Comments and behaviors during public comment at the regular monthly meeting had the Waterloo School Board calling a special meeting to discuss and react to what occurred.
The body voted 5-2 to put forth the following statement: “The Waterloo School District Board of Education does not condone certain behaviors or statements that were made at the June 14th board meeting. We will work to make sure that such statements and/or behaviors do not happen again moving forward.” The statement was issued via multiple school district channels including the district website.
Clerk Debra Stein and Treasurer Karen Stangler voted against the measure.
The board met June 23 to talk about what was said during public input at the June 14 regular meeting, specifically a comment during public input where a man, who did not identify himself, joined by video and compared wearing masks to Jewish people being forced to wear a yellow Star of David under the Nazi occupation. There was also mention of the behavior of a person who was present at the meeting who was starting a fight with other people present; this person was asked to leave.
The statement stemmed by a request by Board Vice President Kate Lewandowski to have an agenda item to discuss and potentially create a public statement from the board regarding inclusion and respect. Lewandowski said she didn’t want people to feel they cannot share their opinions with the board, but did not feel offensive comments should be allowed.
“I think that’s shutting off free speech,” said Stein. “You can be offended about anything these days.”
Board President Nancy Thompson did not believe the board was looking to stifle free speech, but pointed out there are responsibilities when it comes to free speech.
Stangler, who was not in attendance at the June 14 meeting, noted that even with a statement by the board, comments that could be considered offensive will occur whether there is a policy.
“I’m not saying it should be allowed but we can’t make a policy or statement to keep people from saying things,” she said.
Jim Setz said the board would be creating a statement, not a policy; he indicated the statement could include a note people talking during public comment may be cut off if what they say is offensive.
Matt Schneider also pointed out the district already has a policy regarding to public comments that may be considered offensive.
According to board policy 187, “Undue interruption or other interference with the orderly conduct of the Board of Education business shall not be allowed. Defamatory or abusive remarks are always out of order. The presiding officer may terminate any speaker’s privilege of address, if that person persists in improper conduct or his/her comments become redundant of previous ones.”
Schneider would prefer the board send out a statement indicating it did not condone offensive comments made during public comment and the board “is here for the betterment of the students, providing the best educational experience, not dabbling in the weeds of the political items.”
Thompson said she would take some of the responsibility for not stopping the man who made the offensive remark sooner, but added it can be challenging to stop someone who is speaking.
Setz concurred, saying it’s difficult to cut off someone making public comment because there is no way to know what they are going to say.
Board member Charlie Crave, who was absent from the June 14 meeting, said when people make harsh statements it may be due to feeling like they are backed into a corner or feeling like they had not been listened to.
“If we feel (the comments) are offensive, it might be that way because they feel we haven’t been doing our job,” Crave said. “I certainly understand the need to have a statement that says we cannot put up with offensive, derogatory or whatever the situation. But, I certainly wouldn’t want this to be a policy … I’d like to think that we as a board have broad enough shoulders to perhaps allow frustrated stakeholders to voice their frustration.”
During the meeting, the board talked about how to prevent offensive comments and how to ensure people who address the board provide identification.
Board Policy 187 states any individual who wishes to address the board needs to register their name, address and, if applicable, the name of the group they represent on the sign-in sheet.
However, with the shift to virtual meetings and more people opting to address the board through the internet or on the phone, individuals are not always providing their names and addresses. Additionally, it was stated that when the school board began meeting virtually people who called in were asked to provide their names but not everyone disclosed the information.
The board suggested people who wish to speak put their names in the chat box of the virtual portion of the meeting and the chairperson could recognize individuals who wish to address the board.