The California school boards association has pleaded with the governor to protect education officials facing an “unprecedented increase in hostility”, as board meetings across the state have been rocked by aggressive protests over Covid-19 restrictions.

In a letter to Gavin Newsom, the association, which represents nearly 1,000 education agencies across the state, said school board members have been “accosted, verbally abused, physically assaulted, and subjected to death threats against themselves and their family members”.

US school board meetings have become battlegrounds for culture wars this year as schools debated how to resume in-person classes amid the pandemic. Parents have disrupted meetings, refused to wear masks and threatened school board members. A school board in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, that was considering a temporary mask mandate cancelled its meeting last week after a crowd of 200 protesters surrounded the building, banged on doors and shouted at police.

On Wednesday, the National School Boards Association asked Joe Biden for immediate federal assistance in response to threats and violence against school board members and education officials over Covid restrictions and propaganda about critical race theory. “The classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism,” the letter reads.

The country’s more than 13,000 local school boards are facing unprecedented levels of engagement and anger over their policies, said Chip Slaven, the interim executive director of the National School Boards Association, to the Guardian last month.

“Before this, a controversial school board meeting might be concern over hiring a superintendent, consolidating schools, or something related to the sports teams,” he said. “Those were the kinds of things where you might have a crowd.”

A woman holds an anti-vaccine sign reading "No vax mandate for kids!" during a protest outside a San Diego Unified school district hearing on 28 September.
A woman holds an anti-vaccine sign during a protest outside a San Diego Unified school district hearing on 28 September. Photograph: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

The disruptions and hostility at recent school board meetings goes far beyond the legal expression of first amendment rights, Vernon Billy, the CSBA’s executive director, wrote in the letter to the California governor.

Billy described chaotic scenes at school board meetings across California. Protesters in San Diego county forced their way into a closed session meeting and refused to leave. In the Sacramento area, school board members fled through a back door after the “meeting was rendered unsafe” due to protesters.

“Too often, when school districts contact local law enforcement authorities to restore order to these meetings or to enforce mask mandates and other safety measures, law enforcement declines,” Billy wrote. “In numerous cases, law enforcement officers – in brazen defiance of the law and their professional oath – have explicitly stated they will not enforce safety mandates or restrain those whose actions willfully disrupt a meeting and prevent it from proceeding,” he added.

“It bears noting that law enforcement has not always exhibited this level of reticence when dealing with protesters who exercise their constitutional right to peaceably assemble and protest.”

Billy urged Newsom and the state attorney general to convince or command police to enforce public health and safety orders and help maintain order at school board meetings. The association is also providing training to school districts on how to manage contentious meetings and defuse conflict, said Troy Flint, a CSBA spokesperson.

Every corner of the state, including districts in rural and urban areas, is seeing increased hostility and deliberate attempts to shut down meetings, Flint said.

“We’ve never seen something occurring with this wide of a scope all across California,” he said. “The extreme partisanship that is increasingly a part of American life is rearing its head in school board discussions.”