Jill Griffin had a panic on her hands.
Teachers and staff members of her school district in Bethalto, Illinois, a small town outside of St. Louis, were suddenly worried that they would not be paid. They had seen videos posted online in which a parent who objected to the district’s Covid mask mandate said that she had filed a claim against the district’s insurance, causing the schools to lose all federal funding.
Griffin, the Bethalto schools superintendent, has spent weeks dealing with the fallout.
“You have district officials who are spending time on things like this, rather than on what we need to be spending time on — making sure that our classrooms are covered right now in the middle of a pandemic,” Griffin said.
The parent’s claims were baseless. She had no ability to use the mask mandate to file a claim against the district’s insurance policy, or affect its federal funding in any way.
But the scare tactic has become a familiar one. A growing number of school districts across the country are facing similar challenges from parent activists who have adopted strategies and language that are well known to law enforcement and extremism experts who deal with far-right “sovereign citizen” groups in the U.S. The Southern Poverty Law Center and Anti-Defamation League call it “paper terrorism.”
The parents’ strategy is simple: Try to use obscure and often inapplicable legal claims to force a school district to make a policy change. And while the claims have no legal standing, they have been effective at spreading confusion and wasting school districts’ resources, even though the paperwork doesn’t require a formal legal response.
The parents and activists have organized through a new group called Bonds for the Win, which is named for a financial instrument at the heart of the pseudo-legal effort. The group’s members have spent the past two months bombarding school administrators with meritless claims over Covid policies and diversity initiatives. These claims allege that districts have broken the law and therefore owe parents money through what are called surety bonds, which government agencies often carry as liability insurance.
Bonds for the Win’s claims are not legitimate, according to education officials, insurance companies and the FBI. But even though the group has won no legal battles, it has already celebrated some successes in overwhelming districts with paperwork, intimidating local officials and disrupting school board meetings.
“There is a lot of misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the purpose of a local school governing board,” said Julie Cieniawski, president of the Scottsdale Unified Governing Board in Arizona, which was one of Bonds for the Win’s first targets. “I do believe it has kind of become a central meeting point for people to share their grievances and not specifically about our district. It’s almost like living in a reality TV show when you’re experiencing it.”
In at least 14 states, Bonds for the Win activists attempted to serve sham paperwork to school districts, in several cases causing commotions that required police intervention. And the number of people joining their cause is quickly growing as misinformation about the strategy’s effectiveness circulates.
On the chat app Telegram, where the activists organize, Bonds for the Win’s main channel grew from 700 subscribers to nearly 20,000 in the past month. Its members focus on schools, but they have also served paperwork to a handful of county commissioners and discussed plans to go after other local officials, judges and sheriffs with similar claims.
"It’s almost like living in a reality TV show when you’re experiencing it."
Julie Cieniawski, president of the Scottsdale Unified Governing Board
Bonds for the Win did not respond to requests for comment.
The new strategy comes as school boards across the U.S. continue to serve as the front lines of a broader culture war that began in the midst of the 2020 presidential election and debates over pandemic-related safety measures. Parents have targeted school boards with activism ranging from recall petitions to criminal complaints over books available in school libraries. Bonds for the Win is using these battles as a way of drawing in followers, demonstrating how quickly a faulty fringe tactic can generate momentum as frustrated parents join forces with conspiracy theorists.
Miki Klann, a QAnon adherent in Scottsdale, Arizona, who has said she believes AIDS is a hoax and that the Earth is flat, founded Bonds for the Win in December. She did not respond to requests for comment, but has described her goals in numerous videos posted online.
“We’re hoping that the parents start standing up and calling these people out for the crimes against humanity that they’ve been coerced to commit,” Klann said in a recent video uploaded to BitChute. “We want the people to understand their sovereignty.”
The group’s strategy of intimidating government bodies with paperwork has been used in the past by sovereign citizens, loosely affiliated right-wing anarchists who believe federal and local governments are operating illegitimately.
“During the pandemic, you saw more and more of these pseudo-legal statements from people proclaiming that they didn’t have to wear a mask, citing various federal laws that just were not applicable at all,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “Whether it’s connected with the sovereign citizen movement or not, it is a form of paper terrorism.”
“Paper terrorism” is a well-known tactic among anti-government extremist movements. The term originates from terminology that law enforcement officials used to describe the tactics of the Montana Freemen, an anti-government, self-described “Christian Patriot” militia that illegally declared its township in Montana outside the authority of the U.S. government.
For years, the group “buried local judges, sheriffs and county attorneys in a forest of paper,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, assailing local government offices with baseless lawsuits and fake court judgments. After an armed standoff in 1996 in which the Freemen refused to leave their foreclosed land, the group surrendered to authorities.
Bonds for the Win doesn’t explicitly describe itself as part of the sovereign citizen movement. However, it is taking a route similar to that of many anti-mask and anti-vaccine movements that have grown during the pandemic by borrowing tactics and faux-legal verbiage from sovereign citizens to fit their own purpose.
The faulty insurance claims focus on surety bonds, which school districts and other government agencies often carry as liability insurance in case an employee commits a crime like embezzling money. Typically, only the district — not private citizens — can file a claim, according to insurance companies, but parents following Bonds for the Win apparently believe they, too, can file claims over Covid precautions and other complaints. Activists say that once they file these claims, either the insurance company or school officials will have to pay a financial penalty to parents. This is not the case, insurance companies and districts say.
The claim letters cite various state, federal and international laws that schools have supposedly violated by imposing Covid precautions and diversity initiatives, including distributing obscene material to minors, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child and the Nuremberg Code, a guideline for ethical medical research that many anti-vaccine mandate efforts have cited.
Still, school districts say the claims are causing distress and commotion.
In North Carolina, police turned off the lights and escorted a group of adults out of the Iredell-Statesville school board meeting on Feb. 7 when the group attempted to serve paperwork demanding an end to all Covid mitigation measures, videos posted to Telegram show. The school district in Ankeny, Iowa, requested an extra police presence at its board meeting this month after a man, who attempted to serve notice of insurance claims to school officials for allegedly violating international law by requiring masks in schools, posted on a conservative website that “good men may have to do bad things.”
The school board in Loudoun County, Virginia, briefly shut down its Feb. 8 meeting when a group of parents and children tried to serve paperwork on board members. The paperwork included notarized letters with a lengthy list of complaints — including alleged discrimination against white students and unvaccinated children — and said if the board didn’t respond within three days, the district would have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in restitution that couldn’t be appealed in court.
Each of these incidents was celebrated on the Bonds for the Win Telegram channels, where the activists circulate draft claim letters and videos of members serving their demands to local officials. But there’s no evidence that the group’s efforts led schools to lift mask mandates or make other policy changes.
Based on these videos, some of the Bonds for the Win activists appear to believe that their legally dubious claims could succeed, while other organizers have at times signaled that the true intention is to cause disruption.
“We have people from all over the country submitting videos of them serving their school boards and it’s hilarious,” Klann, the Bonds for the Win founder, said in a video this week. “These insurance companies are not ready for the thousands of claims we’re about to file.”
Klann has raised over $14,000 for Bonds for the Win on PayPal, according to public transaction records. Klann has said she got the bond claims idea from a post on SGT Report, a website that publishes conspiracy theory videos.
SGT Report uploaded a video interview late last year with an Ohio man named Steven Socha, who said his threat at an Indian Creek Local Board of Education meeting to file claims against a district’s bonds caused it to drop a mask mandate. Socha said he got the idea from a Telegram channel that frequently discusses supposed legal loopholes people can use by acting as their own lawyer.
The Indian Creek school board president and district superintendent said Socha’s threat did not cause the school board to vote against extending its mask mandate. Socha did not respond to requests for comment.
“Truthfully, I don’t think the board members even understood what he was talking about,” said T.C. Chappelear, the district’s superintendent. “You know, there was nothing given to us in writing.”
But that didn’t stop Socha’s idea from becoming a model. After the Bonds for the Win website launched in December, Klann and her followers began setting up Telegram channels to organize, including separate ones for all 50 states.
Klann then tried the strategy on Jan. 25, when she and the internet forum operator Ron Watkins threatened to file claims against the Scottsdale Unified School Board’s surety bonds if the board didn’t address their demands — including closing all vaccine clinics and removing books that “promote pedophilia” — within five days.
Klann passed out paperwork to the board members at the meeting while Watkins — who has been prominently accused of being the “Q” behind the QAnon conspiracy movement, though he has denied it — promoted his nascent congressional campaign. Watkins did not respond to a request for comment.
The Scottsdale Unified school board members do not have surety bonds, and they are not required to do so under Arizona law. The Scottsdale Unified School District said in a statement it does not consider Klann’s paperwork to be “a legally recognized document.”
For Scott Menzel, the Scottsdale Unified superintendent, the claim letters are the latest instance of misinformation he’s had to deal with over the past two years, which he attributes to the convergence of sharp political divides and anxiety around Covid that resulted in unparalleled hostility toward school officials.
“I think we are at risk in terms of the future of our country,” Menzel said. “The truth has been obfuscated. People have bought into conspiracy theories that aren’t based in reality, and that creates a problem for all of us who are trying to educate our students and prepare them for the future.”
In Bethalto, the Bonds for the Win push was led by Trisha Stilwell, a local mother. In videos posted by the group, she said that claims she had filed against the district objecting to mask mandates caused the town’s schools to lose all federal funding and resort to asking parents to volunteer as teachers. Neither was true, but the claims quickly spread on social media, said Griffin, the superintendent.
“She created uncertainty and fear within some of our staff and community around her accusations in those videos."
JILL GRIFFIN, BETHALTO SCHOOLS SUPERINTENDENT
Griffin wrote a letter to dispel the rumors, and devoted a half hour of a recent board meeting to addressing the misinformation, highlighting documents that showed the district’s funding had not been interrupted.
The U.S. Department of Education said in a statement that it has never suspended access to federal funds after a claim was filed against a school district’s surety bond.
Stilwell, who appeared in the videos using the pseudonym “Violet,” did not respond to a request for comment.
“The facts do matter,” Griffin said. “She created uncertainty and fear within some of our staff and community around her accusations in those videos, and the host nor anyone else involved did anything to validate her claims.”
Liberty Mutual, the district’s insurer, sent a letter to Stilwell on Feb. 7 stating that she had no standing to bring a claim, according to a copy obtained by NBC News. The same day, Griffin received a call from another superintendent in Illinois asking for advice on how to deal with activists attempting to file claims against their bonds. She couldn’t believe the tactic was spreading.
“It’s hard to wrap your head around,” Griffin said. “When things like this occur, it just makes it a little bit more challenging for all of us. It takes the focus off what the focus should be on, and that’s our students.”
Pitcavage, of the Anti-Defamation League, said taking up time and resources is often the goal for groups like these — “clogging up the system, so that the system doesn’t work.”
“At some point, because they’re doing all this, the party on the other side could decide it’s not worth the effort to fight it,” he said. “And the next time this issue comes up, they don’t do that thing. They just let it go down. Then the people haven’t just lost the battle — they lost the war.”