Jill Griffin was in panic mode.
Staff and teachers in Bethalto, Illinois were worried about their pay. It is a small community outside of St. Louis. They saw online videos in which a parent objecting to the district’s Covid mask mandate stated that she had filed an insurance claim against the district, leading to schools losing all federal funding.
Griffin, Bethalto's superintendent of schools, spent weeks dealing with the fallout.
Griffin stated that district officials are spending too much time on such things, instead of on what they should be doing -- making sure our classrooms are protected in the middle a pandemic.
The claims of the parent were unfounded. She was unable to use the mask mandate to make a claim against the insurance policy of the district or to affect federal funding.
The scare tactic is now a well-known one. Parent activists are causing similar problems in school districts across the nation. They have adopted strategies and language that are well-known to law enforcement experts and extremism specialists who deal with far right "sovereign citizen", groups in the U.S. It is called "paper terror" by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Anti-Defamation League.
The strategy of the parents is to use obscure, often unapplicable legal claims to get a school district into a policy change. Even though they don't have legal standing, the claims have helped spread confusion and waste school district's resources.
Parents and activists organized themselves through a new group called Bonds for the Win. It is named after a financial instrument that was at the core of the pseudo-legal scheme. Over the past two months, members of the group have been bombarding school administrators with unfounded claims about Covid policies and diversity programs. These claims claim that the districts violated the law and owe their parents money through surety bonds. This is often carried by government agencies as liability insurance.
According to the FBI, insurance companies, and education officials, Bonds for Win's claims are untrue. Despite not winning any legal battles, the group has achieved some success in intimidating local officials, disrupting school board meetings, and overwhelming districts with paperwork.
"There are a lot of misinterpretations and misunderstandings about the purpose of a school governing body," Julie Cieniawski, the president of the Scottsdale Unified Governing Board, Arizona, was one Bonds for Win's first targets. It has become a place where people can share their grievances, and not just about our district. It's almost as if you are living in reality TV.
Bonds for the Win activists tried to serve fake paperwork to school districts in at least 14 states. In several cases, this caused commotions that required police intervention. As misinformation about the effectiveness of the strategy circulates, the number of people who are joining their cause is rapidly growing.
The main channel of Bonds for the Win grew from 700 to almost 20,000 subscribers in the last month on Telegram, the chat platform where activists organize. The group's focus is on schools but it has also served paperwork to several county commissioners. They have also discussed plans to pursue other local officials, judges, and sheriffs with similar claims.
Bonds for the Win didn't respond to our requests for comment.
As school boards in the U.S. continue their role as frontlines of a larger culture war, which began during the 2020 presidential election and discussions over pandemic-related safety precautions, the new strategy is being implemented. With activism that ranges from recall petitions and criminal complaints about books in school libraries, parents have targeted school board. Bonds for the Win uses these battles to draw in followers.
Miki Klann is a QAnon follower in Scottsdale, Arizona. She has stated that she believes HIV is a hoax. Bonds for the Win was founded in December by her. Although she did not respond to our requests for comment, she has posted numerous videos online describing her goals.
Klann stated in BitChute a recent video, "We hope that the parents start standing and calling these people outfor the crimes against humanity they've been coerced into committing." "We want people to know their sovereignty."
This group's tactic of intimidating government bodies with paperwork was used by sovereign citizens and loosely affiliated right-wing Anarchists who believe that federal and local governments are acting illegally.
"During the pandemic you saw more and greater numbers of people claiming that they didn’t need to wear masks, citing federal laws that were just not applicable to them," stated Mark Pitcavage (a senior research fellow at Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism). It is paper terrorism, regardless of whether it's related to the sovereign citizen movement.
Anti-government extremist movements are well-known for using "Paper Terrorism" as a tactic. This term is a term that law enforcement officers used to describe tactics of the Montana Freemen militia, which was anti-government and self-described as a "Christian Patriot". It illegally declared its Montana township outside the jurisdiction of the U.S. government.
The group "buried local judges sheriffs, county attorneys and county attorneys in an oak forest of paper" for years. They also attacked local government offices with fake court judgements and baseless lawsuits. The group surrendered after an armed standoff that saw the Freemen refuse to leave their foreclosed land in 1996.
Bonds for the win doesn't specifically state that it is part of the sovereign citizen movement. It is however following a similar path to many anti-mask or anti-vaccine movements, which borrowed tactics and pseudo-legal language from sovereign citizens in order to serve their purpose.
These faulty insurance claims are centered on surety bonds. School districts and other government agencies carry liability insurance to cover employees who commit crimes like embezzlement. Insurance companies state that only the district can file a claim. However, parents who have joined Bonds for the win believe they can also file complaints about Covid precautions or other issues. According to activists, parents will be penalized if they file such claims. Insurance companies and districts claim that this is not true.
The claim letter refers to various state and federal laws that schools are alleged to have violated, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child. It also cites the Nuremberg Code, an ethical guideline for medical research , which has been cited by many anti-vaccine mandate efforts.
This tactic is called "bond fraud" by the FBI. warns that the scheme "frequently intermingles pseudo and legal terminology in an effort to appear lawful."
School districts claim that the claims cause distress and commotion.
North Carolina police shut down the lights and led a group of adults from the Iredell Statesville school board meeting. They were trying to serve documentation demanding that all Covid mitigation measures be discontinued. videos were posted to Telegram. Ankeny school district, Iowa requested additional police presence at its board meeting. This was after an individual attempted to serve notice to school officials about allegedly violating international law. He required masks in schools.
Each of these events were celebrated on Bonds for Win Telegram channels. Here activists circulated draft claim letter videos and members served their demands to local officials. However, there is no evidence that these efforts led schools to remove mask mandates or implement other policy changes.
These videos show that some Bonds for the Win activists believe their legal dubious claims can succeed. However, other organizers have indicated that the real intention is to disrupt.
Klann, the Bonds for the Win founder said this week, "We have people all over the nation submitting videos of themselves serving their school boards and that's hilarious." "These insurance companies don't have the capacity to handle the thousands of claims that we are about to file."
According to public transaction records, Klann raised more than $14,000 for Bonds For the Win via PayPal. Klann claims that she was inspired to create bond claims by a post on SGT Report (a website that posts conspiracy theory videos).
SGT Report posted a video interview with Steven Socha from Ohio late last year. He claimed that his threat to file claims against the bonds of a district caused it to remove a mask mandate. Socha claimed that he was inspired by a Telegram channel, which frequently talks about legal loopholes that people can exploit by acting as their own lawyers.
According to the Indian Creek superintendent and president of Indian Creek's school board, Socha's threat didn’t cause the board to vote against the extension of its mask mandate. Socha didn't respond to requests for comment.
T.C. stated, "Truthfully I don't believe the board members even knew what he was talking." Chappelear was the superintendent of the district. "You know, nothing was given to us in writing."
Socha's model idea didn't go unfulfilled. Klann and her supporters launched Bonds for the Win in December. They set up Telegram channels for organizing, including separate channels for each state.
Klann tried the strategy again on Jan. 25, when Ron Watkins, the operator of the internet forum, threatened Klann with filing claims against the Scottsdale Unified School Board's Surety Bonds if they didn't respond to their demands -- which included closing all vaccination clinics and taking out books that "promote sexual abuse" - within five days.
Klann handed out paperwork to board members during the meeting, while Watkins -- who has been prominently accused that he was the "Q" behind QAnon conspiracy group -- promoted the nascent congressional race. Watkins didn't respond to a request for comments.
Scottsdale Unified school board members don't have surety bonds and are not required by Arizona law to do so. According to the Scottsdale Unified School District, Klann's paperwork is not considered "a legally recognized document."
Scott Menzel, Scottsdale Unified superintendent, says the claim letters represent the latest example of misinformation he has had to deal with in the past two-years. He attributes the confusion of sharp political divisions and anxiety around Covid, which resulted into unimaginable hostility towards school officials.
Menzel stated that "I believe we are at risk in the future of this country." The truth has been obscured. People have fallen for conspiracy theories that don't exist in reality. This poses a problem to all of us who want to educate our students and prepare them well for the future.
Trisha Stilwell was the leader of the Bonds for the Win campaign in Bethalto. She is a local mother. The group posted videos in which she claimed that claims she made against the district regarding mask mandates led to the loss of all federal funding for the town's schools. They then had to resort to asking parents to volunteer to teach. Griffin, the superintendent, stated that the claims were false but quickly spread via social media.
Griffin wrote an email to dispel the rumors. He also devoted half an hour of a board meeting to address the misinformation and highlighted documents that indicated that the district's funding was not interrupted.
In a statement, the U.S. Department of Education stated that it had never suspended federal funds access after a claim was made against a surety bond of a school district.
Stilwell, who used the pseudonym of "Violet" in the videos, did not respond when asked.
Griffin stated that "the facts matter." "She caused uncertainty and fear among some of our staff members and community in relation to her accusations in those video clips, and neither the host nor any other involved did anything to support her claims."
According to NBC News, Stilwell received a letter from Liberty Mutual, the district’s insurer, on February 7, stating that she did not have standing to file a claim. Griffin was also contacted by an Illinois superintendent asking for advice about how to handle activists who tried to sue their bonds. The tactic was so widespread that she couldn't believe it.
Griffin stated, "It's difficult to grasp your head around." It makes things a lot more difficult for everyone when events like these happen. It distracts from what should be the main focus, which is our students.
Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League said that taking up resources and time is often the goal of groups like this -- "clogging up" the system so it doesn't work.
He said, "At some point because they're doing this, the other party could decide that it's not worth it to fight it." They don't do it the next time that this issue is brought up. They let it all go. They didn't lose the battle, they lost the war.