As the local teachers union president walked back to his seat after giving public comment at Douglas County School Board, a squabble erupted between him and a group of women.
Kevin DiPasquale …
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Kevin DiPasquale wasn’t sure which person it was, he said, but as he passed by, DiPasquale heard one of the women jeer at him, “Go sit down, Kevin.”
DiPasquale stopped and said he retorted with “Pardon me,” visibly upset. From the dais, Peterson asked DiPasquale and the women to stop arguing and moved the meeting along.
The group of women were among others who openly laughed at public comment they disagreed with throughout the evening, burying faces into their shirts and turning to each other to roll eyes.
One of the women loudly called out DiPasquale by name when it was her turn to speak, defying a long-held board rule and requests from board President Mike Peterson not to criticize other community members by name.
Other speakers took aim at Peterson, a vocal critic of the union, and some of his past comments calling collective bargaining agreements a “self-licking ice cream cone.” One person brought toy ice cream cones and set them on the lectern as they joined other speakers in lambasting Peterson for some of his political engagements.
Near the April 26 meeting’s end, Director Susan Meek implored the board to think about how it could foster a more welcoming environment, where “we don’t have people being targeted.”
“I feel like the tone during public comment feels like we are allowing intimidation and bullying and kind of an environment that we would never allow in a classroom,” she said.
Director Becky Myers said the issue would be a natural agenda item for the board’s upcoming retreat in June.
“You’re exactly right, Susan,” she said.
Peterson said he had commiserated with Director David Ray, another subject of repeated criticism that evening, by joking that he wasn’t sure which of them was targeted more during public comment.
“I know that some of it even borders on hateful, I mean certainly the tone that it’s delivered,” Peterson said.
A heated school board election has passed, a new superintendent is seated after a series of board controversies, but debates about freedom of expression and appropriate behavior during public comment at Douglas County School Board remains a challenge for the board.
“It’s been on my mind for a while. It has been something our board has struggled with for a while,” Meek told Colorado Community Media a few days later. “The lack of decorum during public comment and the negative message it sends to our students and our community is troubling.”
Citizens have a right and responsibility to “set the direction for how we want to live our collective lives together as part of democracy,” Meek said. She worries that “intimidation can be chilling to discourse and inhibit speech.”
Meek said as the issue of tense meetings weighed on her, she revisited all the board’s policies. Some behavior at meetings goes against board policies to promote diverse views and foster respect, she said.
“In it we say we shall not cause or allow conditions that are unfair, unsafe or undignified,” Meek said.
The educational equity policy commits the board to a culture where everyone feels safe and valued, Meek said. The public participation policy emphasizes the board wants to hear from diverse viewpoints.
“If the decorum isn’t there, we really aren’t setting the stage for that to happen,” she said.
Meek thinks one solution is to provide the community more chances to have actual dialogue with board directors. Public comment at board meetings does not allow any back-and-forth conversation between directors and commenters.
“In my opinion, without meaningful opportunities for the board to engage in two-way conversation with our citizens, I think this will continue to be a struggle no matter what we put into a policy,” Meek said.
Ray was traveling at the time of this story and provided comments by email. Ray called “personal attacks and verbal harassment” unacceptable and harmful behavior. It’s also unproductive, he said.
“I believe that concerns and criticism can be expressed diplomatically without character assassination,” Ray wrote.
Ray said board policy makes clear that concerns about other people are better expressed to them one-on-one. If an issue cannot be resolved there, he said, there are “appropriate channels of communication” within the district that a concerned citizen can move through.
“These channels do not include defaming someone on social media nor slandering individuals during public comment,” Ray wrote.
Ray said some people argue freedom of expression “should be protected at all cost.” But so should the values of respect, decency and civility, he said.
“Simply put, the boardroom should be a reflection of the cultures we expect in our classrooms. Our educators would never tolerate the egregious behaviors demonstrated by some of the adults during public comment,” Ray said.
Ray, a former board president, said he would read a detailed script before the start of public comment so people knew what his expectations for decorum were. The script called for mutual respect. Modeling appropriate behavior. Refraining from using names “in an offensive manner.” No derogatory statements or name calling.
Getting people to abide by these expectations is an ongoing challenge, he said. Sometimes, it requires stopping a meeting to “regain a respectful atmosphere,” he said.
“The boardroom needs to be the lighthouse for productive discourse that benefits children and not an arena where constant threat is exhibited,” he said.
Peterson said the district “has an interest in respectful dialogue,” whether that be at a board meeting or interactions among parents and teachers. His approach “has always been to err to allowing free speech,” he said.
“I believe that’s critical,” he said.
As to what might be fueling the discourse at this juncture, Peterson thinks it’s likely a reflection of political polarization nationwide being reflected all the way down to the school board level.
“There’s a lot of passion, there’s a lot of emotion in our community across a variety of issues,” he said.
Peterson said it’s OK to disagree with other people who attend school board meetings. It’s OK to be critical of board members, he said.
“This is not a place for partisan political attacks,” Peterson said.
His priority is allowing each board director, presenter, and public commenter to speak without interruptions, he said. Reactions to public comment is “certainly not appropriate if it interrupts speakers,” he said. Applause in-between speakers, “I actually don’t mind that,” he said.
Although past boards were more strict about prohibiting reaction to public comment, Peterson has taken a different approach, and permitted applause or cheers in-between
He has felt attendees were compliant in instances when he asked someone to settle down. Peterson said he can’t always see or hear what happens in the audience. He was leery of labeling specific conduct as bullying or intimidation.
“Sometimes it’s difficult to monitor those situations,” he said.
Peterson said he will be relying on district staff more often to help him keep the room’s discourse civil.
Peterson said board directors also bear a responsibility to model the behavior they want to see among the community, particularly when directors disagree. The April 26 meeting featured all 7-0 votes with the exception of one 6-1 decision, which boiled down to an administrative issue, he said.
Whether or not fraught school board meetings are the new normal is “a good question,” Peterson said, and one he doesn’t have the answer to. But Peterson is optimistic, he said, that tension in DCSD will simmer down.
“And we can focus more on what unites us than what divides us,” he said.
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