- An Illinois school board member resigned this month following months of “unrelenting harassment.”
- Carolyn Waibel told Insider someone trespassed on her property and vandalized her home.
- She believes her aversion to extremism made her a target among angry community members.
When the vitriolic emails began arriving in her inbox this summer, Carolyn Waibel hardly flinched.
Unpleasant feedback has become “par for the course” for locally-elected school board officials in recent months, and members of the St. Charles School Board in St. Charles, Illinois, found they were not exempt from receiving such displays of anger.
Parent concerns, first about remote learning, then critical race theory, and finally regarding masking in classrooms, dominated community school board meetings and message boards for months amid the pandemic, Waibel told Insider
Even when the emails became more ominous – Waibel said the board received one message telling members: “Your days are numbered” – she reported the threats to local authorities and continued to do her job.
The Illinois mother said she endured social media attacks, comparisons to Hitler, the publishing of her personal information, and even vandalism at her home in the form of a tampered-with AC unit and multiple dead rodents left on her property, all while continuing to serve the community, she said.
Waibel initially thought the two dead chipmunks, dead rat, and dead mouse, which all appeared in her driveway in the span of one week, might have been victims of a particularly vicious cat. But when she readjusted her home security camera in hopes of catching the culprit, the rodents stopped appearing.
The last straw didn’t come until this fall, when Waibel said she heard someone come onto her property while she was home and discovered her garage refrigerator and freezer had been unplugged.
As she had previously done with the online harassment and AC vandalism, Waibel reported the trespassing to local police. But according to Waibel, she was told the incidents would be difficult to prosecute because her status as an elected official left her open to such action.
The St. Charles Police Department did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
“It’s terrorizing events meant to build fear so you are afraid to leave your home,” Waibel told Insider. “You’re afraid to do your volunteer job to help the kids and community.”
Following the incident, Waibel went to her fellow board members asking for protective measures to be instituted, such as a no trespassing order for particularly aggressive community members. The board declined, Waibel said.
During her final school board meeting earlier this month, Waibel criticized the district for failing to protect school board members, the Daily Herald reported.
“This board and this district has not protected its own,” she said during the meeting. “I call for immediate action. There are other boards in this state that have the courage to take care of their own people. This board is not one of them. I’m ashamed to be on it.”
Later that night, she resigned.
“I had to put the safety of myself and family first,” she told Insider.
The St. Charles School Board did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Waibel is the latest casualty in the newest culture war; one that is being fought at explosive school board meetings across the country, where passionate parents debate the merits of proven COVID-19 mitigation methods, such as masks and vaccines, as well as other hot-button topics like critical race theory and mental health resources.
“Somewhere along the line we’ve lost the civility and professionalism to communicate our unhappiness as parent advocates,” the former two-term school board member said.
Waibel, who was first elected in 2017, said her first term was a success. As an ideological moderate, she worked across the aisle with members of both political affiliations to promote a collaborative environment and address the issues facing the districts’ nearly 13,000 students.
Even when COVID-19 struck in early 2020, Waibel said the board was diligent in keeping parents up to date and handling pandemic-related challenges.
But students’ return to the classroom this year, which coincided with the start of Waibel’s second term, sparked growing discontent in the community. As the new school year approached, Waibel said a small group of outspoken parents became less manageable, especially as masking in schools became a contentious topic.
In August, Illinois implemented a statewide mask requirement for all public and non-public K-12 schools, making school board decisions on the matter fairly easy: Comply with the mask mandate or risk losing funding.
Waibel said the St. Charles School Board agreed to uphold the governor’s executive order.
But the statewide requirement didn’t stop a small minority of vocal parents from directing their anger toward school board members, Waibel said. She believes her harassers are primarily community members who are being supported by a larger, statewide parents’ rights organization focused on “protecting liberties.”
Though she wasn’t the only member who dealt with harassment in recent months, she said the brunt of the aggression landed at her feet.
“I’m center,” Waibel said. “I think it bothers people that I’m not extreme. These people are very interested in polarizing our community.”
Eventually, after what she described as months of online attacks and in-person intimidation, she reached her breaking point.
“That’s their goal,” she said. “Their goal is to get people to resign.”
Knowing her departure would be celebrated by the same people who drove her out made the decision incredibly difficult, Waibel said. She is still afraid one of her harassers may end up taking her spot on the board.
But Waibel believes her experience is representative of a larger dilemma that school boards across the country are facing as instances of violence and harassment become more commonplace in an increasingly polarized world.
“I think boards, in general, feel that they can’t take action because it will infringe on people’s First Amendment rights,” she said.
“But if not, people who want to do altruistic work aren’t going to run for these positions anymore,” she added.
Waibel said she is pursuing further action with local authorities to protect her safety and has already talked to local politicians about possible legislation to protect officials at the local level moving forward.