A current Fairfax County School Board member is running for the newly created 15th District in the Virginia House of Delegates.
Laura Jane Cohen announced her candidacy yesterday — a day after Election Day. Her announcement couched her candidacy as an effort to stand up to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin and the “far right,” citing a desire to defend public education, reproductive freedom, voting rights and gun violence prevention.
“I have been incredibly fortunate to live, work, and raise my children here and I am excited to begin this journey to represent this amazing community in the Virginia House of Delegates,” Cohen wrote in a statement. “In my time on the School Board I’ve had the opportunity to prove my grit and resolve in protecting and fighting for our families and I look forward to the opportunity to continue serving our community and our Commonwealth.”
Cohen was elected to represent the Springfield District on the school board in 2019, unseating two-term Republican incumbent Elizabeth Schultz, who now serves as assistant superintendent of public instruction in Youngkin’s administration.
A graduate of the University of Georgia with a degree in political science, she moved to Fairfax County in 2001, when she worked as an advocate on Capitol Hill for national nonprofit disease organizations.
At the time, she was the director of outreach for a national Parkinson’s nonprofit organization, according to Fairfax County Public Schools. She then worked as a preschool teacher after having two kids and later joined FCPS as a long-term substitute. She also ran a small business in Clifton before joining the school board.
While on the school board, Cohen has said she’s faced threats and harassment, particularly when she talks about gun violence prevention and her support for the LGTBQ community. A recall petition filed against her by the Open FCPS Coalition, which opposed school closures due to COVID-19, was dismissed in February.
The new 15th House District is one of three created by the Virginia Redistricting Commission last year and includes Burke and parts of Fairfax. It incorporates portions of the Springfield and Braddock magisterial districts.
No other candidates have formally declared their candidacy for the new district.
A second attempt to recall a Fairfax County School Board member has ground to a halt.
Springfield District Representative Laura Jane Cohen announced in a statement that the Fairfax County Circuit Court issued an order today (Wednesday) dismissing a petition seeking her removal from office.
The petition of more than 8,000 signatures was filed in December by the Open FCPS Coalition, which launched recall campaigns against Cohen and two other school board members in protest of pandemic-related school closures.
According to the court order, the petition was “dismissed with prejudice,” meaning it can’t be refiled, after Goochland County Commonwealth’s Attorney D. Michael Caudill, who was appointed as a special prosecutor in the case, determined that it “is not based on facts sufficient to show probable cause for removal.”
Cohen called the court’s dismissal of the petition “long overdue,” arguing that it shouldn’t have been filed at all.
“Elected officials cannot be recalled because of differences of opinion,” Cohen said. “We have elections to decide who should represent us on school boards. There was never any legal basis for this recall petition. It was all politics driven by massive dark money contributions and even paid signature gathering.”
Self-described as a “bipartisan, grassroots, volunteer group of concerned parents and citizens,” Open FCPS Coalition formed in the summer of 2020 after Fairfax County Public Schools decided to begin the upcoming academic year with virtual classes due to COVID-19 health concerns.
The group announced in October 2020 that it had started campaigns to recall Cohen, Dranesville District school board member Elaine Tholen, and at-large member Abrar Omeish, arguing that they had violated their duties by not providing in-person learning.
Since the beginning of 2021, Open FCPS Coalition has received $77,500 in donations from the center-right advocacy group N2 America, along with $15,000 from former Republican gubernatorial candidate Pete Snyder, according to the Virginia Public Access Project’s donor records.
Expenditures include $25,000 to a consulting firm for signature collection services.
A Fairfax County Circuit Court judge dismissed the recall petition against Tholen on Aug. 20 after the special prosecutor assigned in that case — Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney James Hingeley — also said it lacked sufficient basis to move forward.
Despite the dismissals, the Open FCPS Coalition sees the recall campaigns as a success for acquiring the signatures needed to reach the circuit court and sending a statement that it anticipates will resonate with county voters.
All Fairfax County School Board members will be up for election in November 2023.
“Our movement was the 1st during the pandemic to shine a light on school boards which prompted similar movements around the country,” founder Dee Jackson said in a statement. “The school board may think they have won, but parents are now aware and will have a huge effect on school board elections in the future.”
Fairfax County Public Schools intends to prohibit guns from all properties that it owns or leases amid heightened concerns about the safety of students, staff, and elected officials.
The Fairfax County School Board agreed unanimously at a work session yesterday (Tuesday) to direct Superintendent Scott Brabrand and his staff to develop a draft policy for its governance committee to consider at its March 1 meeting.
Firearms are already banned from public and private school grounds in Virginia, but this policy would take advantage of a measure approved by the General Assembly in 2021 giving local school boards the authority to also designate administrative buildings as “gun-free zones.”
Laura Jane Cohen, who represents Springfield District on the school board, proposed adopting the ban with Providence District Representative Karl Frisch, saying at the work session that she believes it should “happen sooner rather than later” in light of “some of the threats many of us have gotten.”
“We’ve seen a huge uptick in the last year and a half of people who are targeting elected officials and threatening violence,” Cohen told FFXnow. “So, that’s certainly part of the impetus, to make sure that people are not allowed to bring firearms into the places where we’re having our meetings.”
While narrow in scope, the potential ban would include the Gatehouse Administration Center, which houses FCPS central offices and other facilities used by the school board and division staff.
Public school officials across the country have reported encountering increased hostility over the past couple of years, as topics like pandemic-related health protocols and critical race theory have become hot-button political issues.
The Justice Department moved in October to create a task force focused on threats of violence against school boards and administrators.
Cohen is one of five Fairfax County School Board members targeted for recall over the decision to close schools for much of the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, but she doesn’t believe the threats she’s received are related to that campaign.
“It seems to really span the gamut…CRT or masks or…any number of things, just the fact that there are Democrats on the board,” Cohen said, noting that she often sees an uptick in harassment whenever she expresses support for the LGBTQ community or discusses gun violence prevention.
She says the threats have come over email, social media, voicemail, and even by letter. Most of them get sent to the FCPS Safety and Security Office, though a few have risen to the level of getting reported to the police.
“I wouldn’t say I’m by any means the only board member targeted, but it’s definitely made a real impact in my life and my family’s lives for sure,” she said.
The proposed gun prohibition is similar to an ordinance that Fairfax County adopted in 2020 after the General Assembly granted local governments the option to ban the possession of firearms on their public properties.
In accordance with state law, the policy will have exceptions for current and “qualified” retired law enforcement officers.
The school board also directed Brabrand and his staff to evaluate FCPS’ curriculum, safety protocols, and professional development practices related to gun violence and suicide prevention, building off of an effort to notify families about Virginia’s secure firearm storage laws.
Board members said a review is needed to ensure the school system’s security threat assessments, staff training on procedures for reporting concerns, and other policies are updated and effective in the wake of surging gun violence in schools, citing the Nov. 30 school shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan as a relevant example.
“It’s always been an issue, but it is frankly coming back to the top of the list of concerns in our community,” Brabrand said. “What can we do beyond what we’ve done in the years past to be more proactive in getting the awareness out to families and students?”
A coalition that tried to recall school board member Elaine Tholen has filed another recall petition, this time for school board member Laura Jane Cohen.
Open FCPS Coalition says it’s seeking to remove the Springfield District representative over Fairfax County Public Schools’ pandemic response. Dee O’Neal Jackson, the group’s founder, said in a statement that the school board has failed students during the pandemic, especially those with learning disabilities.
“We hope the Court recognizes the concerns of these 8,000 residents and requires Ms. Cohen to explain why the concerns of these parents are invalid,” the group said in a statement, stating that it filed the 8,000-plus signatures collected for the petition on Friday (Dec. 10) at the Fairfax County Courthouse.
Open FCPS Coalition has gathered signatures against multiple school board members and previously noted concerns with school closings during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Open FCPS Coalition formed in fall 2020 to protest Fairfax County Public Schools going virtual during the pandemic and campaigned to recall Tholen, who represents Dranesville District, and Member-at-Large Abrar Omeish.
Cohen noted Tholen’s case was summarily dismissed after a special prosecutor said he had investigated the allegations in the petition and found that none of them could be substantiated.
“Allowing public officials to be recalled over policy disagreements unnecessarily politicizes their work,” Cohen said in a statement. “Virginia law is clear: differences of opinion over matters of policy are simply not grounds for removal from office.”
While the Open FCPS Coalition describes itself as a grassroots, bipartisan group concerned with keeping politics out of schools, it’s received funding contributions from former Republican gubernatorial candidate Pete Snyder and N2 America, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing center-right policies in the suburbs.
Open FCPS Coalition previously said only one school board member, Braddock District representative Megan McLaughlin, advocated for reopening in a way it felt was consistent and a priority.
“The Board has worked hard to ensure the safety and health of our 180,000 students and tens of thousands of teachers and staff during the pandemic,” Cohen said in a statement. “I’m proud that we’ve been able to successfully return and keep students in our buildings this year and provide a much more normal school experience in spite of the pandemic related challenges all systems are facing.”