TALLAHASSEE — Parents in one Kentucky school district must communicate with their school board via email after a meeting devolved into a shouting match. In northern Virginia, school officials restricted who is eligible to speak at their meetings. A Florida school board is considering shortening public comment to one minute per person.
School leaders nationwide are beginning to eye ways to rein in public commentary at local meetings in an effort to quell raucous crowds over hot-button issues like mask mandates and critical race theory.
The potential changes could add more strain between school boards and the public they serve, a domain that has emerged as a fierce culture war battleground amid the coronavirus. Parents across the nation are fighting for more control over what their children are learning in school, frustrations that have boiled over during the pandemic and are gaining support among the GOP.
Adding to the tension is the U.S. Justice Department, which pledged to probe threats against educators, a move that sparked more strife between the DOJ and Republican lawmakers who accused federal authorities of overreach.
“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 school board member in Brevard County, Fla.
Jenkins has faced a slew of threats over the past few months, she said, including people warning that they are “coming” for her. She also said someone made a baseless claim to Florida’s Department of Children and Families that her daughter was being abused.
School board meetings have been ground zero for intense debate on issues like masking students and critical race theory, which have emerged as critical points of division among Republicans and Democrats. In Florida and other states, parents and conservative activists are hounding board members for their policies as larger questions swell surrounding how or if the history of race in America should be taught in schools.
School boards in Florida counties like Brevard, Orange and Sarasota are also floating ideas to tinker with public comment as a way to lower the tensions and shorten the length of contentious meetings.
In Brevard county, for example, the board is proposing rules to prevent speakers from raising signs during meetings, limit the number of speakers and how much time they have when a large number of people are scheduled to weigh in on an issue. Some parents say the new policy would restrict their freedom of speech and further disenfranchise community members who are losing trust in the school board.
Already, Brevard’s board is facing increased pressure from the public and a local state lawmaker who are questioning how they are handling the ongoing debate over masking students in school. Florida has been a hotbed for debate about the issue since Gov. Ron DeSantis banned school mask mandates.
State Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay) filed a criminal complaint against Brevard’s board earlier this month claiming it violated Florida’s open government laws by clearing a public school board meeting that had turned rowdy and not allowing anyone back inside. Fine says the board is made up of “tinpot dictators” who are afraid to face the public over their decisions, including the school mask mandate that goes against the DeSantis administration’s rules.
“This is the problem: When you allow these politicians to flout the law, they’re just going to flout more and more of it,” Fine said in an interview.
The National School Boards Association asked President Joe Biden in late September to intervene against malice, violence and threats against public school officials, which the group said “could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland then ordered federal law enforcement authorities and local leaders to huddle in response to what he described in an Oct. 4 memo as a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence” against educators and school board members. After Garland faced intense GOP backlash over his move, including unfounded fears that federal agents would monitor typical school board meetings, Garland told a House panel last week that FBI agents wouldn’t be attending school board meetings and that federal authorities were simply looking to stop threats against educators.
“This is not about what happens inside school board meetings,” Garland told lawmakers. “It’s only about threats of violence and violence aimed at school officials, school employees, and teachers.” The school boards group has since apologized for issuing its original letter.
School boards and local governments regularly set out rules and policies to govern the public’s participation at their meetings in an attempt to keep proceedings moving, keep them civil and still carve out space for residents to set out complaints or concerns. But the recent threats against teachers and education officials has many school systems weighing new steps to keep their staff and board members safe.
Members of the public didn’t speak this week, for example, when the board of Kentucky’s largest school system met to discuss reappointing its superintendent and hear an update on vaccination and testing requirements for employees and students. The public could instead set out their opinions via a 500-word-or-less email to the Louisville-area school board. That’s after a fracas over school security practices earlier this month cut short another board meeting, and left the panel’s president telling the Louisville Courier Journal that “it’s not clear to me that 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 chaotic June 22 meeting that ended in arrest and injury.
“The school board is making these changes in order to ensure that 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 politics or to enhance their own media profiles,” board Chair Brenda Sheridan said in a statement when the new policy took hold in September.
The Prince William County School Board in northern Virginia also overhauled its public speaker policy last month, allowing it to suspend “any citizen comment period, public hearing or town hall” if disturbances interfere with a meeting or threaten the safety of anyone in attendance.
DeSantis also railed against the DOJ’s involvement, using the issue to criticize the Biden administration. DeSantis and the Florida GOP are vowing to devote more resources to local school board races as issues like critical race theory and school mask policies pushed education to the forefront of the culture wars during the coronavirus pandemic.
“To mobilize the FBI, there’s no need for it,” DeSantis said at an last week event in Titusville. “The reason to do that is to intimidate parents, to squelch descent, to have them shut up and just take it even when they strongly disagree with what may be happening to their kid.”
Even some board members in Brevard agreed, saying the feds getting involved cast parents in a negative light and made the community feel like they were being investigated. But that doesn’t mean school officials want the threats to go unanswered.
In Sarasota, the first GOP county in Florida to enact a school mask mandate, school board Chair Shirley Brown, saw a dozen protesters assemble in front of her house earlier this month, complete with a siren and bullhorns and a man sporting a “Proud Boys” shirt, according to local reports.
“You could not have this kind of yelling and actions at a meeting at the Florida Legislature or the Board of Education,” said Brown. “You’d be thrown out.”