Bad behavior at school board meetings? Wake wants to crack down on the worst offenders

The Wake County school system wants to crack down on bad behavior by speakers at meetings and explicitly warn disruptive people that they face criminal charges if they don’t leave when directed.

The school board’s policy committee backed policy revisions on Tuesday that say speakers at board meetings “must refrain from personal attacks and insults.” The revised public participation at board meetings policy also authorizes the board chair to rule speakers out of order and direct them to leave the podium.

The updated policy also spells out that criminal charges are possible if people who disrupt board meetings refuse to leave when ordered by the board chair.

Board members said changes are needed because behavior has become less civil at board meetings.

“What we’ve seen is especially when these are directed even at potentially children, it’s just out of line and out of order,” said board vice chair Chris Heagarty. “So I do think we need directive language.”

The full board could vote on the policy changes in November.

Heated board meetings

Large numbers of speakers regularly sign up to speak at school board meetings. .

Many of the comments revolve around accusations that schools are promoting an LGBTQ agenda. Speakers often read explicit passages from books they say should not be in school libraries.

There have been so many speakers lately that the board has enforced a rule that it will only have 30 minutes of public comment at the start of the meeting. The remaining speakers have to wait until the end of the meeting.

The board has also begun requiring people at board meetings to stay in their seat unless they’re at the podium.

Despite recent tensions, people haven’t been arrested at Wake school board meetings since 2010-11. Back then, protesters were arrested for disrupting board meetings over the board’s efforts to dismantle busing for diversity.

David Eisenstadt was among 19 people arrested at a Wake County school board meeting in this 2010 file photo. The school board is considering a policy revision warning people they face criminal charges if they disrupt meetings.
David Eisenstadt was among 19 people arrested at a Wake County school board meeting in this 2010 file photo. The school board is considering a policy revision warning people they face criminal charges if they disrupt meetings.

School board chair Lindsay Mahaffey says she can’t recall charges being filed against anyone for their actions at board meetings during her seven years on the board.

Asking speakers to refrain from personal attacks

The board’s current public participation policy already says speakers “are encouraged to refrain from personal attacks and insults of board members, staff and members of the audience.” The new wording changes it to “shall refrain.”

Board attorney Neal Ramee says criticism, especially of elected officials, is protected under the First Amendment.

“You have to have something of a thick skin to be an elected official,” Ramee told the board.

Ramee said the board can use a lower threshold when speakers attack audience members..

But board member Cheryl Caulfield questioned how they’d regulate insults from speakers. For instance, she said people on opposing sides have used terms like “grooming” and “bigot” during public comments.

“Where do we draw the line where it goes from insult to criticism?” Caulfield said.

Disturbances at board meeting

The current policy says “persons who willfully interrupt, disrupt, or cause disturbances at an official meeting may be directed to leave by the presiding officer.” The policy also says “disruptions by any person or persons of a public meeting will be subject to action in accordance” with state statute.

But new wording added Tuesday by board members and staff say that:

Speakers who violate this policy may be ruled out of order and directed to leave the podium.

Refusal to leave a meeting after being directed to leave by the presiding officer may result in criminal charges in accordance with state statute.

“You cannot be ejected from a meeting simply because you violate rules of order and decorum once,” Ramee said. “You have to be instructed to leave the meeting by the presiding officer. That’s statutory.

“If you refuse to leave after that, you’re a trespasser and can be arrested and escorted off premise. Let’s hope that never happens.”

Limits on signs at meetings

Groups have also been bringing signs to meetings. In particular, the Pavement Education Project has brought signs with a QR code for the group as speakers complain about the books in libraries.

Board members complained that signs are left on view of the meeting camera even after speakers are finished.

“People are pushing the envelope on signs,” said board member Tara Waters.

After some discussion, board members added new wording on Tuesday saying speakers must return to their seat with the sign they brought to the podium.