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School boards curb public comments to calm noisy meetings

An anti-mask protester waves an American flag at a press conference by a pro-mask group, Mask Up OCPS, outside the Ronald Blocker Educational Leadership Center in downtown Orlando on October 25. | Joe Burbank / Orlando Sentinel via AP

TALLAHASSEE – Parents in a Kentucky school district need to contact their school board via email after a reunion turns into a screaming match. In northern Virginia, school officials restricted the right to speak at their meetings. A Florida school board is considering reducing public comment to one minute per person.

School leaders nationwide are starting to consider ways to limit public comment at local meetings in an effort to appease noisy crowds on burning issues like mask warrants and critical race theory.

The potential changes could add more tension between school boards and the public they serve, an area that has become a fierce battleground of cultural warfare amid the coronavirus. Parents across the country are fighting for more control over what their children learn in school, the frustrations that have spilled over during the pandemic and are gaining support from the GOP.

The US Department of Justice, which has vowed to investigate threats against educators, added to the tension, a move that sparked more conflict between the DOJ and Republican lawmakers who accused federal authorities of to go too far.

“What I reject is this effort to create fear and division in the community that leads to credible threats of violence against me and my family,” said Jennifer Jenkins, a member of the Brevard County School Board, in Florida.

Jenkins has faced a plethora of threats over the past few months, she said, including people warning they are “coming” for her. She also said someone had made unfounded statements to the Florida Department of Children and Families that her daughter was being abused.

School board meetings were the starting point for an intense debate on issues such as student masking and critical race theory, which have become critical points of division between Republicans and Democrats. In Florida and other states, parents and conservative activists harass board members for their policies as larger questions arise as to how or if race history in America should be taught in schools.

Florida county school boards like Brevard, Orange and Sarasota are also coming up with ideas for DIY public commentary to reduce tension and shorten the length of controversial meetings.

In Brevard County, for example, council is proposing rules to prevent speakers from raising signs during meetings, limiting the number of speakers and the time they have when a large number of people need to speak on an issue. . Some parents say the new policy would restrict their freedom of speech and further deprive community members who lose faith in the school board.

Already, Brevard’s board is facing increased pressure from the public and a local state lawmaker wondering how they are handling the ongoing debate over hiding students in school. Florida has been a hotbed of debate on the issue since Gov. Ron DeSantis banned school mask warrants.

State Representative Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay) filed a criminal complaint against Brevard’s board earlier this month, claiming he broke Florida open government laws by overturning a meeting of the board of directors of a public school that had become rowdy and not allowing anyone to enter. Fine says the board is made up of “junk dictators” who are afraid to face the public about their decisions, including the school mask’s tenure that goes against DeSantis administration rules. .

“That’s the problem: when you allow these politicians to flout the law, they’ll just flout it more and more,” Fine said in an interview.

The National School Boards Association called on President Joe Biden at the end of September to intervene against malice, violence and threats against public school officials, which the group said “could be the equivalent of a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes “.

Attorney General Merrick Garland then ordered federal law enforcement officials and local leaders to regroup in response to what he described in an October 4 memo as a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence ”against educators and school board members. After Garland faced an intense backlash from the GOP over his move, including unfounded fears that federal agents would monitor typical school board meetings, Garland told a House panel last week that officers of the FBI would not attend school board meetings and that federal authorities were simply seeking to stop threats against educators.

“It’s not about what happens in school board meetings,” Garland told lawmakers. “These are just threats of violence and violence targeting school officials, school employees and teachers.” The school board group has since apologized for sending its original letter.

School boards and local governments regularly establish rules and policies to govern public participation in their meetings with the goal of advancing procedures, keeping them civil, and providing space for residents to voice their complaints or concerns. . But recent threats to teachers and education officials have prompted many school systems to take further steps to ensure the safety of their staff and board members.

Members of the public did not speak this week, for example, when the board of trustees of Kentucky’s largest school system met to discuss the reappointment of its principal and hear an update on the requirements in vaccination and testing for employees and students. Instead, the public could express their views via an email of 500 words or less to the Louisville area school board. This was after a row over safe schools practices earlier this month interrupted another board meeting and left the panel chair to tell the Louisville Courier Journal that “it’s not clear I think the public comment sections of our meetings are fruitful at this point. “

In northern Virginia, the Loudoun County School Board restricted eligible public speakers at its meetings to local residents, business owners, parents, students and employees in the months following a meeting. chaotic June 22, which ended in arrest and injuries.

“The school board is making these changes to ensure the voices of our parents and the LCPS community are heard rather than out of town agitators who would make board meetings a platform for national policy.” or to improve their own media profiles, ”said board chair Brenda Sheridan in a statement when the new policy came into effect in September.

The Prince William County School Board in northern Virginia also revised its speaking policy last month, allowing it to suspend “any citizen comment period, public hearing, or town hall” if unrest interferes with a meeting or threaten the safety of anyone present.

DeSantis also denounced the DOJ’s involvement, using the question to criticize the Biden administration. DeSantis and the Florida GOP pledge to devote more resources to local school board races, as issues such as critical race theory and school mask policies pushed education to the forefront of cultural wars during the coronavirus pandemic.

“To mobilize the FBI, it’s not necessary,” DeSantis said at an event last week in Titusville. “The reason for doing it is to intimidate the parents, suffocate the offspring, silence them and take it even if they don’t agree at all with what can happen to their child. “

Even some members of Brevard’s board of directors agreed, saying the federal government’s involvement cast a negative light on parents and made the community feel like they were being investigated. But that doesn’t mean school officials want threats to go unanswered.

In Sarasota, the first GOP county in Florida to enact a school mask mandate, School Board President Shirley Brown saw a dozen protesters gather outside her home earlier this month, with a siren and megaphones. and a man sporting a “Proud Boys” shirt, according to local reports.

“You couldn’t have that kind of yelling and action at a meeting at the Florida Legislature or the Board of Education,” Brown said. “You would be kicked out.”

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