A Jewish parent was arrested on Monday after he wrote in an SMS group chat that he wanted to burn down his son’s school – Scheck Hillel in Miami, Florida – due to their mask policies, WFOR-TV Miami reports.
Authorities said Mark Polyakov, 37, made the remarks on February 8 in a text message thread with other parents at the school. “You should of (sic) told that board member go f**** yourself we will leave and burn Hillel down to the ground that’s why there rankings have steadily gone down,” said Polyakov in a text message referring to Scheck Hillel School in North Miami.
Polyakov posted a picture of the school with the message: “I want to burn this school to the (expletive) ground… This is what they are doing outside forcing f****** masks (sic) 80 degrees.”
Polyakov’s original rant led Scheck Hillel faculty to expel his ten-year-old son. “I just got kicked out of Hillel,” Polyakov wrote in the same group chat, titled “No more masks Hillel,” on February 10th before declaring: “I will burn this school down.”
“We know the guy personally. He’s not dangerous. He has a four-year-old kid,” a parent who was in the "No Masks Hillel" group chat told WFOR-TV Miami. “He didn’t mean it in a direct way. He would never,” she continued. “Everyone who started the chat loves this school, but is just frustrated our children are suffering with these masks.” The parent, who opted to comment anonymously, said there were over 70 parents in the group chat.
“I think a lot of people are very unhappy about the mask policy,” another parent said. “Other schools have started to remove the mask policy.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued an executive order in July 2021 blocking mask mandates in Florida schools, though Hillel is a private school and can thus set rules at their own discretion. Several US states have eased or lifted mask mandates altogether this month.
“I think people are very heated up about masks and COVID and all those issues that are bubbling up and so I am not surprised,” Rachel Slelatt, the mother of a 5th grader, told WFOR-TV’s Peter D’Oench about the incident.
Polyakov faces one count of writing threats to kill or do bodily injury. The maximum penalty is up to 15 years in prison, 15 years probation and $10,000 in fines.
Hedy Whitebook, who has three grandchildren at the school, told WFOR-TV that “it is a shame that it has come to this. The school sets policy and this is a private school. They have the right to set policy. We are expected as parents and grandparents to follow that policy and follow the proper channels even if we disagree with the policy.”
“Our school holds security as a cornerstone of our institution, and we take any threat very seriously and follow all guidelines, including reporting any such threats to the police,” said Craig Carpentieri, Scheck Hillel Community School’s Interim Head of School, in a statement on Tuesday.
Scheck Hillel, which is a K-12 school, requires students to eat lunch in an outdoor dining area – just as they did last year – as COVID-19 cases continue to spread across the US. Masks are mandated across campus for students and faculty, though vaccinations are not mandatory at Scheck Hillel.
“It’s (masks) the best protection we have other than the vaccination, and I would think it’s even more so than the vaccinations because masking is that physical barrier,” Carpentieri told JTA in August 2021 near the start of the academic year.