Here are some of School Board Chairman Janet McDonald’s recent tweets and retweets, from an account where she describes herself as an “Educator, Neurodevelopmental Therapist & Instructor, LMT(MA64436), FS School Board Member -District 2.” McDonald features Sheriff Rick Staly, County Commissioner Greg Hansen, and Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland in her top-of-the-page picture:
Retweet: Covid-19 “is as much a pandemic as 3 chihuahuas are a pack of ferocious man-eating dogs. This event was a planned, politically motivated attempt to take control of the government.”
McDonald: “only quarantine elderly & those with comorbidity issues, free healthy others to work on natural immunity – no need for masks, distancing, ruin economy.”
Retweet: “Now that we clearly see Antifa as terrorists, can we hunt them down like we do those in the Middle East?”
Retweet: “Celebrity assholes donating money to assist in bailing out rioters who’ve been busy destroying liberal cities & Minority communities is the most asshole celebrity move in the history of assholery.”
Retweet: “They’re brainwashing your children in public schools.”
Retweet: “it’s time to investigate George Soros for funding domestic terrorism.”
Retweet: “It’s easier to come out as gay than to come out as a Trump supporter.”
McDonald: “Need aborted fetal tissue for vaccines.” (McDonald is an opponent of mandated vaccines.)
Retweet: “If the nation’s churches must shut down, so should our nation’s newsrooms. No freedom or religion? Okay, no freedom of press.”
Retweet: “I’m a 33 year old black male and I have NEVER been oppressed. I eat, sleep and shit just fine like the next person. I can buy a car, I can buy a home, I can obtain a passport, I can WORK. I love this great country and proud to be an American. DAMN IT I’m not oppressed.”
On May 6, she had retweeted a few lines from Tim King, the former Flagler County school district administrator whose tweets are among the rare times when McDonald posts anything by district personnel, or anything related to the district: “Words matter but how those words are delivered matters more. Our tone is typically an extension of our attitude.”
Some of the tweets particularly the tweet about “brainwashing” and tweets related to the protests over the killing of George Floyd by a Minnesota police officer, drew attention in the community last week as readers of her page screen-shot and circulated the posts, often with outrage or disbelief that the board chairman would be denigrating public schools or protesters.
The controversy emerged soon after moments of tension during a school board workshop last week when McDonald devoted a “moment of silence” to a brief acknowledgement of Staly, the sheriff, “those charged with protecting us,” and store owners and police officers who have been hurt in protests.
“And Janet, for the memory of George Floyd,” fellow-board member Colleen Conklin said. “Let’s keep social justice in our thoughts as well.”
At the end of the meeting, which lasted more than four hours, School Board member Andy Dance addressed McDonald’s “moment of silence” again: “I know we didn’t set up a lot of rules for our moment of silence,” Dance said, a reference to last summer’s controversy over McDonald’s attempt to start meetings with a prayer or an invocation, “but as we move through this process, I just ask that the chair kind of limit–if it’s a moment of silence, let’s let the silence rule and let each individual person do the recollection of themselves, because you’re speaking from the district as the district as an entity, so you have to represent the whole district with comments. So just let the people make their own personal comments to themselves and that moment of silence, so that we aren’t skipping or marginalizing any of the significant groups of population that was affected by that event. We just kind of skipped right over that. So I just want to recognize that.”
“The only one I highlighted was Sheriff Staly” because he was meeting with pastors that day McDonald told Dance, “and there was plenty of time for folks to have their own reflection.” She added: “I apologize if you felt it was structured.”
Conklin, who then devoted a segment of her closing remarks to Floyd and the protests, said in an interview: “I didn’t have an issue with keeping Staly in our thoughts as he entered these conversations with the community. It was leaving out all the others that have been impacted by police brutality. I support our police officers just the same. My brother is retired NYPD. But you can support police officers and still rail against the brutality. Can’t you? Why can’t we do that? We should all be on that side of the conversation, we should all be denouncing the violence.”
The context of McDonald’s statement, “skipping or marginalizing any of the significant groups of population,” in Dance’s words, is not isolated, but consistently reflected in her twitter feed where retweets deriding protesters are innumerable, but any tweet showing sympathy or understanding–let alone a measure of respect or support–for protesters or the memory of George Floyd are almost impossible to find. There was a recent call for prayers of support–for Rush Limbaugh, the incendiary radio talk show host.
McDonald says she sees her twitter feed “as a vehicle to find out what’s going on in the schools and what’s going on in the world real quickly, a way for information exchange, and, I don’t know, it’s a quick kind of touch point.” McDonald frequently rails against “misinformation” from her school board seat, but many of her tweets are the definition of misinformation–baseless claims that go viral on social media without a hint of fact-checking, such as the association of protesters with Antifa or George Soros or terrorists, mischaracterizations of the Covid-19 death toll or the ineffectiveness of masks, false claims about vaccines, and so on. (The Anti Defamation League has flagged attacks on George Soros as “a gateway to anti-Semitism.)
“It’s not to misinform but to present information out there for people to consider,” McDonald says, seeing in her tweets an alternate but informative point of view.
If it’s informative about McDonald’s point of view, the feed hews closer to the seethe of conspiracy theories, contempt for government, the press, “leftists,” conventional medicine, and plenty of derision and contempt for protest movements. It’s a place where protesters are only looters or misguided people who are wasting their time, where Antifa “is a terrorist organization,” where “lockdowns are bullshit,” vaccines should be a matter of “health freedom,” not a requirement, where we have a “remarkably low coronavirus death rate” (this roughly around the time when the nation crossed the 100,000 deaths mark), where media are dens of fake news, where elections are riddled with fraud, where Donald Trump is besieged by the “deep state,” Russia collusion was “crap,” where “Barack Obama was the most corrupt president in history” and should be arrested for “Crimes Against America” (in fact, he had the most scandal-free administration since Woodrow Wilson), where “nothing the CDC has said was true,” where “we got a whole bunch of so-called experts [who] don’t have any idea what they’re doing,” where General Michael Flynn is a hero, Twitter is a censorship machine (though McDonald embraces the platform as copiously as all the other tweeters claiming the same), and where Donald Trump holding a Bible at St. Johns Church for a photo op, after authorities dispersed protesters with chemicals, “is truly historic.” (See McDonald’s tweets going back to April here, here and here.)
“If you retweet something, does it mean that you endorse it?” McDonald said. “Because that’s not what it’s all about to me. What it’s about to me is that people share information, not that you endorse everything.”
In a 45-minute interview Monday morning McDonald at first defended her twitter feed but insisted that several of the retweets quoted to her, including the “chihuahua” and “brainwashing” retweets, were not her doing. “This is nothing that I even remember reading, let alone tweeting,” she said of the chihuahua tweet. Of the brain washing tweet, she said “it was manufactured to look like I had retweeted it, but I know I never had. It was something about the symbolism. It looks like pieces were put together.” Yet in an interview with the Observer days earlier about the brainwashing tweet, she said nothing about it being “manufactured.” She said she’d meant to retweet something else (an alt-right conspiracy theorist with a documented trail of lies).
It is very difficult to have a twitter feed hijacked. McDonald acknowledged that aside from letting people occasionally use her phone to make a call, she never lends her phone and has not had it out of her possession, making it even less likely that her account was “hijacked,” as she said some of her friends suspected. And the controversial retweets unquestionably and explicitly show twitter’s characteristic double arrows and “Janet McDonald Retweeted.”
“I guess I just need to take down that page because it’s ridiculous,” McDonald said. (Over the weekend, she had locked up the page, making it inaccessible to anyone she has not approved first, which may raise legal issues, since she presents it under the banner of her service as a school board member, making it both a public record and a necessarily publicly accessible page.)
“That’s not anything about who I am or what I stand for,” she said of some of the more inflammatory tweets.
“I haven’t seen an indication that she thought public education was involved in brainwashing children at all,” Conklin said.
There is little question that McDonald’s twitter feed is a radical departure, in many respects, from who she is on the school board and how she presents herself in the community. In that sense, the twitter feed seems like a contradiction. McDonald is among the more visible, cheerful advocates for the school district. Before the coronavirus emergency and for the six years of her two terms so far, she was seemingly everywhere, at community events, cultural events and school programs. Even in dissent, McDonald makes her points but doesn’t display sour grapes–whether after she conceded that the board wasn’t up for starting meetings with prayers or after she conceded that her choice for superintendent wasn’t the board’s, though off the board she can also be a persistent campaigner for her alternate views.
That’s been especially pronounced in her campaign against vaccines–and her opposition to public health’s approach against the virus. According to emails she sent Bob Snyder the Flagler County Health Department chief, over the past 12 months, and that FlaglerLive obtained, she’s adopted the same approach as retweeting–forwarding articles and videos that are scientifically suspect and that, in some cases, propose shocking approaches, such as a proposal to keep schools open expressly to spread the coronavirus. As a school board member of course, McDonald would have a say in such policies.
“With all respiratory diseases, the only thing that stops the disease is herd immunity,” the epidemiologist Knut Wittkowski is quoted as saying in a link she sent Snyder. “So, it’s very important to keep the schools open and kids mingling to spread the virus to get herd immunity as fast as possible, and then the elderly people, who should be separated, and the nursing homes should be closed during that time, can come back and meet their children and grandchildren after about 4 weeks when the virus has been exterminated.” (No reputable scientist will say that the virus can be “exterminated” by anything short of a vaccine.)
“And so, in the end,” Wittkowski claims in the material McDonald sent Snyder, “we will see more death because the school children don’t die, it’s the elderly people who die, we will see more death because of this social distancing.”
McDonald sent links in the same contrarian vein about lockdowns and vaccines.
Few but Snyder have been privy to the emails, to which Snyder said he did not answer. Few are aware of last week’s exchange on the school board over George Floyd. But given those contexts, McDonald’s claims that her twitter feed, which many residents have been seeing, has not always been her doing (“I have no idea how most of this stuff got on my twitter feed”) or that she is not promoting some of the feed’s positions–while deafeningly leaving others silent–strains credibility.
“I hope you understand who I am, and hope you understand the biggest picture on this,” McDonald said this morning. “I feel attacked right now, and I did not attack anyone,” she said of the reactions to the feed, repeatedly suggesting that others “weaponized” her twitter feed against her.
But McDonald was not subjected to any kind of attacks on her feed, or even elsewhere: residents raised concerns, wrote her and school board members, and raised questions of propriety. And for all of McDonald’s claims about not having retweeted some of the more controversial items, they remain on her page even as this article was in preparation, days after she was made aware of the controversy. McDonald says she’s not versed in how twitter works, though she has nearly 5,000 tweets and has been on the platform since 2013.
“I’ve seen the Tweet, and I’m disappointed that a fellow school-board member would support the notion that we are brainwashing children in public schools,” Katie Hansen, president of the Flagler County Education Association, the teachers union, told FlaglerLive. Hansen was not aware of McDonald’s claim that she had not retweeted the item. “It actually confuses me to some degree, considering she is part of our school system, and public education.”
Debbie Couch, a long-time English teacher at Flagler Palm Coast High School, was among those who’d read McDonald’s tweets–not just the brainwashing one. She saw no difference between tweeting and retweeting. “The actions of her retweeting those things to me speaks volumes. Whatever smiles she might put on for the public at school board meetings, doing that speaks much louder,” Couch said. “If you tweet something that is inappropriate, hateful towards other people, that’s condoning it.”
Couch said McDonald should have been countering some of the tweets rather than disseminating them. By then, McDonald had locked her account. “You can think whatever you want but when you put it down on paper, there are consequences, so she can block people but people are going to know about it,” Couch said.
A teacher in the district who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation said: “McDonald is an elected official who makes decisions that affect every child in our school system. To see her retweet inflammatory anti-public education tweets makes me scared for our students. They deserve someone that believes in the system enough to be willing to build something better; not someone who wants to tear it down or who doesn’t believe it can be better. She also retweets Breitbart and other racist, white supremacist organizations and people.”
Trevor Tucker, one of the five school board members, who seldom pays attention to social media, said he was not aware of the McDonald tweets. “If the post was not on a Flagler schools site, then I would say it’s her opinion and not that of the board,” Tucker said.
McDonald throughout the interview was taken aback by the difference between the way she intended the tweets and the way they were received. “It may be social but it’s not always civil,” she said, though again, there’d been no instances of incivility so much as intense disagreement (and some calls for her resignation) directed at her. “Apparently my expectation that what I put out there was for people to consider, maybe see another side of it, see an event they didn’t know, inflamed some people, and frankly I don’t feel that’s my responsibility. The way people perceive things is their responsibility. But sometimes a sound byte can be dangerous for some people, because they take it and process it from their framework.”