Officials work to silence concerned parents at school board meetings

A school board meeting in Greeley, Colo., kicked off this month with a newly restrictive public comment policy — the fourth iteration in a year marked by such vitriol over masks and books that one member suggested suspending comment altogether. Two opportunities for citizens to address the board for a total of four minutes had already been slimmed to one three-minute chance. Now speakers would have two minutes.

In Rochester, Minn., where public comment at city council meetings has featured personal attacks on the mayor and baseless accusations about the library promoting pedophilia, speakers since October have been permitted to comment just once a month — and the board is considering further restrictions.

And in Salem, Ore., the school board in September closed meetings to the public and began taking comments by Zoom or phone or in writing, following what the superintendent called an “escalation of disruptive behavior” that had turned in-person comment into a “public forum for political agendas.”

“I’m not denigrating the concept of acknowledging true questions our community has. That’s vital. That’s what I’ve spent my entire adult life doing,” said Rochester Mayor Kim Norton, a former school board member and Democratic state lawmaker. But, she added: “Do I think we have an obligation to have the same personal attacks be made week after week, year after year? No.”

The efforts to moderate public comment — and audience outbursts that can accompany it — are taking place in both red and blue regions as elected officials cope with what the American Association of School Administrators, the School Superintendents Association and the National School Boards Association have referred to as rising threats of violence and aggression at community meetings.

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