×

South Hadley man quits school board after online abuse over masks

  • South Hadley Town Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • CHARLES MILES



Staff Writer
Monday, September 13, 2021

SOUTH HADLEY — A member of the School Committee has resigned amid online attacks after a right-wing blogger called him a “child abuser” for supporting a masking requirement for town schools, posted pictures of his children and made derogatory remarks about them.

Charles Miles, whose first term on the South Hadley School Committee was set to end next year, announced ahead of Tuesday’s School Committee meeting that he was stepping down after “a vicious online attack from an extremist blogger” that then led to “further comments and emails including some violent threats.”

In a lengthy statement posted to Facebook, Miles explained that he is a former Army tank crewman who served in Iraq before becoming involved in veterans’ advocacy. That work led to death threats and “rage emails” accusing him of treason for suggesting the invasion of Iraq was a bad idea. He said he got used to shrugging that off, considering it a “natural consequence of taking a public position.”

“What I’ve never done, in all those years, is prioritize my own family and my own mental health,” Miles said, adding that he suffers from severe PTSD.

“It’s been a challenging year for those who serve in local office. Since the pandemic began, we’ve dealt with one fight after another — starting with discussions of how and when we open schools, what precautions to take, how to make sure everyone stays safe. Lately the discussion is centering around masks and vaccines and so-called critical race theory, which isn’t even something taught in our schools.”

Those discussions, Miles said, have grown more violent and personal. Though he didn’t name the website that had posted attacks on him and his children, the blog that wrote about Miles was TBDailyNews.com, a site run by Aidan Kearney, a former Dudley schoolteacher, who also runs turtleboysports.com.

Turtleboy is known for its crass mockery of those it disagrees with, public figures or otherwise, and posting of photos and screenshots scoured from people’s social media accounts.

In the case of Miles, Turtleboy took issue with the School Committee implementing a mask mandate — something the website claimed amounts to “child abuse.” The blog focused on a perturbed email Miles sent to the parent of a school child who said the School Committee was prematurely mandating masks when “children are at minimal risk of dying or being hospitalized from this virus.”

In his response, Miles noted that the county was seeing a spike in coronavirus cases due to the highly infections delta variant, and that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics had recommended masking in schools. He also said he was tired of the fact that “so many people are so concerned about their personal rights that they have forgotten that we all have responsibilities to our community.”

“I am furious that I’m spending even 30 seconds responding to someone who is arguing for a policy that could end up killing children or giving them lifelong health issues,” Miles wrote. “I would like to remind you that parents who don’t wish to have their children masked have the freedom to home-school or send their children somewhere else.”

In a phone interview Friday, Miles said his email was “less than tactful” after having received many similar emails over 18 months that “are completely the opposite of what science tells us is the safest thing to do for kids.”

He said he had already decided long ago that he wouldn’t seek reelection next year, largely due to the fact that school committees like South Hadley’s have been forced to make public health decisions amid inaction from Gov. Charlie Baker. School boards shouldn’t have to make those kinds of public health decisions, he said.

Miles said he understood the tense conversations the community had around school closures during the pandemic, which impacted families’ livelihoods and placed burdens on parents and guardians, especially women.

“This nonsense about how it’s violating people’s freedoms or that it’s child abuse to make children wear masks, that’s something different,” he said, ascribing those beliefs to “political tribalism” and not concern for kids. “I’m as pessimistic about the future of this country as I have ever been right now.”

Miles said that he decided to resign after the blog posted pictures of his children and made disparaging comments about them.

Glenn Koocher, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said South Hadley isn’t alone in seeing the families of school board members attacked online.

“What’s happened is that the anti-maskers, the anti-vaxxers, the anti-LGBTQ people and some ‘right-to-life’ organizers have been using the school board meeting, disrupting them in several communities ... to exploit the vulnerability of local elected officials, who are public figures under the law,” he said. “We see part of the goal is to get people to just say, ‘We’ve had enough. We won’t put up with this. I didn’t run for the school committee to have my family abused.’”

Koocher said there have been plenty of school committee members who have declined to run for reelection as a result of those attacks. But he said there are also others who have stepped up to run in their places. But the trend is clear, he said.

“We are seeing very much of an increase in meetings being disrupted and the use of social media as a way of attacking local figures,” Koocher said.

As for Miles, he said that 20 years ago he would have stayed on the School Committee. But now, he’s deciding to prioritize his health and that of his family.

“I would have stayed and suffered through whatever, but I’m too tired to do that now,” Miles said. “I believe that it’s time people dialed back the rhetoric. Our neighbors are not our enemies.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.