Reeling from public criticism and media reports last week over her twitter account, which she uses to disseminate demeaning, at times bigoted, often false information, Flagler County School Board Chairman Janet McDonald Tuesday evening personally shut down a student’s speech during the school board’s first public comment period the moment the student mentioned her name critically.
Jack Petocz, a student in Flagler Palm Coast High School’s International Baccalaureate program, was allowed to deliver remarks at the end of the meeting, nearly three hours into the session. But only after the text had been self-censored and edited, purportedly in compliance with the board’s rules. Petocz cited the advice of two people to “redact” his statement. Those rules had raised questions as soon as they were issued. (See the full, unedited statement here.)
Both interventions stunned at least two of the school board members–Andy Dance and Colleen Conklin, who condemned McDonald’s move and called for a rewrite of the rules–producing one of the ugliest meetings of the board in recent memory. Dance called it “a low point” in his more-than decade-long tenure on the board.
“I felt like she was just changing the rules to push her narrative and prevent me from speaking my piece,” Petocz said after the meeting. “The fact that I even had to modify it so it didn’t say the ‘chair’ is honestly so despicable. When she interrupted me, I was trying to tell her that I was following all the rules but she shut me down. Even though she stated before if a rule was broken, which it wasn’t because I didn’t refer to her name or any specific pronouns, I would be given a warning. She just shut it down immediately.”
McDonald’s interventions were a culmination of issues she’s faced since she’s been asked to account for her public pronouncements. Last week and the week before articles in the Observer and FlaglerLive revealed a string of tweets and retweets McDonald posted on her 7-year-old twitter feed, many of them demeaning of or insulting protesters, the Black Lives Matter movement, public schools, gays, the media, liberals, the Covid-19 pandemic, vaccine science and others. Rarer is the tweet that indicates empathy or understanding for the groups her tweets and retweets seethe against.
The 6 o’clock meeting Tuesday evening was preceded by a nearly four-hour workshop of the school board, that one barely attended by the public. At the end of the workshop, McDonald said she wanted to address “all the furor that was in the media.” She said she regarded twitter “as just information sharing,” not an endorsement of what she posts. “As far as something you might have read in print, I want to reference Mark Twain: ‘If you don’t read the newspapers or any blog or anything else, or weekly, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper or a blog or a weekly, you are misinformed.’ So just so you know that I’ve had conversations with folks, and it’s not necessarily what I’ve said. I apologize for any angst that anybody experienced. I tried to clarify what was on whatever, social media, and it was twisted and turned. So I apologized to anyone who took that for truth.”
McDonald was again herself explicitly and repeatedly doing what she accuses others of doing: mischaracterizing, misinforming, misquoting.
If anything she had said in interviews was “twisted and turned,” she never said how, indicate any specifics, asked for any corrections or any clarifications, even though she was offered the chance. She was also offered an open invitation to respond to the “furor” in her own words, at any length she chose, without editing or filtering. She declined.
Twain, of course, never said what she claimed he said. She fabricated the quote to suit her ends which, had a student done so in an essay, would have raised serious questions of intellectual dishonesty and ethics. (“I didn’t know Mark Twain said all that,” Conklin told her after the meeting. “They had blogs back then?” Dance asked her, laughing. “I just figured, if it was the media, it was newspapers, it was stuff like that, it fit, anyway,” McDonald said.) If she had spent perhaps 30 seconds on the Internet verifying the original quote often attributed to Twain (“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do read it, you’re misinformed”) she would have discovered that Twain–whose career at many points depended on newspapers–never said that line, though it continues to be mis-attributed to him by unscrupulous columnists and others.
Nevertheless, despite being gently chided by her colleagues at the end of the workshop, McDonald again repeated the same quote, with the same attribution, as she opened the 6 o’clock meeting of the board.
The meeting then proceeded with its usual spotlights then segued into public comment. More than a dozen people had gathered outside before the meeting for a demonstration supportive of LGBTQ rights. Several of the individuals in the demonstration addressed the board, among them Randall Bertrand, the father of a transgender student whose case galvanized the local movement for LGBT rights in schools. Bertrand asked the board to rewrite a non-discrimination policy in light of Monday’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court recognizing that Title VII defines “sex” as including gender identity. The board had refused to include the words “gender identity” in its policy.
The last speaker was Petocz. “Throughout recent times,” he began, “hatred towards minority groups have become increasingly commonplace throughout our world. From the Trump administration’s continual pursuit of reversal of LGBTQ+ rights, to extreme and racially motivated police brutality, in states across our nation. Instead of utilizing her platform to speak out against this hate, the chairperson of the Flagler schools board has only amplified and supported discrimina–”
“I have to stop you, sir,” McDonald intervened. “ I made an announcement at the beginning that we cannot have individuals called out. I would really welcome a direct conversation with you. This is not the work of the board. This is an issue you have with me, and I acted individually as an educator sharing information by a social media platform.”
Again, McDonald was mischaracterizing: Petocz’s statement was referring directly to LGBTQ matters that had been before the board, and would continue to be–if McDonald allowed it. “So I’m going to have to stop,” she said. “This is not for the board meeting.”
In fact, when McDonald read the rules of decorum at the beginning of the meeting, she noted that “the chair may warn speakers” if there was a transgression from the rules–not cut one off and end the presentation. McDonald broke that rule, shutting down Petocz outright. When the rules were drafted earlier this year, and the board discussed them, board members–Dance and Conklin–had made clear that the naming of individuals applied only to individual students and staffers, not to board members.
Kristy Gavin, the school board attorney, did not speak up other than to say there were no more speakers. Conklin did speak up, though by then Petocz had walked off. “I understand that the use of a name was used during the comments,” she said. “The individual could have continued with his public comment whether we like it or not.” McDonald tried to interrupt. Conklin asked to be allowed to continue. Conklin said there’s room for disallowing people to call out individuals by name, but “we have to be careful in not allowing them to express themselves and share. If there’s a comment made, it’s not just about a tweet.” She said a warning should have been issued first. Soon afterward, Bertrand spoke up in protest from the audience and was approached by a sheriff’s deputy, but not taken out of the room. Gavin soon afterward called for a five-minute recess. She offered to Petocz to submit his unedited comment for the written record, but he said he wanted to deliver it in person.
The board resumed its scheduled business. Then came the second public comment period, when members of the public again were afforded the chance to speak, among them Bertrand, who stressed that the board is violating a person’s First Amendment rights when comments are restricted. “I highly recommend you retract that, because I’m done asking,” he told the board, “and if you choose to continue this action, I’m just going to tell you, you’d better lawyer up.” Case law is substantially on his side.
Another member of the public told the board that McDonald (without naming McDonald) had herself used board time “for personal gain and also for self-serving purposes” to explain and defend “personal actions, as well as time being used to express feelings of being misunderstood and misrepresented.” The speaker wondered about the double-standard “regarding rules and also regarding what’s acceptable conduct at board meetings.” Others echoed the sentiment. A few speakers later, Petocz spoke his statement–the sanitized version. McDonald was turned into “a member” of the school board.
In the board members’ closing segment, again only Dance, Conklin and McDonald addressed the issue, with Dance starting by reading a statement on the killing of George Floyd, the unarmed black man murdered by a police officer in late May. Dance then addressed McDonald’s shut-down.
He apologized to Petocz for “getting cut off earlier.”
“Tonight was kind of a low point for me on the board. It was tough,” Dance said. “I think there is a fine line between free speech and our board rules. I have never, as an elected official, I’ve never thought that our board policies, at least to me, any comments that were reflected to me, I mean, I sit and take them, I’m the elected official, that’s what I signed up for. But it’s really to protect our staff. Our staff isn’t the one that went out and ran for election.” Attacking staff shouldn’t be allowed, he said. “But as an elected official, I’ve gone through the process and I’ve put myself out there. If you’ve got something to say and you come up to the podium, I’m going to sit here and take it. So we as a board, based on tonight, we may have to again–I’m the one that says we’ve got to go back and review our processes. I think we need to look at our board rules in a future meeting and just to find what is acceptable and what’s not.”
“I’m sad by the tenor not just our board meeting this evening, but the tenor of what’s happening in our country right now,” Conklin said, calling for empathy and cooler heads. She agreed with Dance. “We all signed up for this,” she said, “but the emotion of the moment is not lost.” Turning to McDonald, she said what she knows of McDonald personally doesn’t match what she’s read in her twitter feed, “but I think that there is an opportunity to acknowledge that those tweets were very offensive to some in the community, and they were. They just were. And so I think that’s where that frustration is coming from. But I would encourage all of us to recognize that there is a place for civil discourse, that discourse doesn’t have to be negative, it’s an opportunity to open up and to learn from each other. That goes both ways.”
McDonald said “tweets, written expression, is so dangerous to put any stock in, it’s a frivolous kind of message.” She did not explain why she’s kept on tweeting, but blamed “blogs.”
“Happy first meeting,” McDonald told Cathy Mittelstadt, the new superintendent sitting through her first official meeting.
“Yes, a lot to digest, but I’m up for it,” Mittelstadt said.