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How to manage 'disruptive' school board meetings? Sarasota can't agree

Sarasota School Board Chair Shirley Brown speaks at a board meeting October 5. 2021.
SCREENSHOT: Sarasota School Board
Sarasota School Board Chair Shirley Brown speaks at a board meeting October 5. 2021.

School boards across the country are grappling with how to manage school board meetings where emotions increasingly run high.

Foul language, threats, debates over mask-wearing, arguments over "critical race theory," and accusations of political interference with the curriculum are commonplace during public comment periods at school board meetings across the country.

But what can be done without trampling on the right to free speech?

At a workshop Tuesday, Sarasota school board chair Shirley Brown said the board should clarify its policy.

"Last week we had two or three people using foul language at the podium. We had people using it in the audience to speakers while they were speaking. We had foul gestures being made," Brown said.

For Brown, the threats have grown increasingly personal. More than a dozen people turned up outside her home on Monday, carrying signs that called her a tyrant, and yelling at her through a bullhorn to resign.

Brown submitted a photo of the protestors to the Sarasota Herald Tribune.

"I'm not sure if it was the Proud Boys, but the boy with the, the man with the speaker at my house last night, he had a Proud Boys T-shirt on. And I know they stormed the Capitol with guns. I don't know what they are going to do here," Brown said at the school board workshop.

The board considered an agenda item that noted "Florida Law requires all citizens to conduct themselves in an orderly fashion at public meetings. Any individual who interferes with the expeditious or orderly process of a Board meeting pursuant to F.S. 1001.372(3) may be removed at the discretion of the Chair or law enforcement. Orderly fashion is deemed as, at a minimum; (1) no profanity, (2) no vulgar language or gestures, (3) no discourteous, disrespectful, or disparaging conduct."

The proposal would also allow people to comment on items listed on the agenda only, with a separate "General Public Comment section" of the meeting reserved for "items not on the agenda but related to the school district operations or education."

The five member board soon began arguing over these proposals Tuesday.

Board member Tom Edwards said public comment at the meetings has become too political, and said fellow board member Bridget Ziegler has stoked these tensions.

Ziegler is one of the original founders of a group called Moms For Liberty, which has opposed mask mandates and advocated for parental rights in children's education. Ziegler is no longer affiliated with the group but supports its mission.

"I think the introduction of Moms for Liberty has created a political environment and people know they can use the school board room for that environment. Also honestly another school board member — Ms. Ziegler — wants conservative, wants partisan, wants people to run and wants to change that, which will further invite political rallies to come into the board room. And I am adamantly opposed to that," he said.

Ziegler shot back, calling Edwards a "hypocrite" and said any efforts to clamp down on people's right to petition their government would only frustrate them further.

"It's to shut people down and control who can say what based on what you agree with," Ziegler said.

Courts have taken up the issue of free speech in schools, illustrating how murky the situation has become.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has directed the FBI to meet with local law enforcement and address the increase in "harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members, teachers and workers" in public schools across the country.

Governor Ron DeSantis signaled on Tuesday that Florida will fight a federal effort to address a spike in threats against educators.

"Florida will defend the free speech rights of its citizens and will not allow federal agents to squelch dissent," he wrote on Twitter.

Ultimately, the Sarasota school board failed to agree on what — if any — steps to take. They decided to revisit the issue at a future meeting.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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