When you’re a member of a school board you can expect to hear from angry people sometimes. But two years ago when Gina Harris and Ralph Martire were members of the Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200 Board of Education, they got some disturbing and angry messages that were way out of the ordinary. At a school board meeting last month Martire, in an offhand way, briefly referred to messages he and Harris received as “death threats.” Harris and Martire left the board last week when their terms expired as neither chose to run for a second term.
“Death threats” may have been a bit of an overstatement but the messages were so disturbing that Harris reported them to the Oak Park Police Department and even the FBI briefly got involved. At the end of April 2021, according to an Oak Park police report Wednesday Journal obtained through a public records request, Harris received an email and a letter with disturbing content. The email attached a derogatory article concerning Harris and Martire that was originally published in the West Cook News and was making the rounds of some conservative or right-wing media outlets. In the body of the email the writer said to Harris “will you two just die,” presumably referring to her and Martire, and “die soon maggot” according to the police report.
Around the same time Harris also received an anonymous letter with no return address, but a Grand Rapids, Michigan postmark, that called her “a useless piece of s–t.” According to the police report this caused Harris to become “alarmed and disturbed.”
There were no direct threats of violence in the messages and, according to the police report, a Cook County State’s Attorney said he did not believe that Harris was in any immediate danger.
Around the same time Martire received a letter which he characterized as a death threat. He told fellow school board members last month that it was written using cut out letters from a newspaper like you see in old movies. But Martire did not report the threats he received to the police.
Neither Harris nor Martire would agree to an interview with Wednesday Journal for this story saying they do not want to talk about the threats.
The messages were apparently inspired by a story in West Cook News, a right-wing publication with political funding that often publishes misinformation. In 2021 West Cook News published a story based on a conversation between Martire and Harris that was broadcast over Zoom during the Feb. 26, 2021 OPRF school board meeting. The conversation apparently occurred during a break in the meeting but was captured on the meeting audio feed. Martire and Harris both teach part time at Roosevelt University and Martire asked Harris if she was teaching at Roosevelt that semester. She said she was. Martire told Harris that he loved Roosevelt University. Harris responded that she did too. Martire told Harris that she fit in so well with Roosevelt’s philosophy. Harris agreed.
“I mean it’s all social justice, all day every day,” Harris responded. “I get to talk about all the things I love.”’
“All day, every day,” Martire responded.
West Cook News took this exchange and branded Harris and Martire as Marxist professors who were bent on indoctrinating their students. Other outlets in the conservative media world including Fox News Channel, the Christian Broadcasting Network, Law Enforcement News and others picked up the story. West Cook News is a product of Local Government Information Services, (LGIS) which is overseen by conservative businessman and former River Forest resident Brian Timpone. It’s publications, which look like regular newspapers, typically push conservative talking points and use dubious journalistic practices.