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School Board begins work on civility policy after disturbance at meeting

STORY BY GEORGE ANDREASSI (Week of June 10, 2021)

Angry, insulting and threatening comments and behavior by a handful of public speakers at recent School Board meetings have prompted the board to rethink its approach to maintaining decorum and civility.

The civility issue came to a head after several parental rights activists disrupted a School Board meeting last month as educators were preparing to honor the “Academic All-Stars” of Vero Beach and Sebastian River high schools.

Taken aback by the confrontation, the School Board plans to review its policies regarding public speaking and behavior during board meetings, possibly as soon as its June 22 meeting.

In the meantime, the school district has asked the Sheriff's Office to assign additional deputies to the board’s June 8 and June 22 meetings to maintain order, spokeswoman Cristen Maddux said Monday.

The May School Board meetings attracted crowds that filled the seats in the meeting room and lobby, and overflowed to the sidewalk in front of school district headquarters, and similar crowds are expected at the June meetings.

“In my opinion, with civility, the last board meeting was the worst I’ve seen in 41 years,” said School Board member Peggy Jones, a former teacher and high school principal.

“In this meeting, we had raised voices, inciting and disturbances,” Jones said. “Phone cameras were in people’s faces and in our sheriff’s [deputies’] faces – [it was] nothing less than rudeness. Anger, harassment, bullying and hate do not belong here.

“I want our civility policy followed, or even amended, if the board so desires,” Jones said during the board’s May 25 Superintendent’s Workshop. “People who are not acting appropriately need to be removed.”

School districts in Osceola and Seminole counties have civility policies authorizing school personnel to direct a member of the public to leave school grounds if he or she “uses obscenities or speaks in a demanding, loud, insulting and/or demeaning manner.”

During the School Board’s business meeting later in the day, two outspoken parents, John Corapi and Jennifer Pippin, made it clear they were not toning down their rhetoric.

Corapi, who instigated the confrontation Jones was referring to that prompted School Board Chairman Brian Barefoot to halt the May 11 School Board meeting, blamed Barefoot and Vero Beach 32963 for the loss of his job with the Indian River County Chamber of Commerce – not his own behavior.

Corapi also called out Jones by her first name and falsely accused her of using the term “inciting an insurrection.”

Jones responded: “I did not say that. I did not say ‘insurrection.’”

But Corapi shot back inaccurately: “Yes, you did.”

Pippin, the lead plaintiff in an unsuccessful legal challenge against the school district’s mandatory facemask policy during the 2020-21 school year, defended Corapi and criticized the School Board.

“Anyone should be able to come in here and make a public comment and not worry about if they’re going to have their job the next day,” Pippin said. “That’s wrong and that’s on you.

“We have the right to speak on public sidewalks in front of any building, any home,” Pippin added, alluding to Corapi encouraging people to demonstrate in front of board members’ homes after the May 11 meeting. “So, it’s not a threat to your security, we’re not coming after you, if we want to do our First Amendment rights.”

Along with Jones, other School Board members said there needs to be greater effort to promote civil discourse during the public speaking periods at board meetings.

“I do think people get passionate and sometimes they’re frustrated and sometimes they say stuff I hope they wish they could have taken back,” said board vice chairwoman Teri Barenborg.

“I do know and we’re all aware of the fact that there have been some threats made,” Barenborg said. “We’re in that world now where people are used to saying whatever they want to say on social media and it doesn’t matter if you use the F-bomb, or whatever. We can’t allow something like that here.”

The board should consider posting rules for behavior at meetings, so everyone understands the goal of setting a good example for students, Barenborg said.

Board member Mara Schiff noted School Board meetings across the state and the nation are reportedly growing more heated.

“Political civility is quickly flying out the window,” Schiff said during the May 25 workshop. “People who got into jobs with the intent of doing good and supporting their communities are now feeling physically, emotionally, mentally threatened by the behavior of communities.”