Worried about violence, Jefferson Co. Board of Education mulls changes to public comment policy
There’s a lot of talking at Jefferson County Board of Education meetings. For hours, district staff present plans and updates. Board members discuss policies and decisions and timelines. But at least once a month, for part of the meeting, the tables are turned, and board members listen to the public. Speakers who sign up in advance for the public comment period have three minutes at the microphone to share their views with board members, reporters and anyone watching online or on public access television. Parents have lobbied to keep schools from closing down. Teachers have protested dismal facilities conditions. Students and community members have expressed their opinions about police presence in schools. But these voices are no longer a part of board meetings in Jefferson County Public Schools. This week marks two months since the board allowed in-person public comment. Board members say the move is necessary in light of recent disruptions and the threat of possible violence. It’s a problem school boards across the country are grappling with as their meetings become venues for heated discussions over coronavirus measures and racial equity initiatives, which some conservatives refer to as “critical race theory.” Now the Jefferson County Board of Education is considering permanent changes to public comment. In the meantime, some are feeling silenced.
‘The anger that we hear—it’s dangerous’
Speakers have included teachers, parents, students, business leaders, pastors, activists and community members. Sometimes, comment is measured, sober, even a little dry. Sometimes it’s passionate and powerful. But no matter the tenor of public comment, or the emotions of the crowd, meetings usually remain orderly. That is, they did, until this year. In June, the board held a work session, which doesn’t usually include a public comment period. But protesters distressed by diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives made themselves heard anyway. They disrupted the meeting, chanting “all kids matter,” and argued briefly with Board Chair Diane Porter before she called a five minute recess so security could clear the room. Meetings continued to be tense, with dozens of speakers showing up at the Central High School auditorium each month to speak on either side of hot-button issues: mask and vaccine requirements, and how teachers talk about racism in school. Jeering and shouting down speakers became more and more frequent. That intensity boiled over in October during public comment about police in schools. A white woman in the crowd allegedly threatened a Black man, and Black parents said police initially refused to remove her. The board ended the meeting early without getting to most of its agenda items. Members tell WFPL that law enforcement was concerned about violence. The board hasn’t held public comment in person since. Now, the only way to make public comments is through email. “The fervor, the hostility, the anger that we hear—it’s dangerous. And I do think there’s a risk for violence at these meetings," District 3 board member James Craig said. Craig is on a committee considering permanent changes to public comment. The group has floated several ideas: reducing the minutes allowed per speaker, splitting comment up throughout the meeting, or only allowing in-person comment five or six times a year. They also want to codify the board’s authority to opt for written comments. District 5 board member Linda Duncan is also on that committee. Duncan said her main concern is that when meetings are interrupted, it can throw a wrench in the district’s plans. “We can’t afford to have our business meeting disrupted or taken off track because we have so many issues that are time-sensitive and have to be approved,” Duncan told WFPL. Amye Bensenhaver, with the Kentucky Open Government Coalition, says state open meetings laws don’t require in-person comment. “I mean, I would love to see that ingrained in the law. At least, in the past, I would have,” Bensenhaver told WFPL. Today she sees it differently. “I see this problem of public agencies impeded in their ability to conduct the public’s business. And it is really a tough call at this point,” she said.
Across the country, school board meetings have become scenes of vitriol and sometimes violence, as parents and activists mobilized against coronavirus measures and racial equity initiatives seek public audiences with school officials. A school board in Mount Carmel, Indiana, suspended public comment indefinitely after a gun fell from a man’s pocket during public comment about critical race theory. In New Jersey, Ohio, Virginia and Oregon, school board members have had their lives threatened over coronavirus restrictions or perceived support for racial equity policies. In September, the National School Boards Association sent a letter to President Joe Biden, asking for help from federal law enforcement. The group later apologized after many objected to the letter’s comparison of the turmoil at board meetings to “domestic terrorism.” Craig said ultimately the Jefferson County school board would like to preserve public comment. “I think it’s an incredibly valuable part of our meeting that … nobody wants to lose,” Craig told WFPL. “What we’re trying to do in the moment is ensure that everybody stays safe until the fervor about masks, and [school resource officers], and [critical race theory] and everything else calms down.” Meanwhile, parent and teacher Tia Henderson is frustrated there hasn’t been an opportunity to speak to the board in person. She was at the October meeting that ended early and said many people were eager to speak out against police presence in schools. But they never got the chance. “I mean, we could all write a letter, but I think it sounds better when you hear it firsthand from what these people have experienced,” Henderson said. Henderson says the public doesn’t pay attention to emailed comments the same way as in-person comments, and neither does the media—especially since they’re not available until weeks after the meeting. The emailed comments from a Nov. 9 meeting still hadn’t been posted publicly a full month later. All of this concerns Gene Policinski, senior fellow at the Washington-based Freedom Forum Institute, which promotes First Amendment rights. “The issue isn’t necessarily that there is a lot of high emotion at these meetings—it's that there's a threat of violence, or that there’s intimidation, or there's interruption,” he said. “Well, let’s act on those specific problems rather than take this short cut through the First Amendment.” Policinski is seeing many school boards around the country making similar decisions to end or restrict public comment. But he says this could infringe on the constitutional freedom of petition—the right to tell government officials what we think. “I do worry about this on a very fundamental level, about preserving our participatory democracy,” he said. “The founders presumed and provided for a First Amendment so we could listen to each other.” Policinski said school boards can better train law enforcement to remove violent people. They can also make it clear that people who do make threats will be charged accordingly, he said. If there is still a concern about in-person meetings getting rowdy, Policinski said boards could try technology like streaming and web conferencing. Without forums like meetings, the public will keep commenting, Policinski said. They’ll just be doing it in less productive venues. “You’re going to be watching an unmoderated debate, unfocused debate, take place on social media in these echo chambers where there is no counter-voice heard,” he said. The board hasn’t given a timeline for a decision. For the foreseeable future that means no one gets to address the board in person. The agenda for December’s meeting says public comment will—once again—be deferred to email.