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School Board Meetings Mayhem: Mediating the Melee

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Joseph G. Jarrett
September 2, 2022

It was American humorist and author Mark Twain who was credited with saying, “In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards!” Now, my colleagues in the literature department would find me arrogant to disagree with this beloved author, however, my experience representing local school boards as an attorney and risk manager compel me to think differently. I have consistently found that most local school board members serve their communities by working to improve student achievement in their area’s public schools. Unfortunately, not everyone shares my opinion. In fact, with the advent of Covid-19, mask mandates or no-mask mandates, the teaching of critical race theory, and several other hot button issues, local school boards, that were for many years virtually ignored, now find themselves the center of attention. And, a good measure of that attention is negative, coming in the form of virulent and at times, violent behavior on the part of parents and other stakeholders appearing before them.

Recently, the National School Boards Association sent a letter to President Biden that read in pertinent part: “America’s public schools and its education leaders are under an immediate threat. The National School Boards Association (NSBA) respectfully asks for federal law enforcement and other assistance to deal with the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation occurring across the nation. Local school board members want to hear from their communities on important issues and that must be at the forefront of good school board governance and promotion of free speech. However, there also must be safeguards in place to protect public schools and dedicated education leaders as they do their jobs.” Although the NSBA ultimately apologized for the letter, it nevertheless prompted the United States Justice Department to assert, “Citing an increase in harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school board members, teachers and workers in our nation’s public schools, today Attorney General Merrick B. Garland directed the FBI and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to meet in the next 30 days with federal, state, Tribal, territorial and local law enforcement leaders to discuss strategies for addressing this disturbing trend. These sessions will open dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment and response by law enforcement.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation likewise weighed in on the subject by informing local school boards that “Threats of violence against school board members, officials and workers in our nation’s public schools can be reported by the public to the FBI’s National Threat Operations Center (NTOC).” Needless to say, I find it disturbing that unique institutions like locally elected school boards, which have been a hallmark of American public education for over two centuries, are under siege. More children attend elementary and secondary schools in the United States today than at any time in our Nation’s history. These children are, by and large, being taught in public schools managed by local boards of education. And, it has been my experience, as well as the experience of most of my school board peers, that school boards by and large conduct themselves honestly and professionally. However, some school boards are their own worst enemy when it comes to dealing with those outspoken, rude or hostile parents whose children’s education the board oversees. Although most school districts publish rules regarding the manner in which they conduct their public meetings, especially when it comes to the citizen comment portion of the meeting, many school boards don’t take time to educate the public as to the mechanics of these rules, nor do they provide training as to how to effectively present their concerns to the board. For instance, a school board can hold a workshop for parents or other stakeholders who wish to address the board, and suggest that the person(s) desirous to speak:

  • Learn when and where the school board is meeting;
  • Request a copy of the agenda in advance of the meeting (most state’s have public records laws designed for such a purpose);
  • Request a copy of the board’s public comment policy which will provide citizens with the length of time allotted, as well as whether the school board will engage the citizen;
  • Discuss a specific topic in the time allotted;
  • Be clear about what they want the school board to do, e.g., change a particular policy or introduce a new program or better support an existing one;
  • Follow up with a letter or testimony to the entire board, even if the stakeholder has previously spoken to an individual school board member, to reiterate one’s points.
  • Remind stakeholders that not all school board meetings are open to the general public. Most states permit school boards to meet in closed session to discuss threatened or ongoing litigation.

Along with assisting the public in effectively appearing before the board, the board must enforce its public comments policy consistently and uniformly, and have the wherewithal to eject from the board, persons who disrupt the governmental process, make threats of violence, etc.

In summary, the work that a school board puts in before its meetings is crucial to running successful meetings where business can be conducted in a civil and professional manner, while permitting the general public to have a voice. If a school district has proper (and legally defensible) policies in place, that ensure that the school board members and administrators understand their roles in school board meetings, and citizens wishing to speak know the rules of the game, a school board can go a long way in enhancing its relationships with parents, students and other stakeholders.


Author: Dr. Joe Jarret, J.D., Ph.D. is a former local government school board attorney who lectures on behalf of the University of Tennessee, Masters in Public Administration Program, and the Educational Leadership Program. He is the past-president of the East Tennessee Chapter of ASPA, and a former United States Army Armored Cavalry Officers with service overseas.

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