Twitter Breaks, Meditative Walks, Security Guards: How School Leaders are Responding to an Unsettling Season of Public Outrage

By Linda Jacobson | July 22, 2021


As one of 27 district leaders on a national COVID recovery task force, Virginia Beach schools Superintendent Aaron Spence helped craft a list of the issues his counterparts across the country would need to consider as they reopened schools.

But during one meeting earlier this year, he said he interrupted the conversation with a more personal request. 鈥淲hen are we going to talk about us?鈥 he asked the group. Spence, like , had been enduring a virtual battering on social media over when to bring students and teachers back to the classroom.

If he delayed reopening, critics would suggest leaders in neighboring districts were more capable of managing the return to school. And if he celebrated students getting back on campus, 鈥80 people would say, 鈥榊ou鈥檙e killing our children,鈥欌 said Spence, who took a year-long break from Twitter for his peace of mind. 鈥淭here was no way to win.鈥

Virginia Beach City Public Schools Superintendent Aaron Spence visits with students at Thoroughgood Elementary School. (Virginia Beach City Public Schools)

Spence resurfaced on social media last month to congratulate this year鈥檚 graduating seniors. But with the uproar over critical race theory now eclipsing the frustrations over school reopening, the tenor of online conversations hasn鈥檛 necessarily improved. have called it quits this year than normal, including those in the nation鈥檚 top three school districts. But the vast majority of superintendents will be back this fall, and many are stepping into the role for the first time. With the as the school year gets closer and breaking out at board meetings, district leaders are bracing for another turbulent year.

鈥淧eople are just so angry right now,鈥 said Susan Enfield, superintendent of the Highline Public Schools near Seattle. 鈥淚 think that sometimes stepping away from social media is the healthy, appropriate thing to do 鈥 especially if you’re a parent or have children in the district.鈥

Over the past year, Enfield, who has been Highline鈥檚 superintendent for nine years, has become a virtual shoulder to lean on for district leaders across the country. She mentors new superintendents and teaches in a leadership certification program for AASA, the national superintendents’ organization.

But she has faced plenty of criticism on her own. This year alone, she鈥檚 been called everything from an 鈥渇-ing idiot鈥 to 鈥渁 know-it-all c-word,鈥 she said. Some of the heat even came from within.

鈥淚 had staff accuse me of for wanting to bring children back at their parents鈥 request,鈥 she said, adding that 45 percent of parents polled wanted to return in March, almost half of them non-white. 鈥淚 felt that was a mandate.鈥

Then in April, the district鈥檚 central office was vandalized. The words 鈥淩acist superintendent. Hazard pay. Reparations now鈥 were sprayed across the front of the building in red and black paint.

鈥楾hings that used to seem like regular good jobs that had a public face now seem like dangerous, high-risk activities.鈥 鈥擲arah Sobieraj, sociology professor at Tufts University

Aside from moments when she dreams of being a personal shopper at Nordstrom, Enfield said she still loves the work and has learned to separate the political nature of the position from her role as a district leader.

鈥淭he work of serving children is a gift, even on the hard days,鈥 she said.

While she hasn鈥檛 left social media, Enfield refrains from getting into back-and-forth exchanges with those tweeting hateful comments. And she advises other leaders to put their health and family first.

鈥楾he intensity of the emotion鈥

That鈥檚 what Candace Singh, who has led the Fallbrook Union Elementary School District near San Diego since 2011, had to do after receiving messages about reopening schools that she said her and her family鈥檚 safety. Warnings, such as 鈥淵ou better watch out,鈥 and 鈥淲atch your back,鈥 unnerved her enough that she closed her Twitter account for three months. She said she needed to 鈥済et her sea legs again鈥 and balance her role as a mother, daughter and wife.

鈥淏ecause that language is now accepted in the public discourse, where it never would have been tolerated before, [it鈥檚] very unsettling for people in my position,鈥 she said.

Fallbrook Union Elementary School District Superintendent Candace Singh spoke to an AASA Aspiring Superintendent Academy for Female Leaders in 2019. (Fallbrook Union Elementary School District)

At the height of the crisis, she was on Zoom 12 hours a day and never left her kitchen counter. She started to feel like she was getting sick, so she set some boundaries around her time. She limited the amount of news she would follow and began to take daily walks around her neighborhood near the ocean, listening to 鈥渕editative鈥 music and podcasts and catching up with friends and family by phone.

鈥淚f you鈥檝e been a superintendent for any length of time, you鈥檙e used to this being a job that comes with criticism. You鈥檙e making decisions that not everyone will agree with, nor should they,鈥 she said. 鈥淭his took that and literally lit it on fire because of the nature of the intensity of the emotion and deeply political direction this took.鈥

鈥榃hen tempers flare鈥

In Tennessee鈥檚 Shelby County Public Schools last year, Superintendent Joris Ray received on social media regarding his decision to keep schools virtual in the fall. One tweet sent to him said, 鈥淵ou deserve to be tortured in the worst way possible,鈥 and someone showed up at his house to challenge him over the issue, according to the district. Last month, the Guilford County Schools in North Carolina for Superintendent Sharon Contreras and other district leaders because of a spike in angry emails, voicemails and posts on social media 鈥 one of which Contreras, in uppercase letters, of running a 鈥渇ar-left, anti-white racist, indoctrination gulag鈥 and being 鈥渁n aficionado of BLM thugs,鈥 officials said.

The outrage in many communities over critical race theory has made district leadership even more perilous in recent months, with some administrators even leaving their jobs due to .

But district leaders aren鈥檛 the only ones feeling under attack.

鈥淭he temperature and rhetoric is too hot on all sides,鈥 said Erika Sanzi, the director of outreach at nonprofit Parents Defending Education and an outspoken opponent of what the organization views as indoctrination in the classroom. 鈥淭he threats are not unique to district leaders 鈥 parents who oppose ideas and practices infected with critical race and gender theory are also being threatened, doxxed and harassed. All of it is wrong.鈥

And the angry tone on social media over masks, policies for transgender students and school equity initiatives is spilling over into .

A crowd protesting mandatory masks and vaccines forms before a school board meeting at a high school in Kings Park, New York on June 8. (Steve Pfost/Newsday RM via Getty Images)

One man in June for disorderly conduct at a Loudoun County Public Schools board meeting, where members addressed transgender student policies. In Utah, a Granite School District meeting ended early when a dozen disruptive, burst in, yelling obscenities at board members. And Sanzi pointed to Michelle Leete, from her position with the Virginia state PTA last week after shouting 鈥淟et them die鈥 at a rally outside a Fairfax County school board meeting, in reference to parents opposed to critical race theory. The Virginia PTA on Saturday that Leete wasn鈥檛 speaking for the organization and that they didn鈥檛 鈥渃ondone the choice of words.鈥

‘They tie your salary to what they think you should tolerate.鈥 鈥擟andace Singh, superintendent of the Fallbrook Union Elementary School District near San Diego

Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a nonprofit consulting firm, said his team has noticed an increase in concerns about the safety of school and district leaders at board meetings, and because of the 鈥渂roader context of violence in public places鈥 in recent years, some districts have increased security.

Those who continue to engage with the public on social media 鈥渃an take their time to pick-and-choose how to respond to threats,鈥 he said. 鈥淏ut when tempers flare at in-person meetings, they may have less time or no time to think through a laundry list of potential ways to respond.鈥

Sarah Sobieraj, a sociology professor at Tufts University, sees the hateful comments toward superintendents as part of of threats against officials over the past year, including those working in and . While both men and women in leadership positions have felt the impact, women in the public eye, she said, have borne the brunt of the backlash and the commenters often discredit them because they are women.

Taking a break from social media or having a staff person monitor the posts are among the ways leaders handle the onslaught, 鈥渂ut you can take all of the precautions that people might suggest, and still find yourself on the receiving end of this kind of harassment,鈥 said Sobieraj, whose father was a district superintendent.

The public might not have a lot of sympathy for leaders who earn six figures and are expected to make tough decisions.

鈥淭hey tie your salary to what they think you should tolerate,鈥 Singh said.

But Sobieraj said attacks on social media are now a factor leaders weigh when deciding whether to go into public service 鈥 one that can discourage women and minorities from pursuing those roles.

鈥淭hings that used to seem like regular good jobs that had a public face now seem like dangerous, high-risk activities,鈥 she said.

Enfield added it鈥檚 important for district leaders to find ways to stay above the fray because superintendent longevity is a key to improving student achievement. One reason is because superintendents hire principals and well-prepared school leaders contribute to growth in student learning.

Highline Public Schools Superintendent Susan Enfield visits with a student shortly after the district reopened for hybrid learning. (Highline Public Schools)

鈥淥ne of the least sexy, least talked-about factors in districts that are getting results is leadership stability,鈥 she said.

But she said superintendents also need to know when to step away. She鈥檚 decided that the 2021-22 school year will be her last in Highline, but the burden of leading schools during the pandemic was only part of the reason. She hopes to continue serving as superintendent in another district.

鈥淓very leader has a shelf life,鈥 she said. 鈥淵ou figure out when your shelf life comes before someone else figures it out for you.鈥

Lead Image: The district office in the Highline Public Schools was vandalized in April. (Highline Public Schools)

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