Once considered tame, even boring, school board meetings have become culture-war battlegrounds in recent years. On dozens of occasions, tensions have escalated into not just shouting matches and threats but also arrests and criminal charges.
An image of a shooting target — with two bullet holes to the head and five scattered around the chest — serves as a warning to visitors who climb the brick steps and pass the American flag to reach Eric Jensen’s front door.
“If you can read this you’re in range,” the sign says. Another warning, posted near the doorbell, states: “No Solicitation. … This property charges $50 per minute to listen to any vaccine/medical advice.” He ordered that one in 2021, after mobile units offering COVID-19 vaccines began riding through his community outside Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
For years, Jensen had been looking for a way to voice his many grievances, related not just to masks and vaccines but to “transgender bullshit” and library books “trying to convert kids to gay” and other perceived dangers he says his five younger children face in the public school system. (The 65-year-old retiree has four other children who are adults.) Then he found a place where he could finally be heard.
“You gotta start from the bottom and work yourself up,” Jensen said, not long after he reluctantly opened his front door last November. “I mean, you can’t just go to your governors and try to make a difference. So you start at the bottom, and the bottom is school boards.”
He had intended to wage a campaign against the school board to bring about change. Instead, his efforts got him arrested.
At first he was hesitant to talk about what happened in the lead-up to the February 2022 incident. In the weeks after the arrest, he didn’t comment in any of the news stories that covered it.
Then, as the months wore on and his charges were dropped, he realized that standing up to authorities wasn’t going to lead to any sort of punishment: “I thought, ‘Holy shit, I didn’t have to go through a whole lot of aggravation there.’” He said that, walking away from the ordeal, he felt emboldened.
ProPublica identified 59 people arrested or charged over an 18-month period as a result of turmoil at school board meetings across the country. In the coming weeks, ProPublica will continue to publish stories about how that unrest has played out in various communities and upended once-staid school board meetings.
In the dozens of incidents ProPublica examined, some of which involved threats and violence, only one person who disrupted a meeting was given a jail sentence: a college student protesting in support of transgender rights. By contrast, almost all of the other individuals, including Jensen, railed against the adoption of mask mandates, the teaching of “divisive concepts” concerning racial inequality and the availability of books with LGBTQ+ themes in school libraries. Also like Jensen, the vast majority of people arrested or charged faced few consequences.
Jensen didn’t come up with the idea to target the school board on his own. He’d volunteered to help two women connected to the state chapter of a national group that was rapidly gaining followers through social media sites and YouTube channels promoting the convoluted QAnon conspiracy theory.
Jensen, a solid, gray-haired man with piercing blue eyes, retired about five years ago, though his wife still works as a custodian at the elementary school. He’d been a project manager for a metal building manufacturer that transferred him to North Carolina from Ohio. Prior to that, he and his family owned a campground for three decades.
He described how, several years ago, he made the decision to abandon mainstream media. He said it used to be that “I was always watching the news. But once I found out how much they lie, you have to get back into alternative media to find out the actual truth.” He said he has since become convinced that John F. Kennedy Jr. is alive, Hillary Clinton and Bill Gates are dead, and the COVID-19 vaccine is actually a “death shot.” Echoing a debunked claim, he explained his belief that the vaccine changes your DNA in a way that allows those who patented the modified genetic sequence to “own” you, which is part of an effort to kill people off and depopulate the planet. “I’ve seen it many times, where they’ve got plastic caskets lined up,” he said. “There must be a million of them sitting there in lots waiting for these people to die.”
In January of 2022, shortly after he became interested in what he saw as threats posed by school boards, he logged onto the messaging service Telegram. “I started putting feelers out, trying to find, you know, groups that were involved with it and see what they were doing,” he said.
A Telegram group called North Carolina Bonds for the Win seemed like the right fit. The national Bonds for the Win movement had been gaining steam, promoting its mission to force school districts to drop so-called unconstitutional practices including COVID-19 safety protocols and the distribution of alleged “obscene materials” to minors. To accomplish its goal, its followers would serve local school boards with reams of paperwork outlining an intent to sue their districts’ surety bond (or risk-management plan) providers. The movement, dubbed “paper terrorism” by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League, aims to force school districts into “compliance” to avoid losing federal funding.
The tactic was already being tested in North Carolina’s largest school district, where earlier that January a mother had crossed a security barrier to serve the Wake County school board with papers, warning, “You’ve violated your oath of office.” Another local report described how police turned off lights in an attempt to clear people out of an Iredell-Statesville school board meeting. The people yelled, “You’ve been served!” to the school board members and told police they wouldn’t leave unless they were arrested.
“And that’s when I found these ladies.” Jensen said of the two women leading efforts in his school district for North Carolina Bonds for the Win.
On Feb. 22, 2022, Jensen arrived at the lobby of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board meeting and met the women, Deborah Tuttle and Regina Garner, face-to-face for the first time. They handed him a cardboard box of paperwork, which he understood to be “explanations about how they [district officials] were going to get sued against their bonds” for teaching critical race theory — an academic framework sometimes taught at the college level and above that examines U.S. history through the lens of racism — and allowing books containing “profanity” in schools. He also said the documents included proof that masks don’t work.
Tuttle and Garner did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Just minutes into the meeting, the school board chairperson watched with curiosity and a dose of trepidation as a man with a huge box took a seat a few rows back. She texted the board members sitting next to her, alerting them to the man. They, too, wanted to know what was in the box.
“He was just staring at us, and we were a little worried for our safety,” chairperson Deanna Kaplan recalled.
Both Garner and Tuttle signed up to address the board during the public-comment period. Garner complained about the district’s failure to uphold the Constitution and accused school officials of practicing medicine without a license and violating child abuse laws. Then Tuttle stepped up. “There’s a lot more violations that she didn’t get to, but you can read those for yourself when we serve you your letters of intent,” she told the board.
As the women spoke, Kaplan grew more uneasy about the man with the box. “Then,” she said, “he started charging at us.”
As Jensen, clutching the box, neared the superintendent, school security officers grabbed him and pulled him out of the meeting room. In the adjacent hallway, he strained against the three men it took to hold him down.
“You work for me!” Jensen repeatedly yelled as security guards tried to shackle his wrists and ankles. His deep voice echoed from the hallway into the meeting room, where some attendees began screaming and board members sat in disbelief as they watched the mounting chaos.
As the board hastily called for an impromptu recess, one man yelled: “Commie cowards!”
“Commie bitch!” yelled another.
“If you walk out, you’re walking away from your job!” Tuttle yelled from the podium.
“There was somebody in the audience that was yelling, ‘The patriots are coming.’ I mean, it was just like a zoo. It was crazy,” Kaplan recalled. “The board members were concerned for our safety.”
Two months after his arrest, Jensen came to court prepared to represent himself on misdemeanor counts of trespass and resisting a public officer. He said he carried a folder with some notes he’d made and a printout of the Constitution. As the judge entered the courtroom, Jensen said, he proudly refused to comply with the order, “All rise.”
“That puts that judge above you,” Jensen later explained. “And that judge is not above you. He’s below you. Or she’s below you.”
Jensen said his refusal to stand angered the bailiff. He also said that before he could even open his folder of evidence, the judge dismissed his case.
Court records show Jensen received a voluntary dismissal. Prosecutors have not responded to requests for comment. A court clerk said that the slew of misdemeanor dismissals that day may have resulted from the court’s attempt to clear a pandemic backlog.
Regarding the judge and the courthouse staff, Jensen said: “I didn't allow them to boss me around.” As for the security guards who arrested him, he said he’s now considering filing assault charges against one of them “because he grabbed me and threw me down for no reason.”
He described how, overall, the experience left him feeling empowered, although he was disappointed that the movement that inspired his efforts had fizzled.
“The ladies that I was with, they pretty much dropped it,” he said, adding that their decision “kind of threw me, because they weren’t going to fight for it.” Garner ended up running for a seat on the school board, but she was unsuccessful.
Jensen did face one consequence: He said he was banned from school property for any purpose other than to pick up and drop off his children. “But that’s it,” he said. A spokesperson for the Winston-Salem Forsyth County school district confirmed the ban but declined to detail the terms of it, citing legal concerns. He said the bans typically last a year. “In general, the letters outline situations when principals can grant permission for the person to come on campus. They, however, must ask and be granted that permission by school administrators.”
Jensen admitted during the conversation in November that he hasn’t exactly complied with the ban: When he showed up for his youngest daughter’s elementary school graduation last spring, a neighbor called school security on him. But, he said, school officials let him stay. (The district spokesperson said Jensen was allowed to attend the graduation “in an effort to reduce stress and embarrassment for his student and on the condition that he maintained appropriate behavior.”) Jensen also said he’s not that worried about what would happen if he violated the ban again.
He’s since declined to speak further about his experiences or be photographed for this story.
“One of these days, I’m tempted to just walk in and allow them to throw me out or arrest me or whatever, because they have no right to do it,” Jensen said, not long before closing his door. “So we’ll see what shakes out if I do.”