded jobs, the bill should be amended to reflect that, rather than making piecemeal changes.
It may sound naive, but a much simpler solution is for people to dial it back a bit. We understand that people have very different views about what schools should teach, what classroom education should focus on. We realize that people have different ideas about how elections should be run and how votes should be counted.
Stalking public officials, threatening their safety, protesting outside their homes may make some people feel better, may make them think they are winning an argument. But, in the long run, this further degrades our public discourse, making it much more difficult to reach consensus on difficult, divisive issues.
It also drives people away from public service jobs, such as teaching, managing our school and towns and serving in elected office. This is especially detrimental at a time when school districts are struggling to find teachers and other education personnel.
“School Boards and superintendents can handle discussion and lively debates around controversial topics. What we can’t abide are actions that seek to intimidate or threaten school officials,” Stephen Bailey, the executive director of the Maine School Management Association told members of the Legislature’s Education Committee last month.
Kelsey Stoyanova is Maine’s 2022 teacher of the year. In testimony to the Education Committee, she said that since receiving this honor in October, “I have been subject to verbal and written targeting behavior that has impacted me personally and professionally.”
“For the first time, I considered leaving the profession that I have fully invested myself into,” she added.
In other testimony on the bill, it was clear that many people misunderstood it. Dozens of residents submitted testimony in opposition to the bill saying it would silence parents’ voices. That is not what the bill aims to do. It would increase the penalties for people, including parents, who harass and threaten educators. We understand concerns that parents sometimes feel voiceless against school bureaucracies. But, the examples of harassment shared with the committee, including posting home addresses online and threatening physical violence, do not constitute reasonable discussion or a sharing of concerns.
“No one is saying that legitimate criticism should be criminalized. The right to free speech is one of the most treasured there is, and this bill does nothing to inhibit that right,” Rep. Scott Cuddy, D-Winterport, said in his testimony. “By merely adding these professions to an already protected class we can give them the support and protection they need while still respecting the rights of citizens to have their say.”
Whether it is a matter of education, voting, governing or getting through our daily lives, remember that productive discussion doesn’t come through yelling, threats and harassment. There is a lot to be concerned about in America. We can best address these concerns by treating one another with respect and dignity.