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After the Justice Department said it would intervene to assist school boards and educators who have become the target of harassment during the pandemic, a public health association wants the same resources.
The barrage of threats against teachers, school board members and other education workers has gotten so bad amid the coronavirus pandemic, that the U.S. Department of Justice pledged earlier this month to intervene.
But as public health workers have endured similar abuse in response to pandemic-related work—including verbal and physical assaults, stalking, attacks on their offices—they are asking for help.
In a letter sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland this week, the National Association of County and City Health Officials asked for the same type of assistance that federal authorities plan to offer educators in the coming weeks.
“While law enforcement has stepped up to protect health department staff in some instances, far too often very little is done to stop or prosecute these actions. They need help,” wrote NACCHO CEO Lori Tremmel Freeman in the letter. “Your announced efforts to improve the protection of school-related personnel is desperately needed for our nation’s public health staff, as well.”
The harassment and threats are taking a toll on an already beleaguered public health workforce, Freeman wrote. More than 300 public health leaders have resigned or been fired, and lower-level staff have also reported being harassed or threatened because of their work, according to NACCHO.
The Justice Department announced its intention to provide support for educators earlier this month, after the National School Boards Association wrote to President Biden asking for help. As schools across the country reopened for in-person learning this fall, school board meetings became contentious affairs. People angered over officials’ decisions regarding school closures, vaccine policies and face masks have threatened educators and school leaders in districts across the country.
To address the hostility and growing number of threats, Garland directed the FBI and U.S. Attorneys across the country to meet with state and local law enforcement to discuss strategies for threat reporting and response. The Justice Department also plans to create a task force that will provide recommendations on how federal authorities can assist with prosecution or other ways they can help when behavior does not violate federal law. It will also create specialized training and guidance for school administrators and school boards to help them recognize behavior that constitutes a criminal threat, how to report threats, and how to preserve evidence that can be used for prosecution.
Health Workers Want Same Protection
Noting the assistance to schools and educators, NACCHO asked that the Justice Department expand its directive to provide the same resources to public health workers.
“These threats and acts of violence against government workers in their professional capacity have profound impacts on these individuals and their families,” Freeman wrote. “Some have had to move to driving unmarked cars or adding at-home security cameras, others have had to rely on police escorts and round-the-clock security, while others changed their children’s behavior worried about if they will be targeted instead.”
The Justice Department did not respond to questions about the NACCHO letter.
Surveys of public health professionals have found increased symptoms of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, particularly among workers who cannot take time off. Burnout is rampant as the pandemic continues but staffing shortages and increasing hospitalization rates make it difficult for public health workers to recuperate.
The harassment public health workers continue to face on the job may make it more difficult to retain workers and to recruit new employees, NACCHO said.
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.