It wasn’t their mask mandate to make, but school officials are getting the heat all the same.
In the Marysville School District in Snohomish County, a man walked toward Board members during a public meeting holding a wooden flagpole and yelling obscenities. In Spokane, a School Board meeting was moved online one minute after it started because attendees refused to wear masks. Near the Columbia River Gorge, in the Goldendale School District, police and sheriff’s deputies were called to clear a room of unruly mask resisters.
As school board members and school employees in Washington state began regularly meeting in person again, their meetings have attracted a much rowdier audience. Incensed, and often armed with misinformation, they’ve taken to these public forums to air out frustrations. They’re angry about things that are rarely taught in K-12 settings, such as critical race theory — an advanced academic concept that analyzes racism at systemic levels. Or they’re protesting the statewide indoor mask mandate and employee vaccine orders, policy set by Gov. Jay Inslee, not by school boards.
And while a certain level of contention is expected at public meetings, the level of intensity and the numbers of protesters at these types of forums has not been seen in recent memory, education leaders say.
“It’s ugly behavior,” said Joel Aune, executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators, whose organization released a statement this week urging civility at school board meetings. “Our kids are watching. The behaviors that we’re seeing, we would never deem to be acceptable for kids.”
One video, taken at a Wenatchee School Board meeting in August, captured a mask-less man speaking over School Board members and accusing them of shoving the mask mandates “down [children’s] throats.” The meeting adjourned because audience members refused to wear masks.
To reduce the chances for these types of conflicts, some school districts have resorted to calling the police preemptively to monitor meetings, Aune said, or moved their meetings online. The Seattle School Board, seeing cases arise across the state and country, brought on extra security to monitor in-person meetings and escort staff back to their cars over the summer, said Chandra Hampson, the board’s president. To make sure there was enough security at schools when the year began, the board briefly returned to remote sessions. Meetings will resume in person later this month.
Across the country, there have been similar displays, prompting the National Association of School Boards to call for the involvement of the FBI, the Department of Justice and other law enforcement authorities.
To Aune’s knowledge, school board members and staff have not been injured in these outbursts in Washington state. Beyond the bad optics of having cops stationed at meetings, Aune says one of the consequences — such as more meetings conducted remotely — could be less engagement between elected officials and the public about important decisions.