Harford County’s school board will switch to virtual meetings for the foreseeable future after an unruly protest against masks to protect against the coronavirus disrupted its August session, according to a Harford County Public Schools release.
School board president Rachel Gauthier said in a video message posted Wednesday that some attendees of the board’s meeting Aug. 16 employed “deliberate tactics” to disrupt the meeting, including shouting profanities, speaking out of turn, banging on windows, not complying with building mandates and “physically assaulting Harford County employees.
“This is unacceptable to the members of the board, and we anticipate that our community at large joins us in the sentiment that this behavior will not be tolerated,” Gauthier said in the video. “No one should have to fear being assaulted at their workplace.”
Gauthier said it was regrettable the actions of a few people will affect others, but she would not put school personnel at risk. The board will accept virtual public comment at its meetings, which attendees can sign up for on the board’s website.
The board’s next meeting is Monday, and all staff, board members and presenters will convene virtually.
Each person will be allowed three minutes for public comment, but board policy allows it to reduce the time given to each speaker if allowing three minutes “will impede the Board’s ability to complete scheduled business,” the school system said in a news release.
Given the number of speakers at previous board meetings, the time given to each speaker is likely to be shortened, according to the school system, and it advised speakers to prepare for that likelihood.
The board also has the ability to remove speakers for disparaging comments, personal attacks and inflammatory remarks about specific schools or personnel, the release said.
“We are working to determine how we will move forward with public comment at our board business meetings,” Gauthier said. “Until a system that ensures order and safety for all in attendance is established, we will continue to provide the opportunity to participate in virtual public comment.”
The school system’s decision to mandate masks in schools sparked the protest at the board meeting Aug. 16. More than 100 people attended, many of them shouting and angry. The crowd inside the building grew so unruly that Gauthier had to suspend the meeting and clear the room.
Video of the protest showed one woman hop over a railing behind a security guard blocking a ramp up to the building’s door. She then yanked a child underneath his outstretched arms and shoved him in the back.
The crowd also jeered at pro-mask supporters outside the August meeting, and Bel Air police officers escorted those supporting masking to their cars. Video shows anti-mask protesters following and screaming at them, even with police present.
County school board mask debates in Maryland largely may be moot with a pending vote in Annapolis next week.
The State Board of Education voted in late August to mandate masks in schools throughout the state, but the rule can’t go into effect until approved by a joint committee of state delegates and senators that reviews emergency regulations.
The Joint Administrative, Executive and Legislative Review Committee is required by law to wait 10 business days to vote — until Sept. 14 in this case.