Pushback on mask policies leads to safety concerns - AZEdNews
Sections    Tuesday March 28th, 2023

Pushback on mask policies leads to safety concerns

Willow Canyon High School Students Return To In-person Classes On Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. Photo Courtesy Willow Canyon High School

Arizona school governing board members know community members may disagree with their decisions on mask policies, but they’re concerned about those willing to endanger the safety of others while expressing their views.

“School board members throughout Arizona have faced challenges these past couple of weeks with protests, and from what I have been told in some communities even armed protests, which is incredibly dangerous and presents unsafe working environments,” said Monica Trejo, a Tempe Elementary School District Governing Board member and vice president of Arizona School Boards Association’s Board of Directors.

School governing board members are “elected by that community and they have a heart for serving the children of their community, so it’s important for us to show up and be respectful. We are not all going to agree on issues during this very trying time,” said Ann O’Brien, Deer Valley Unified School District Governing Board member and president of the ASBA Board of Directors.

Everyone has the right to give feedback to district leaders, “but I think it should be done always in a safe and respectable manner,” Trejo said.

ASBA’s Ann O’Brien talks about public discussion at school board meetings and safety

School board meeting cancelled for safety

Vail School District Supt. John Carruth described what happened when a group of 150 people came to the April 27th school governing board meeting to express concerns regarding the district’s mask policy and safety issues led to the meeting being cancelled.

 “Of that group, the majority were parents in our school district, who legitimately were there and wanted to speak to the board during call to the public, or listen to the board, or show support for a position to remove masks as a requirement,” Supt. Carruth said.

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John Carruth

“There was a handful of people – I don’t know exactly how many – who either don’t have kids in the school district, don’t live in the school district, don’t live in the county, who came with the express purpose of whipping up that group,” Supt. Carruth said.

District leaders had seen in Facebook posts that this might happen and about a week before the meeting had requested that the Sheriff’s Department hire off-duty officers to be at the board meeting, Supt. Carruth said.

After several planning sessions with the Sheriff’s Department, it was decided that the school district’s two School Resource Officers would help with security and four additional off-duty deputies would be stationed in the parking lot, Supt. Carruth said.

But “at 2:30 p.m., the sergeant called back and said Sheriff Chris Nanos, at his direction, pulled the deputies off and said if we needed support we could call 911. So three hours before the meeting, the plan that we had in place to help control the crowd was removed,” Supt. Carruth said.

While board members and school staff took part in a study session on benefits in a conference room, “our two internal security people there were checking people in” for the board meeting, Supt. Carruth said.

“Three of the people who don’t have kids in our district, who were here for the purpose of causing issues, pushed past our security people, refused to wear masks, and one of them was armed so we called 911,” Supt. Carruth said.

Pushback on mask policies leads to safety concerns Protestors-outside-Vail-School-Board-meeting-Photo-by-Kelly-Presnell-Arizona-Daily-Star-600
A crowd of a couple of hundred people yell through the doors of the Vail Education Center after being kept out of the Vail School District governing board meeting on April 27, 2021. The meeting was canceled before it was officially started when most of the crowd refused to wear masks or accept limits on the number of people allowed into the building. Photo courtesy of Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star For article click here or on photo .

The crowd that had gathered started chanting, “You work for us,” then “that erupted into a larger chant,” Supt. Carruth said.

“We had to stop the study session. It was so disruptive you couldn’t hear,” Supt. Carruth said.

The group refused to go into an overflow room when the board meeting room was at capacity, “and they were congregating right outside the board room chanting and yelling,” Supt. Carruth said.

“We were concerned because of the disruption that was happening, so we called 911. When the Sheriff’s deputies arrived and ordered to clear the room, they suggested that we cancel the meeting. All of that happened before the actual board meeting ever began,” Supt. Carruth said.

“Threatening public officials for advancing policy you don’t agree with is fundamentally opposed to the behavior we expect from our students. It sends the message when we aren’t getting what we want or we disagree, the thing to do is to try and intimidate the opposition into compliance. That’s a terrible example to set,” said Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations for ASBA.

One of the people who was in the group at Vail School District was “at a school board meeting in the Phoenix area the following night making a scene there,” Supt. Carruth said.

“Some in this faction are leveraging it for personal political issues, and it’s tied into trying to elevate a political issue and part of that is the divide that we’re seeing within the Republican party around the Patriot movement,” Supt. Carruth said.

Board members should understand that some of this is not even coming from within their communities. “It’s all part of a larger piece of political theater,” Kotterman said.

Pushback on mask policies leads to safety concerns Armed-man-at-Vail-School-Board-meeting-photo-courtesy-Arizona-Daily-Star-600
A man barges into the Vail Education Cente after officials tried to keep him and others, including a man in a baseball cap with a gun on his hip, from entering without wearing a mask at the Vail School District governing board meeting, Tucson, Ariz., April 27, 2021. Photo courtesy Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star For article click here or on photo.

“The sad thing is that the legitimate voices of parents who had concerns were not able to be heard, because a few were choosing to use this as a demonstration, using their legitimate passion to whip up a personal cause for a personal political gain,” Supt. Carruth said.

As school staff escorted parents who had come to speak out of the building, some of the parents were shaking, upset they couldn’t speak to the board and they “didn’t want to be a part of that,” Supt. Carruth said.

“We had staff who were then trying to leave and whose exit was blocked and people were screaming obscenities and shouting at them. We had staff who were trying to leave different exits in the building and people were blocking them and saying ‘You’re surrounded. You can’t leave.’ It was a concern,” Supt. Carruth said.

“It’s an issue that when you’re viewing a dynamic event, that everybody has their perspective of that dynamic event. Many of the parents who were there, think, ‘No, it was fine. We were there peacefully, we wanted you to know we didn’t see any issues.’ But to the people who were hearing, seeing and experiencing ugly comments, the yelling and threats, that wasn’t the case,” Supt. Carruth said.

“It was only a few people who were there to cause trouble. If those people had been addressed and removed, then we would have been able to meet.  We were prepared to be there a long time to listen to people’s concerns, but you can’t do that when you’ve lost control and people are refusing to reasonable requests and order,” Supt. Carruth said.

Vail School Board’s meeting this week was held at one of the district’s high schools in Tucson with support from the Tucson Police Department, Supt. Carruth said.

Reduced capacity

The next day, Sahuarita Unified School District’s Governing Board meeting was planned at a reduced capacity of 25 audience members to attend in-person as well as a Livestream on YouTube, said Amber Woods, director of community outreach for the district.

“We were made aware of an increased interest in community attendance and worked to address any potential safety concerns before the meeting. This included ensuring that the community was aware of the reduced in-person capacity, handing out Call to the Public forms prior to the meeting, and providing masks to those that did not have a mask before allowing entry,” Woods said.

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A man speaks at the Sahuarita Unified School District Governing Board meeting on April 28, 2021. Photo courtesy Sahuarita Unified School District

The number of community members in attendance was within the reduced capacity limits, appeared to be mostly local community members, and “the board meeting proceeded civilly, and without incident, within the established parameters,” Woods said.   

“Mask wearing will continue for the balance of the school year as an extra layer of protection for our staff and students,” Woods said.

Trust and credibility are at the heart of ethical, responsible decision-making and effective partnerships, Woods said.

“Our school board and school staff work hard to make informed decisions, to increase access opportunities, and to advance the mission of working together to help every student succeed. Threats and intimidation detract from our collective commitment to focus on what is best for students,” Woods said.

Diverse perspectives are valued and vital for continued progress towards innovation, creativity, and success, Woods said.

“We are a public entity and here to serve the public. We welcome the public’s opportunity to communicate with its elected officials, as long as it is within norms of respect, established norms, and a decorum of civility. We act with clarity that any deviation from such basic norms will not be tolerated,” Woods said.

Safety precautions

Chandler Unified School District had two experiences with the public protesting the board’s policy of requiring masks, said Terry Locke, director of communications and marketing for the district.

“The first consisted primarily of people from around the state. Only one of the people who spoke to the board identified as CUSD parent at the first meeting,” Locke said.

“The second meeting consisted of about a dozen speakers on this topic, all identified as CUSD parents,” Locke said.

“While we encourage the public to provide input to the Governing Board, our concerns centered around safety for the governing board, staff and other visitors and maintaining decorum at the meetings. Online chatter revealed strategies related to efforts to disrupt,” Locke said.

The school district worked with the Chandler Police and six officers were assigned to the April 28th meeting and two members of Chandler Unified School District’s security staff were there as well, Locke said.

“With police cooperation, we closed the parking lot until 30 minutes prior to the start of the business meeting. We were concerned about encounters with counter protestors and intimidation of staff and students attending the meeting,” Locke said.

The Chandler Unified Governing Board voted on April 21 to continue to follow CDC guidelines and Maricopa County Department of Public Health recommendations by requiring masks while indoors through May 30. They voted to make masks optional for elementary students involved with outdoor activities and for secondary students participating in physical education, Locke said.

“The Governing Board was placed in a can’t-win situation with masks, a topic that has divided our community and to some degree staff,” Locke said.

Legal guidance on open meeting law, safety and parents’ rights

In response to what happened in these school districts and others around the state, Arizona School Boards Association released a Q and A of five frequently asked questions on school board safety, open meeting law and parental rights in regard to school mask policies.

That legal guidance indicates that school  board meetings can be canceled if there is a safety concern, that meetings can be moved from in-person to virtual with less than 24-hours notice, boards can have a meeting without a call to the public and the call to the public can be canceled without 24-hours notice and the parental rights found in Arizona Revised Statutes 1-602 do not allow parents to direct their child to not observe a rule that applies equally to all students and designed to protect all students such as school mask policies.

ASBA also released a statement on safety of school board members that says,  “School board members should never feel that they are placing themselves or their families at risk by serving their communities or doing what is right for kids.”