Board member questioned early return to class. Now she's faced racist online abuse.
The night the racist messages started, Woodland Elementary District 50 school board member Renea Amen was in Louisiana to attend the funeral of her grandmother, who had died of COVID-19.
Despite the family emergency, she attended the Jan. 28 meeting virtually because the board was discussing whether to send more students back to classrooms in the midst of the pandemic.
"What are we doing? Who are we trying to appease? What are we rushing back for?" Amen asked at the meeting. "I'm about to bury my grandmother from COVID; if we think this is not serious, let me tell you, it is."
Amen cited a district survey of parents that showed 57.3% preferred continuing remote learning.
The online messages from community members that followed, however, made Amen -- one of two Black school board members -- fear for her family's safety and consider hiring armed guards.
Perhaps the scariest threats were ones from people who said they knew where she lived, despite her attempts to keep that information private, and warned her to be careful.
Amen, who owns the Bur-Men Law Group in Waukegan, said among the blunter messages she received were ones saying they didn't want "her kind" in the community. Others she categorized as microaggressions, which are hurtful comments made because of her race.
"People think, 'If I don't say the N-word I'm not being racist,'" Amen said.
To illustrate that she had been singled out because of her race, Amen referred to how she was treated after the Feb. 18 board meeting.
The board had received more than 80 written public comments and was debating whether to read them aloud. Amen -- like some of her white colleagues -- said that she preferred to skip the comments, but only she was pilloried by community members for it, she said.
The abuse peaked after that meeting, she said.
Running for reelection, Amen hosted a virtual Q&A on her Facebook page on Feb. 24 and broke down in tears when talking about the abuse.
"No matter how bad you might think my attitude is, I don't deserve that," Amen said at the time. "I've defended murderers, rapists, drug dealers, and they treat me better than the people who are supposed to be my neighbors."
She decided against hiring guards after police increased patrols by her home, and the abuse died down after the board issued a proclamation March 18 denouncing racial threats.
Amen said she hopes that people are more mindful regarding racism in their communities after her experience.
"My hope is that we will get through this together," Amen wrote on Facebook last month. "I pray this is not how the majority feels and this was a small few. My feelings were hurt but it's not about me."