The Daytona Beach News-Journal | By Cassidy Alexander | November 11, 2021
The Volusia County School Board is considering changing its policy on public participation to tighten regulations on what people can say at board meetings.
Board members were split on whether the changes were necessary — some said it felt like an infringement on peoples’ rights, and others said it’s just a way to formalize what they already do in practice. In the end, board members decided to consider a policy to govern public comments at a future meeting.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, School Board meetings across the country have become a forum for dissent largely centered on health and safety measures like masks. Topics like critical race theory also lent themselves to contentious meetings, prompting officials like those in Volusia County to reconsider what constitutes appropriate public comments at meetings.
The proposed changes to the existing policy would add a section on decorum that:
- prohibits people from addressing individual board members;
- prohibits people from discussing ongoing litigation or disciplinary issues;
- prohibits profanity, personal attacks or abusive comments;
- prohibits clapping, heckling or comments from the audience;
- prohibits people from talking on the phone in the board room;
- and gives the chairperson the ability to cut anyone off from speaking if they violate the policy and call in law enforcement to remove the individual from the meeting.
“I have said it from day one — I don’t think we have an issue with our public comment,” said board member Ruben Colon. “I welcome anyone who wants to come tell me they love me, hate me, and so I don’t see any reason for changes to policy.”
Board member Jamie Haynes agreed. But Linda Cuthbert, who as chairwoman is typically in charge of deciding whether commenters are being decorous, said it would be nice to have the board’s practices written down.
“A lot of what is in here is putting what we already do in practice into policy,” she said. “And as chair the last almost full year, it has been very difficult in my mind — when do I stop, when do I start, how do I agree with one and not the other … It’s all been my decision.”
In the last school year, parents who wanted to speak at a meeting but refused to wear masks had to be escorted out by law enforcement, delaying the start of one meeting by more than an hour. This year, dozens of parents showed up to talk about masks in schools again at multiple meetings. In some cases, meetings were paused after members of the audience could not stay quiet while others were speaking. Some meetings featured an additional law enforcement presence, and officers or district staff members had to speak to particularly vocal members of the audience.