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Editorial: School boards should be a place for discussion, but not like this
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Once upon a time, meetings of the governing boards for local school systems were, for the most part, staid and frequently boring affairs dominated by staff reports, budget discussions and bestowing honors on students or teachers for exceptional effort in one arena or another.

There was the occasional public uproar over shifting student populations from one school to another, maybe a vocal challenge to a particular course of study, or a complaint about buses that didn’t run on time, but for the most part school board meetings predictably were sparsely attended and seldom controversial.

That’s no longer an assumption that can be made with any confidence.

Increasingly across the country, school board gatherings have become the battlegrounds upon which political and culture wars are being fought, with strategies that often are loud, angry and threatening.

Thankfully that level of drama has not been the norm locally, as both the Hall County and Gainesville board meetings continue to be conducted with a sense of decorum and control. The same has not been true everywhere.

In neighboring Gwinnett County, two attendees at a school board meeting were arrested Thursday night, one for defying the terms of a “no trespassing warning” by being there at all after being asked to leave a previous meeting for refusing to wear a mask in conformance with system policy. The other was arrested when she scuffled with school police over a pair of scissors in her purse that were found by a metal detector.

Yes, concern in Gwinnett has grown to the point that attendees are now required to pass through a metal detector to gain admission to school board meetings.

The latest Gwinnett incident is just a reflection of things happening across the nation. School meetings are being disrupted by angry crowds, arrests are being made, board members and school personnel are being threatened. It is sadly a sign of the times.

Things have progressed to the point that officials with the National School Boards Association in September asked the president to take action in monitoring threats and violence at board meetings, and the attorney general ordered the FBI to become involved in such cases.

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This opinion piece is developed by Times leadership, including General Manager Norman Baggs and Editor in Chief Shannon Casas, to address issues that matter to our local readers and foster healthy debate and discussion on those issues. All local readers are welcome to respond with letters to the editor of 500 words or less emailed to letters@gainesvilletimes.com. Please include your name and city of residence. The Times also has an advisory panel that meets monthly. Anyone interested in joining the panel can apply by emailing the following to letters@gainesvilletimes.com:

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The NSBA later apologized for likening some school board critics to “domestic terrorists” in its letter, while reiterating that it was concerned about the safety of board members, school officials and students.

The letter was an over-reaction to the national issue, as was the action of the attorney general.

The vast majority of school board meetings are still the routine gatherings that they once were, where even controversial issues can be dealt with without rancor.

But the number of antagonistic attacks directed toward the schools nationwide is too large to ignore.

Part of the issue is an abundance of issues that have cropped up in a relatively short period of time to provide ample fuel for whatever fires of controversy someone wants to build.

Remote learning rules. Masking mandates. Critical Race Theory. Transgender policies. Take  your pick, any one is sufficient to spark a protest.

Couple that with the sad reality that we no longer seem to be able to debate difficult topics in a thoughtful and rational manner devoid of threats, anger, insults and over-the-top public displays of mandated loyalty to a particular position.

Add the fact that politically we are closely divided between the red and blue tribes, and it’s no surprise that it all boils over into protests and arrests.

Sometimes it’s parents “from the left,” demanding that masks be required, or transgender students be treated a certain way, or that race issues be taught in a certain manner. Sometimes it’s parents “on the right” opposing mask requirements, opposing transgender policies, opposing discussion of race.

And somewhere in the middle is the local school board and administration, trying to make important decisions about students enrolled in public education.

Here’s what we think:

  • The issue is real, but overblown. Incidents have occurred in many states, but given the totality of thousands of public education systems nationwide, is not pervasive as some, like the NSBA and some in the media, would suggest.
  • Parents and taxpayers have an absolute right to offer input in the public education offered in their community. They already have many avenues for such input, including the election of school board members, public discussions of school issues and direct input to school administrators.
  • Parents do not have a right to disrupt board meetings, threaten school officials and generally act like temperamental kindergarteners in expressing their opinions. The public’s business cannot be conducted without some sense of decorum and operational discipline.
  • Those who give of their time to serve on local school boards, as well as the professional educators entrusted with operating our school systems, deserve the respect of their critics even when passions are high and issues controversial.
  • Children are watching how the adults act and will model future behavior on what they see happening around them. We all need to remember that.
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