- The Florida Department of Education voted in early October to penalize 8 school districts that have mask mandates in place.
- School board chairs in some of those districts told Insider they’re constantly harassed by opponents of the mask mandates.
- One told Insider she even has a police escort in and out of board meetings for her protection.
Since the Brevard County, Florida, school board issued a mask mandate earlier this year, its chair, Misty Belford, said she’s been harassed at board meetings and over the phone.
“I was standing at our front door and asked a gentleman to put a mask on prior to entry and he called me a c-u-n-t,” Belford told Insider. “So, you know, it’s been fun.”
Across the country, school boards 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 requested federal assistance with maintaining order in school board meetings.
In Florida, the state board of education unanimously voted in October to withhold funds from eight school districts that imposed mask mandates. Insider reached out to the chairs of the eight districts facing penalties; three didn’t respond to requests for an interview, and the chair of the Duval County school board said they couldn’t speak due to pending litigation over the district’s mask mandate.
Three district leaders that spoke with Insider in recent weeks said they’ve been inundated with “threatening and vulgar” messages, and are seeing parents’ “bad behavior” escalate at board meetings, to the point where one of them has a police escort for her own protection.
Bad behavior at board meetings and threatening phone calls
Every school board leader that spoke with Insider said protests and unruly behavior from parents have become commonplace at their meetings.
Belford said the majority of people who come to meetings in Brevard County speak against the district’s mask mandate. The meetings often get heated and escalate due to “really bad behavior” from local parents, she said.
Belford said she witnessed several protests outside board meetings with “people yelling and screaming obscenities at each other” – one of which resulted in two people being arrested. According to WKMG, police arrested a man for disorderly intoxication and trespassing and also arrested a woman for trespassing after they refused to leave a September meeting because they weren’t wearing masks.
“We’ve had to really tighten the expectations for decorum in our boardroom,” Belford said.
Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon told Insider she has “been asked to resign or be fired every board meeting for quite some time.”
Frank Barbieri, chair of the Palm Beach County School Board, said in an email to Insider that “rude and vicious behavior” at his board’s meetings had become “common and acceptable” to parents who say they’re exercising their free speech.
He cited the example of a recent board meeting where “an 8-year old girl stood next to her mother and proudly pronounced that the superintendent ‘sucks.'”
“Children live what they learn,” Barbieri wrote in the email.
The board chairs Insider spoke with also said they’ve received nasty messages from disgruntled parents at their workplaces. Simon said that her office is inundated with “threatening and vulgar” phone calls and emails, demanding that she resign over her district’s mask mandate.
Simon even has a police escort in and out of school board meetings because people “wait” for her after the events, she told Insider.
“No one has shown up at my home, which I am appreciative of, but, I have had those types of interactions,” she said.
The board chairs don’t believe outbursts at meetings are representative of their communities
While they say their board meetings are becoming increasingly ruly, the district leaders who spoke with Insider don’t believe the people protesting mask mandates are representative of the communities they serve.
Belford said that while the majority of people who come to Brevard County school board meetings rant about their opposition to masking, “I think we have to take that information with caution.”
She told Insider she believes most people who favor the mask mandate don’t feel comfortable coming to the meetings because other attendees are often unmasked, and the environment can become raucous.
“They don’t want to deal with having to walk through people screaming at them with microphones to get to our board meetings,” Belford said. “So I think there’s a misperception by the public in general that the board meetings are representative of the entire community.”
She said her email inbox “quickly transitioned to about four emails of appreciation for every one email of people being upset” once the school board decided to impose its mask mandate.
Simon, who described the state education board’s penalties as “a political maneuver,” told Insider the majority of families in Alachua County – especially those with children too young to be vaccinated – were happy to have the district’s mask mandate in place.
“It seems counter to the foundational principle of the Republican Party – to have local control – because it actually is removing local control,” Simon said of the penalties, which the state’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has championed.
“We do have a group of people who believe we never should have masked and are very upset about that, but they’re a smaller group, a considerably smaller group,” she added.
As Barbieri sees it, any outbursts at his board’s meetings are a “microcosm” of larger social forces pitting people against each other over masking in schools.
“One of my friends characterized the state of the community today as a ‘reverse’ 9-11,” Barbieri wrote. “The country is being torn apart.”