On November 30, four newly elected members of the Douglas County School Board who ran on a conservative slate are expected to be sworn into office, marking a hard right turn for a panel that's taken heat from many district residents for supporting school mask usage in response to the spread of COVID-19. In the meantime, tensions at board meetings are running high, as exemplified by an angry rant spewed at a November 9 session by Sean Benson, a parent who spoke while festooned in red, white and blue — an obvious gesture of defiance against freshly emphasized rules prohibiting meeting attendees from bringing "signs, flags and other items which create unnecessary disruption."
"Everyone's skin needs to get thicker, not thinner," Benson barked. "Bubble-wrapping our children, banning them from anything that might harm them or make them feel uncomfortable, creating so-called 'safe spaces'" — he used air quotes — "that oppress free speech, banning words as trigger words, banning the American flag tonight, and threatening to remove people for clapping and waving my American flag are not values that will make this country better and stronger."
The ultra-right quartet of incoming boardmembers — Becky Myers, Mike Peterson, Christy Williams and Kaylee Winegar— scored a victory in the November 2 election shortly after a federal judge granted a temporary restraining order against procedures instituted by the Douglas County Health Department allowing kids to skip masking if their parents write a letter "requesting to be exempted from the requirement to wear a Face Covering due to the negative impact on that individual's physical and/or mental health." The TRO, issued in response to a lawsuit filed by the Douglas County School District, was extended for another two weeks on November 8.
That same day, the Douglas County School Board re-emphasized its meeting safety and security protocols. The rules have been widely reported as being new, but according to Douglas County School District spokesperson Paula Hans, that's not entirely true.
"To be clear, this is not a new policy," Hans says, noting that most of the regulations were "implemented well before recent events that have caused us to remind guests of appropriate behavior required to attend Board of Education meetings. Additional safety/security protocols have been put into place based on recent behaviors."
Among the actions prohibited by the policy are "any conduct that obstructs, disrupts or interferes with or threatens to obstruct, disrupt or interfere with teaching, research, service, administrative or disciplinary functions, or any activity sponsored or approved by the School District." The rules also prohibit "coarse and obviously offensive utterances, gestures or displays and the utterance, gesture or display [that] tends to incite an immediate breach of peace, or engage in activities that make unreasonable noise which disrupts the educational process," and "physical abuse of or threats of harm to any person on School District owned or controlled property, or at School District sponsored or supervised functions."
According to Hans, the fresh emphasis on appropriate meeting behavior was prompted by "multiple incidents of escalating and distracting behavior, which has intimidated multiple guests," including "multiple verbal confrontations." Current boardmembers "have not received direct threats," she notes. "However, they have received communication that is intimidating and threatening in nature."
Board meetings have also inspired tailgating. While Hans says the district isn't worried about alcohol consumption at such gatherings leading to problems, she notes that "we are concerned tailgating may be done near entrances and walkways that may intimidate individuals with differing views and opinions."
As for the warnings about flags and signs, "when signs are raised, it distracts from the work being done and can also impede the ability for guests to see what is happening," she explains.
At the November 9 meeting, boardmember David Ray, who'll continue to serve after November 30, reiterated the rules.
"The board would like all discourse in this room to occur in an atmosphere of mutual respect," he said. "Everyone in this room plays an important part in modeling appropriate behavior and promoting an environment that is fair, safe and dignified. To maintain this decorum and mutual respect, speakers are asked to refrain from using individual names in an offensive manner, as well as using derogatory statements or name-calling. This only distracts from the issue of concern. The expectation is that everyone who speaks tonight is treated with respect, regardless of the perspective they are sharing. We want the boardroom to be a place where civility and decency prevails and where freedom of expression is free of condemnation, harsh judgement and fear. In order to promote an atmosphere where all commenters can speak without intimidation and disruption, I would ask that there would be no reaction after a comment is given. This includes applause, verbal comments, aggressive non-verbal behavior or judgmental tones."
A few minutes later, Benson stepped to the podium, clearly ready to push back. His comments begin at around the two-hour-and-36-minute mark in the video below:
"I never thought I'd live to see the day when elected officials would ban the American flag anywhere and then watch our leaders actually enforce this rule," Benson began. "What are you thinking? You've been trying to suppress free speech in this district since day one, and now you've taken it to a level of which this country has never seen before in our entire history."
He continued: "You know what makes these meetings so long, beside the fact that you enact policies that infuriate everyone? It's because you keep stopping to lecture us about this not being a 'safe place' for everyone. At the last meeting, there was only a single person who said they feel unsafe here, and do you remember what that person did at the end of the meeting? That was the one person who physically attacked someone, because she didn't agree with this speech. That person, who is here again tonight, was sitting in the front row the entire time, and she's actually checked out completely, knitting, as she is again tonight. That is someone who's mentally checked out, not someone who is scared. It's someone who's completely checked out, so you can basically silence us."
Benson said that he'd planned to display some photos, "but apparently pictures are too dangerous to bring in. I have a picture of you, third person from the right, because I can't say names" — but he could, and did, point at a boardmember — "mentally checked out on your phone while my wife, Dr. Hayley Benson, was speaking at our last meeting. You were probably texting your friend in the front row, but why would you care what a health-care professional has to say when it doesn't support your opinion?"
Benson characterized such behavior as disrespectful and maintained that "respect is what I get for supporting my wife and my country. But not even one minute after you texting, you had the audacity to threaten to remove me from the room for cheering for my wife and waving my American flag. Are you going to have me arrested now for how I'm dressed?"
After continuing for some time, Benson finally concluded that the decorum rules represent "a surefire way to destroy the American way of life that will only lead us down the path to division and self-destruction."
Ray's response? Instead of calling for Benson to be expelled, he said thanks and called the next person to the podium.
Click to read the Douglas County School Board's meeting safety and security protocols.