Local school boards see more verbal clashes over masks, other issues at meetings

Since classes resumed in August, new discord from the coronavirus pandemic is playing havoc with once-relatively staid local school board meetings as some frustrated parents blast members over student mask mandates and other issues.

Some of the governing boards are seeing unprecedented pushback on the masking of students, occasionally leading to loud disruptions, police intervention and boards ordering some attendees out of meetings.

The sometimes-contentious atmosphere, which most recently erupted locally at a Hamilton school board meeting, isn’t limited to Ohio.

The National School Boards Association sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Thursday seeking federal assistance nationwide to investigate and stop threats made over pandemic-related policies including mask mandates, likening the vitriol to a form of domestic terrorism.

ExploreSchool board group asks US for help policing threats

Parents and community members have been disrupting meetings and threatening board members in person, online and through the mail in a trend that merits attention from federal law enforcement agencies, NSBA officials wrote.

“Whatever you feel about masks, it should not reach this level of rhetoric,” NSBA Interim Executive Director Chip Slaven told The Associated Press.

Last week saw an unusually raucous audience at a Hamilton Board of Education meeting, which included two school police officers taking down a large photo banner held up by some there opposing the district’s mandatory student mask policy.

ExplorePolice take down poster opposing student masks at Hamilton school board meeting

A video shot by audience member appeared to show one of the officers crumpling up the banner, which read: “This Board Is Intellectually Dishonest.”

Hamilton Police Captain Marc McManus told the Journal-News this week a review of the actions of the two school officers, who are also city police members, found no violation of the department’s conduct policy.

“This is a school board issue and has to do with their rules,” said McManus.

Hamilton Board of Education members and Superintendent Mike Holbrook declined requests this week from the Journal-News to comment on the incident beyond a previously released statement from district officials.

In that statement, school officials said: “Before the beginning of the (board) meeting, several individuals brought posters, and each was told they were not permissible. Unfortunately, one poster was not identified and made it into the auditorium where the (board) meeting was held.

“When the resident spoke, a poster was displayed, and school personnel approached her, communicating she was not permitted to display the poster. At that point, two participants in the audience took control of the poster held it up for display. Finally, school personnel confiscated the poster.”

Battle lines drawn with local school boards in the middle

For decades, Ohio school boards have followed an almost universal format for meetings, though some boards modify proceedings when it comes to portions of the meetings designated for public comment from the audience.

Most boards set aside about 30 minutes total per meeting — some on occasion more — to hear the public, with speakers often limited to three minutes.

The clashes over student masks, however, have led to more outbursts of applause and shouts for those opposing masks, sometimes prompting board presidents to call for order.

The Hamilton board is not unique in seeing an unprecedented number of complaints from some audience members during the public speaking portions of the meetings. Lakota’s school board has recently seen a regular flow of speakers during its meetings both advocating for and against student masking.

ExploreVideo & story: ‘We’re keeping a close eye on it’: Lakota protest continues debate on masking in schools as more students return

Other hot-button issues, such as student quarantines, vaccinations and even non-pandemic issues like the topic of Critical Race Theory instruction, are raising the levels of rancor at what used to be almost uniformly business-like board meetings.

Rick Lewis, CEO of the Ohio School Boards Association, said he has been involved in public education for 38 years and has never seen anything like it.

“What we are seeing now is a time that we have not experienced before,” said Lewis. “Whether it’s masks, (Critical Race Theory), vaccinations, the polarization of community members is stronger than ever. And what’s probably more disappointing — and I’m fine with disagreement — is the way it is being expressed at these public meetings with vitriol, the animosity and the anger.

“There seems to be no room for civility in the conversation and putting our best efforts together and coming up with creative solutions. It appears that … one side has to win and one side has to lose and in the middle lie school boards,” said Lewis.

Ed Theroux, superintendent of Talawanda Schools, agreed, saying: “Certainly there have been times in the past where issues have become heated between the school board and some community groups. But the COVID-19 pandemic has increasingly put school districts, and their board leaders in tough positions, and created a great deal of disharmony between our public schools and the communities we serve.

“The failure of higher governments to agree on protocols and develop consistent laws around the pandemic has forced government officials in small communities to make decisions around public health. Not only does this create terrible issues with the community, educators and school board members are not trained public health personnel.”

But it’s not in every area school system.

Longtime Fairfield Board of Education member Michael Berding said the 10,000-student district has so far been largely spared of public outbursts during meetings.

“The recent uptick in COVID-19 cases, and the guidelines set by the Ohio Department of Health for quarantining students who had close contact with a person with COVID-19, caused us to have discussions about the (Fairfield) policy on wearing face covering. We moved a couple of our regular meetings into our Performing Arts Center, to accommodate anticipated larger crowds,” said Berding.

“Most speakers have been passionate, but also respectful. We have, on occasion, had audience members shout their displeasure with what is being said, but it has been minimal, and stopped when addressed by the board. When we have an outburst, it quickly dissipates.”

Lewis said the traditional, operational meetings of school boards “that are held in public are not necessarily intended to be public forums.”

“But the system is working when individuals are able to share their thoughts and concerns … that’s grass-roots democracy at its finest,” he said. “But not when board members are followed to their cars or have to run through gauntlets of angry people … it’s happening all through our state.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story

School board meeting incidents

Besides the recent example of a poster being crumpled up by police at a Hamilton school board meeting, nationally the number of disruptive incidents at school board meetings is on the rise.

According to the Associated Press, they include:

· “We are coming after you,” a letter mailed to an Ohio school board member stated, according to the National School Board Association. “You are forcing them to wear mask—for no reason in this world other than control. And for that you will pay dearly.”

· A June school board meeting in Loudoun County, Virginia, that dealt with transgender students and the teaching of “critical race theory” became so unruly that one person was arrested for disorderly conduct and another was cited for trespassing.

· In Las Vegas, protesters against a COVID-19 mask mandate gestured and shouted at board members as they were escorted out of a Clark County school board meeting.

· In South Carolina’s Lexington-Richland school system, a new majority of board members upset over pandemic restrictions forced out the superintendent, Christina Melton, who had pushed to keep a mask requirement in place through the end of the academic year. She had been honored just weeks earlier as the state’s superintendent of the year.

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