Some adult behavior at Board of Ed meetings wouldn't be tolerated in schools

Published January 27, 2022

By Capitol Broadcasting Company

The passionate concern and participation of citizens in their government is fundamental in our democracy. It must be welcomed and embraced.

Berating, belittling, cursing and threatening. Seeing and hearing it from audiences has become all-too-common at local government meetings – particularly at local school boards.

It is the kind of behavior we’re sure -- if any of those speakers saw it on a visit to a public school among students or teachers – would ignite justifiable shock and concern for decorum and safety.

Open and transparent government – especially critical on the most local levels – is essential. Even amid a public health crisis, it must be maintained or even expanded. While pandemic-related health and safety concerns may necessitate reasonable limits on public meeting room attendance capacity it should not be an excuse or a pretext to curtail citizens’ access or participation in the public’s business.

Looking in on a variety of local public meetings lately, particularly local boards of education, the people who serve on these boards are listening respectfully and are exercising considerable patience as parades of citizens express themselves. 

There’s been plenty of disagreement – some justified and some not –over the policies and procedures being followed to deal with the pandemic as well as other matters. The tone and actions of critics on display in Wake County and around the state do little promote constructive dialogue. To the contrary, they are having the undesired result of damaging the sincerity and credibility of the critics.

Whether expressing opinions on policies concerning health and controlling the spread of disease, the content of books in school libraries or how our nation’s history is taught – many who speak at public meetings are belligerent and threatening toward the elected to local board and commission members as well as to the professional administrators and even classroom teachers.

At a recent Wake County Board of Education meeting a woman crossed a security barrier to “serve” legal papers on the board members threatening court action unless they reversed school staff and student protective health mask mandates and stopped testing for COVID-19 infections. “Don’t make me come back here,” she threatened.

A short while later, another speaker addressed the board’s attorney as “homeboy.” Wake School Board member Jim Martin termed the speaker’s reference as “hate speech.”

There’s certainly no abridgement of free speech on display. Does this behavior get anyone to listen?

In Wake County, tensions at the most recent meeting were inflamed by reactions to an earlier tweet from Wake County Democrats offering a “shout out” to several board members “for caring about our kids & showing courage, grace& patience while facing misinformation, lies, threats & bad behavior from some Wake County parents & citizens.” But what seems to have struck a defensive nerve of the Wake School Board’s critics was an accompanying political cartoon, originally in the Salt Lake City Tribune that they took as a negative depiction.

To be sure, there’s been plenty of misinformation, misrepresentation, misbehavior and threats from some who spoke at recent Wake Board meetings. Watch and listen to the public comment portions of the Jan. 18, 2022 and Jan. 4, 2022 meetings.

Wake County is not alone. In Iredell County, a glass door was shattered by those seeking entry into a local school board meeting room already filled to the permissible capacity. In Buncombe County, the school board has been forced to recess a meeting because of audience disruptions. In Johnston County, where those attending school board meetings have been scanned to detect weapons, some board members received threats after a vote to mandate students and staff wear protective masks.

In Guilford County, the school district’s superintendent expressed her worries in a newspaper column. “I am disappointed by the ongoing threats and violence against school board members, superintendents and educators who are simply trying to do the right thing by educating our children while keeping our schools and communities healthy. Our staff has been bullied, and our buildings have been targeted,” wrote Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras. “No one is under the illusion that we can make everyone happy in these difficult times, which is why it is so important that we discuss our differences respectfully. We cannot expect our children to address their problems peacefully if the adults in their lives don’t do the same.”

This fall State Board of Education Chair Eric Davis, Vice Chair Alan Duncan and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Katherine Truitt issued a statement decrying “the increased hostility and threats of force that we have seen across the state.” They added “we respect the rights of our fellow citizens to share their concerns and voice their opinions. However, this must be done without the use of intimidation or intentionally inspiring fear.”

Threats and intimidation won’t end the pandemic any quicker, make schools safer or learning any more effective.

This isn’t about anyone’s right to be heard. There’s lots of noise – unfortunately much of it petty bickering, intimidation and threats. Whether from politicians or parents, it needs to stop.

There’s plenty of room for differences of opinion – but there must be unity of purpose. What students, teachers and school administrators MUST GET now is agreement to assure there are the resources, staffing and funding so every student is safe and has access to a quality education.