Featured photo: Deborah Tuttle (left) and Regina Garner (right) spoke at the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board meeting on Feb. 22 in an apparent coordinated effort to serve the school board surety bonds. As Tuttle was speaking, Eric Jensen crossed the roped boundary towards the dais and was arrested by security. (screenshots)

Even as school boards across the country faced disruptions, protests and lawsuits from a wide range of conservative and far-right groups, the Winston-Salem Forsyth County School Board meetings had been relatively peaceful — until last week.

On Feb. 22, the Winston-Salem Forsyth County School Board held its regularly scheduled public meeting, and the resulting commotion ended in an arrest.

Eric Jensen of Kernersville was cited for two second-degree misdemeanors, one for trespassing and the other for resisting a public officer, according to an arrest report provided to Triad City Beat. The incident took place during the public comment period, where community members address the board with accolades or grievances. In what appeared to be a coordinated effort, two of the speakers addressed the board with a list that was intended to threaten school board members with surety bond complaints  that would be filed with the school system’s insurance carrier, Liberty Mutual.

The first speaker, Regina Garner, used the allotted two minutes to read aloud a prepared statement accusing the board of violating of multiple laws including child abuse, the practice of medicine without a license, civil deprivation of rights, “obscene” literature, and a myriad of other perceived crimes. When Garner’s two minutes were up, she was followed by Deborah Tuttle, who continued with the prepared statement and threatened the board with a 72-hour window to address the violations. The particular insurance policy named by the group is intended to be a general liability policy for the school system as a whole. Such actions, if legitimate, could affect individual members or cause the school system to lose Federal funding.

In response to the complaints, Brent Campbell, the chief marketing manager for the school district said that “there doesn’t seem to be any legitimacy to them.”

“I assure you our legal team is looking at any and all allegations,” he said.

Immediately after Tuttle began to address the board, Jensen crossed the rope barricade separating the school board from the audience to pass out documents to each of the board members, which violated the rules of the meeting. He was quickly subdued by armed officers employed by North State Security Group. A video of the meeting shows Jensen being forced to the ground and repeatedly shouting, “You work for me!”

Board chair Deanna Kaplan

Board chair Deanna Kaplan then requested a five-minute recess, triggering a vocal outburst from the some in the audience, one shouting “Communists!” as the board began to leave their seats. The video then shows Tuttle loudly noting that she wanted all of the board members to receive copies of the papers that Jensen attempted to pass out. She also said, “If you walk out, you’re walking away from your job.”

After Jensen’s removal and the meeting was reconvened, Tuttle was allowed to finish, using her remaining minute to relegate a series of demands to the board, including the cessation of all COVID-19 protocols, “pushing transgender” agenda and a ban of social emotional learning and critical race theory, which is a higher-education platform. Campbell with the school district confirmed that critical race theory is not taught in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

Bonds for the Win, Telegram and right-wing activism in schools

Garner, Tuttle, and Jensen appear to have been using the tactics of a group called “Bonds for the Win,” a nationwide organization that claims to educate citizens about surety bonds and how to use them against officials to quash ideological disagreements. In this case, the group targeted school board members who followed public health mandates established by federal, state and local authorities to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, claiming “malpractice.” Surety bonds are described on the group’s website as providing “financial guarantees that bond holders such as public officials, companies, contractors, or unions will uphold their contracts according to mutual terms.” The group has been using this method to disrupt school board meetings as a way to fight health mandates and portions of public-school curriculum they consider to be part of a political agenda.

The conservative organization was started by Michelle “Miki” Klann, a YouTube personality and political activist based in Scottsdale, Ariz. In her videos, Klann claims that the AIDS pandemic was a hoax, the Earth is flat and, when discussing slavery, has said that “we don’t need to just talk about the Blacks.” Klann has coordinated with all 50 states via her website and frequently conducts sessions unique to each state. She recently deployed the surety bond tactic against the Scottsdale school board, assisted by 8-chan founder and QAnon figurehead Ron Watkins, who announced his prospective run for Congress at the same meeting. For outreach, Klann has integrated her website with links to the popular Telegram messaging app.

From her site, one can access the Bonds for the Win Telegram boards unique to each state, including North Carolina. It appears this is where the planning for the Forsyth County school board meeting disruption began.

The Telegram message board for the NC Bonds for the Win, started on Jan. 22 of this year, has around 400 members. The first post was written by Klann. The posts include lengthy discussions concerning strategies for each county by active members, including serving various paperwork at board meetings as well as coordinating individuals to speak during public comment. The message board contains media files including tutorials, PDFs, school insurance records, request forms and blank templates of claims specific to each county, lists of books to be put on banned lists, conspiracy theories and COVID-19 misinformation. A handful of members  discuss possible actions in Forsyth County, including serving Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines with surety complaints, much like they threatened with the school board.

The tactic being used and proliferated by Bonds for the Win has ties to extremist groups such as QAnon.

A plan for the school board disruption was first mentioned on Jan. 26 after a “Deb T” began interacting with other users such as “Regina Garner” and “Eric Jensen.”  On Feb. 8 “Eric Jensen” joined the group and asked if he could help “in any way.” “Deb T” responded with, “We are just getting it together for Forsyth County.” On Feb. 15, “Eric Jensen” claimed to be “an old man who just wants to help” and is sent a direct link to the Forsyth County message board. Two days later, “Deb T” posted a copy of the General Liability Policy of the Forsyth County school system.

At 11:50 p.m. on Feb. 22, the night of the meeting, “Deb T” posts: “Winston Salem Forsyth County school board got served tonight. We had nine people that signed a letter…. Person serving the letters got tackled by security guards…. We needed more people to read but it was just two of us with only two minutes each and 11 pages to cover…. Please pray for our person that now has to go to court for trying to serve them.”

The actions by Garner, Tuttle and Jensen echo other movements by right-wing organizations happening across the country. In Guilford County, a local group known as Take Back Our Schools has been organizing and protesting at school board meetings for years. Last year, the group ramped up their efforts which culminated in multiple threats against the superintendent. The group has also organized a slate of Republican school board candidates to run in this year’s elections. It is unclear whether or not the group in Forsyth County is planning to do the same, as there are multiple seats open for school board in this year’s election there as well.

What do school board members have to say? 

School board member Elisabeth Motsinger, a Democrat, told TCB that it was “very alarming” when Jensen initially crossed the barrier. When asked about whether she read the contents of the paperwork, Motsinger was adamant.

“Absolutely not,” she said. “I was very intent that that kind of tactic would not be successful. I’m not going to read things that people deliver in such an aggressive and disrespectful manner.”

Motsinger is an at-large member of the school board and has yet to file for re-election for the May primaries.

When asked about the nature of the group, Motsinger did not go so far as to call the local activists “operatives.”

A screenshot taken from a local conservative-leaning Facebook group shows school board member Lida Calvert-Hayes thanking people for coming to the meeting. In a comment, she clarified that she wasn’t referring to the disrupters. (screenshot)

“I’m not even sure they’re aware of how they’re being used,” she said. “Operatives are in on ‘the plan,’ as it were. The bigger picture. I’m not sure they understand that they’re being played to. Not that it gives them a pass.”

Republican school board member Leah Crowley of District 2 said that the “disruption was so unnecessary.”

“Someone even asks people if they have materials to be distributed to the board members,” Crowley said. “Despite these measures, some people didn’t follow the procedures and had to be removed.”

Republican board member Lida Calvert-Hayes of District 2 told TCB that she doesn’t “condone that kind of behavior.” However, in a comment on a private, conservative-leaning local Facebook group’s post after the meeting, Calvert-Hayes can be seen commenting, “Thanks to all for coming. Great crowd.”

When asked about the comment, Calvert-Hayes clarified that she “had no idea that anyone would be disruptive” and that she was “glad that the crowd came out to support our teachers and students. The teachers have had a hard year and to see that level of support was nice.”

Both Crowley and Calvert-Hayes have filed for re-election for the May primary for District 2.

Former school board chair and current District 1 board member Malishai Woodbury — who is not running for school board but has instead filed to run for county commission — said that she wasn’t going to pay attention to the organization’s tactics.

“Public school is a great pillar of democracy,” she said. “The way it was presented, I’m not going to give it the consideration. You can’t negotiate with bad behavior.”

Democrat Andrea Bramer, an at-large board member, was more direct in her response.

“The political divide in this country has spilled into our education system which should not be partisan,” she said. “I am disheartened and disgusted by the actions of the anarchical faction that showed their true self at the last meeting. This is the future for our children.”

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