Tensions over the transphobic and anti-Semitic comments at the Central Bucks school board meeting last month remained high as the board reorganized on Monday for next year.
But board chair Dana Hunter, who has been re-elected as board head, stood firm on her decision not to shoot the two residents during public comments at the Nov. 9 meeting.
Hunter responded to the public backlash at Monday’s reshuffle meeting, echoing comments she made last month that preventing someone from speaking at a public meeting was a violation of her constitutional rights.
âWe are obligated to hear public comment and we uphold the school board policy which sets the parameters for such public comment. However, we are not allowed to stop public comments because we think they are offensive. As chairman of the board, it’s not for me to publicly determine which comments are offensive and which hit the mark, âHunter said at the start of the four-hour meeting.
At last month’s meeting, a local resident claimed that a sexual assault earlier this year in a Virginia high school bathroom was due to an alleged transgender bathroom policy.
Towards the end of this public comment period, a second resident ranted against “Zionism and Communism” in the community.
Council director Karen Smith attempted to stop the second resident while he was speaking, and Hunter faced an almost immediate reaction for allowing the man to continue talking.
Hunter added on Monday that she would never tolerate “bullying, racism or discrimination of any kind.”
âSchool board meetings have become America’s verbal battleground, and the injuries sustained are affecting our community, our schools and our students. Ultimately, we have to find a way to move forward with respect and civility, âshe said.
Pennsbury case could impact all districts
From a legal standpoint, Hunter’s decision not to shoot down commentators last month was probably the surest measure to avoid a First Amendment violation, according to Melissa Melewsky, attorney for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.
âThere is absolutely no question that the offensive speech is First Amendment protected speech. The government cannot limit offensive speech, even if it finds it odious, âsaid Melewsky, an expert on Pennsylvania open files and meeting laws on Wednesday.
She added that just about any action to restrict the speech of a government agency will have First Amendment implications.
The Pennsbury School District is currently facing a federal lawsuit over alleged censorship of residents speaking out against certain council policies and actions earlier this year.
Learn more about the injunction in Pennsbury:Judge bars Pennsbury from applying parts of public comment policy in free speech case
The judge in that case recently issued an injunction that effectively bars Pennsbury from applying any of its policies on open meeting comments until this case is resolved.
Melewsky said the policies involved in this case are similar to those many school districts, including Central Bucks, adhere to.
Among these rules, the school board principal is permitted to stop a person’s comments for a variety of reasons, including “abusive, obscene or irrelevant” speech.
Central Bucks officials have indicated that these rules will likely be discussed in depth at a policy committee meeting in January.
Changes to meeting policies and on-the-fly decisions like Hunter’s Nov. 9 decision will likely be common as the Pennsbury case progresses, Melewsky added.
As school districts reconsider long-standing reunion policies, Melewsky said residents have a simple recourse if they hear offensive comments at reunions.
âThe answer to offensive speech is more speechâ¦ Anytime the (Ku Klux Klan) walks, for example, you’ll see counter-demonstrations. This is the First Amendment in action, âMelewsky said.
The Anti-Defamation League, which was directly mentioned by one person as being involved in a Jewish organized crime racketeering, condemned the statements and called on the district to issue a similar reprimand.
A response came about a week later, but only from current member Karen Smith and now former directors Jodi Schwartz, Lorraine Sciuto-Ballasy and Tracy Suits among the nine members seated on the podium that evening.
Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh also appeared to chide the divisive comments in a statement following a bomb threat thrown at Central Bucks High School South on November 16.
Learn more about the November 9 meeting:Transphobic, anti-Semitic comments disrupt Central Bucks meeting: “This is hate.”
CB responded to comments from the meeting:Central Bucks responds to transphobic and anti-Semitic comments: “We will have to crack down on vitriol, judgment and incivility”
Lucabaugh reiterated his call for a return to civility at school board meetings on Monday, a direct response to comments from last month’s meeting.
Central Bucks students have their say
A crowd of 110 arrived inside the school board meeting room at 16 Welden Drive on Monday, with a large crowd waiting outside due to the capacity of the meeting room.
The majority of public comments this week denounced what most described as “hate speech” and some said Hunter’s comments came far too late.
Suits and Schwartz, now members of the public, said Hunter and the entire board were asked to sign the statement the four members made and simply chose not to.
Suits agreed with a point made earlier in Monday’s meeting that public comments have become increasingly vocal and often offensive, but said public calls to expose the comments via dozens of emails were unlike anything the board had experienced in the past.
The two were also among several who referred to multiple requests to change the meeting location to Central Bucks High School West in the Borough of Doylestown so that more residents could attend.
This news organization was copied to an email sent by local resident Marlene Pray on November 21 in anticipation of a large turnout to respond to comments made weeks earlier.
Schwartz claimed Hunter told him the board had shown no interest in changing the location of the meeting. Schwartz also said some email responses to the public referred to a security concern as to why the venue would not change.
More than a dozen people had gathered outside the meeting hall three hours before the doors opened, nearly half of that crowd being students from the district.
“I’m here tonight because I’m sick of the board promoting hate over fear, fiction over fact and hate over acceptance,” said Anshul Shukla, 17, an elder of Indian descent in Central Bucks South.
Shulka said he was queuing up to attend the board meeting as early as 3:30 p.m. this afternoon.
Lilly Freeman, 15, a sophomore at CB East, said she wanted to express herself as a transgender Jewish student in the neighborhood.
Freeman said the apparent absence of a unified board of directors speaking out against last month’s comments only tells students like her that “we are not safe in this neighborhood and we are there. do not belong “.
Transgender training approved at CBSD:Central Bucks approves transgender staff training conference after delay in vote
Freeman and other students said the Nov. 9 meeting was only part of the larger issues affecting LGBTQ students and students of color in the neighborhood.
Meetings dating back to May have seen similar statements from students claiming that racial slurs go unpunished in the hallways and that their gender identity is ignored.
âI just wish I didn’t feel so endangered by the environment that the behavior the school board let slip has created in our schools,â Freeman said.
As the two-hour deadline for public comment came to an end on Tuesday, one of the commentators from the November 9 meeting began to speak, appearing to ask if he could address the board. .
Hunter asked the man to speak to him after the meeting.