FARGO — Fargo School Board member Jennifer Benson is at risk of being censured once again as other members allege that her efforts to lobby state legislators on pandemic issues violated the board's policies.

On Nov. 11, Benson began lobbying North Dakota lawmakers by sending them emails in an attempt to sway votes on issues she personally believed in, according to emails provided to The Forum.

Although the Fargo School Board has not taken stances on the issues that Benson addressed in her emails, board protocol states that to publicly voice differing and personal opinions as a board member goes against policy, said Board President Rebecca Knutson.

Benson, a board member since 2014, told The Forum that she did not violate any school board policies. Benson said she was not representing the board in her lobbying efforts and that her voice should not be silenced.

“I don’t see it as a violation in any way, shape or form. It’s more about let’s personally attack the person willing to speak the truth even in the face of adversity. They come at me personally and it’s unfortunate and this is one more example,” Benson said.

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Benson included her school board title on emails she sent from her personal and Fargo Public Schools addresses to lawmakers expressing her support for parts of a bill that the North Dakota Legislature considered in a special session this month.

Benson’s emails, sent to at least 16 legislators, confused some elected officials and prompted board member Robin Nelson, on the Governmental Affairs Committee, to send a clarifying note to lawmakers on Nov. 12.

“Please be assured that the FPS Governmental Affairs Committee has not taken any positions related to these items. Ms. Benson’s opinions neither represent this committee’s position, nor do they represent the Fargo School Board’s position,” Nelson wrote.

Benson works as an area business specialist for Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a company owned by COVID-19 vaccine-maker Johnson & Johnson.

Among other topics, she lobbied state legislators to ban state licensing boards from taking action against doctors who prescribe off-label FDA-approved drugs (Lawmakers ended up passing a bill that prohibits such action against prescribers of ivermectin, an anti-parasite drug that's become a popular unsanctioned treatment for COVID-19).

“Please advocate for direct access to the life-saving medical treatments, including monoclonal antibodies and ivermectin on behalf of all North Dakotans for both vaccinated and unvaccinated patients needing this treatment,” Benson wrote in an email to elected officials, adding that “discrimination based on ‘vaccination’ status should never be allowed.”

Benson also supported imposing penalties of up to a year in jail or a $500,000 fine for pharmacists who deny a prescription of a medically-necessary drug (Lawmakers ultimately declined to enact such penalties).

“This is where we lose America. If we fail to act on this, we will fail to safeguard the freedom that we are supposed to hand down to our children and grandchildren,” Benson wrote.

Knutson said Benson’s actions were not in line with board policies that say a board member’s responsibility is to represent board positions, not their personal opinions, even if they don’t agree.

“The board operates as a unit, so it can become a challenge when someone doesn’t agree with a decision of the board. But this is: ‘I don’t agree with a certain position of the board and I’m making a purposeful decision to not abide by the policies,’” Knutson said.

Such actions from board members at most face censure, Knutson said. Censuring Benson would mean the board publicly expressing their disapproval of her actions, but otherwise the step would not carry a penalty.

“By censuring it means we don’t agree with what you're doing or saying, and it doesn’t mean you can't participate. A person is elected and they have to fulfill their elected duties under Century Code,” Knutson said.

Benson has been censured twice before: once in June 2020 for making accusations against district leadership, and again in June 2021 for repeatedly not wearing a mask during board meetings when district policy required her to do so.

As a result of Benson's pattern of behavior, the board may discuss options for bolstering its disciplinary policies, Knutson said.

“Maybe we need to strengthen policies on how we address board member violations or have an official statement by the entire board saying we don’t agree,” Knutson said.

In addition to lobbying elected officials, Benson publicly challenged a lawyer who was talking about the legal rights of school districts to mandate masks on Oct. 29 in Bismarck during a North Dakota School Boards Association convention, Knutson said.

“When I heard about this — and it’s deeply disturbing — because this is involving another entity now. You’re there representing the Board of Education; you’re not there to represent your own viewpoints,” Knutson said.

Benson defended her actions, saying that hard conversations were needed and that she questioned the attorney on issues related to federal law versus state law.

“I’m all for having hard conversations, but I wish people would leave out the desire to harm others with words. I wish they would just stop that. I don’t understand why people feel that’s the best way to go about it,” Benson said.

The Fargo School Board's Board Governance Committee has a meeting set for 7:30 a.m. Friday, Nov. 19, which could be an opportunity for board members to begin discussing Benson’s actions, Knutson said.