Assistant U.S. Attorney General Matthew Olsen said during a Jan. 11 congressional hearing on domestic terrorism that there’s been an increase in violence against educators—directly contradicting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data.
The hearing captured headlines due to Department of Justice (DOJ) officials refusing to answer questions about Ray Epps, the Jan. 6, 2021, protest participant who some have alleged to be a federal asset.
But Olsen, the head of DOJ’s national security branch, also made unsupported claims about increasing school board violence. Olsen was responding to questions from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) about why Attorney General Merrick Garland is devoting counterterrorism resources to investigate protesting parents committing violence against school board members.
“As the attorney general’s memo indicated, there has been an increase in violence and threats of violence against individuals who serve in positions of public trust—school board members, teachers, other public officials—and this is a serious concern,” Olsen said.
This statement, however, contradicts DHS statistics.
DHS Counterterrorism Coordinator John Cohen noted that during a Nov. 3, 2021, congressional hearing. Responding to questions from Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Cohen said the DHS hasn’t seen any quantifiable evidence of a rise in death threats.
“We did reach out to state and local law enforcement,” he said at the time. “There have been some sporadic instances of violence at school board meetings and in educational facilities. However, the information that we received is that state and local law enforcement were not seeing widespread action.”
DHS and DOJ officials didn’t respond by press time to questions by The Epoch Times about whether the data had changed since then.
The DHS official’s November statements came after Garland said in October that the evidence underpinning his claims of rising threats of violence was a letter from the National School Boards Association (NSBA) sent to the Biden administration—a letter characterizing protesting parents as domestic terrorism threats and calling for the FBI to use statutes such as the Patriot Act.
Since then, the NSBA has retracted and apologized for the letter. Republican lawmakers as well as a group of 17 state attorneys general have also called for Garland to rescind his memo, saying it “chills lawful dissent.”
Nevertheless, the federal probe continues. Grassley said at the Jan. 11 hearing that he hasn’t received a response from Garland to letters about his school board investigation.
Garland defended continuing the probe at an Oct. 27, 2021, Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, saying that the NSBA’s follow-up apology letter “does not change the association’s concern about violence and threats of violence.”
At the Jan. 11 hearing, Olsen and FBI official Jill Sanborn downplayed the significance of federal resources being deployed to investigate parents. They stressed that they were only investigating violent crimes, and in no way are infringing on First Amendment-protected activity.
Responding to a November FBI whistleblower leaking documents about the bureau tracking all instances of school-board-related violence in a central repository, Sanborn said tagging the cases is “simply an administrative process to better analyze trends.”
Former FBI agent Marc Ruskin disagrees. He told The Epoch Times in November that the bureau’s actions are significant.
“The fact that a tag has been assigned to these cases would indicate to me that it’s something they’re anticipating moving forward with these investigations,” he said at the time.
He also said the involvement of the FBI’s counterterrorism division suggests that some of the school board threats will be treated as domestic terrorism cases. This is the true significance of the whistleblower documents, he said.
“There’s an intention or a likelihood that individuals being investigated are going to be categorized as domestic terrorists,” Ruskin said in November.
He said the decision by the FBI to classify angry parents as domestic terrorism threats has dark implications for free speech rights.
“The idea that the FBI is treating individuals who express opinions contrary to the prevailing government opinion as domestic terrorists is disturbing from a First Amendment point of view,” Ruskin said. “And it may very well be intended to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”