• Fri. Sep 23rd, 2022

Florida School Board Presidents Receive Threats, Need Police Escort During Meetings

ByJanice K. Merrill

Nov 4, 2021

  • The Florida Department of Education voted in early October to penalize 8 school districts that have implemented mask warrants.
  • School board presidents in some of those districts told Insider they were constantly harassed by opponents of mask warrants.
  • One of them told Insider that she even had a police escort in and out of board meetings for her protection.

Since the Brevard County, Florida School Board issued a mask warrant earlier this year, its president, Misty Belford, said she was harassed at board meetings and by phone.

“I was standing at our front door and asked a man to put on a mask before entering and he called me a jerk,” Belford told Insider. “So, you know, it’s been fun.”

School boards across the country are becoming fierce battlegrounds in a culture war over mask mandates, critical race theory, and other social issues. Three states recently left the National School Boards Association after the organization asked for federal help in policing school board meetings.

In Florida, the state’s school board voted unanimously in October to withhold funds from eight school districts that imposed mask mandates. Insider has contacted the presidents of the eight sanctionable districts; three did not respond to interview requests, and the president of the Duval County School Board said they could not speak due to an ongoing dispute over the district’s mask tenure.

Three district leaders who spoke to Insider in recent weeks said they were inundated with “threatening and vulgar” messages and saw parents’ “bad behavior” escalate at board meetings, to the point that the one of them has a police escort for his own protection.

Bad behavior at board meetings and threatening phone calls

Every school board head who spoke to Insider said protests and unruly behavior from parents had become commonplace at their meetings.

Belford said the majority of people who come to meetings in Brevard County oppose the district’s mask mandate. Meetings often heat up and escalate due to “really bad behavior” from local parents, she said.

Belford said he witnessed several protests outside of board meetings with “people shouting at each other and yelling obscenities” – one of which resulted in the arrest of two people. Police arrested a man for disorderly poisoning and trespassing, WKMG said, and also arrested a woman for trespassing after she refused to leave a September meeting because she was not wearing masks.

“We had to really tighten the decorum expectations in our boardroom,” Belford said.

Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon told Insider she “has been asked to resign or be fired at every board meeting for some time.”

Frank Barbieri, president of the Palm Beach County School Board, said in an email to Insider that “rude and vicious behavior” at its board meetings has become “common and acceptable” to parents who claim to exercise their freedom of expression.

He cited the example of a recent board meeting where “an 8 year old girl stood next to her mother and proudly said the superintendent ‘sucks’.”

“Children live what they learn,” Barbieri wrote in the email.

Board chairs Insider spoke to also said they received nasty messages from disgruntled parents in their workplace. Simon said her office was inundated with “threatening and vulgar” phone calls and emails, demanding that she resign for her district’s mask tenure.

Simon even has a police escort to get in and out of school board meetings because people are “waiting” for him after the events, she told Insider.

“No one showed up at my house, which I appreciate, but I have had these types of interactions,” she said.

Council chairs don’t believe explosions at meetings are representative of their communities

While they say their board meetings are increasingly bossy, district leaders who spoke to Insider don’t believe people protesting mask warrants are representative of the communities they serve.

Belford said that while the majority of people who attend Brevard County School Board meetings complain about their opposition to masking, “I think we need to take this information with caution.”

She told Insider that she thinks most people in favor of the mask mandate don’t feel comfortable coming to meetings because other attendees are often exposed and the environment can get noisy.

“They don’t want to have to walk through people yelling at them with microphones to get to our board meetings,” Belford said. “So I think the general public incorrectly thinks that board meetings are representative of the whole community.”

She said her email inbox “quickly turned into about four emails of appreciation for every email from upset people” once the school board decided to impose its mask mandate.

Simon, who described the state education council’s sanctions as “a political move,” told Insider that the majority of families in Alachua County – especially those with children too young to be vaccinated – were happy to have the district mask mandate in place.

“It seems to go against the fundamental principle of the Republican Party – to have local control – because it effectively removes local control,” Simon said of the sanctions, which Republican state governor Ron DeSantis, defended.

“We have a group of people who think we should never have hidden ourselves and are very upset about it, but it’s a smaller group, a considerably smaller group,” she added.

According to Barbieri, any explosion at his board meetings is a “microcosm” of larger social forces pitting people against each other over masking in schools.

“A friend of mine called the state of the community today the ‘reverse’ of September 11,” Barbieri wrote. “The country is torn apart. “

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