Flagler County School Board members for the first time Tuesday and in a pair of meetings publicly addressed the March 3 walkouts and suspensions at Flagler Palm Coast High School and Matanzas High School protesting the Legislature’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
If “the kids were great up there,” as Board member Jill Woolbright described the walkout she witnessed at Matanzas, it was a different story on the School Board.
Woolbright flagrantly mischaracterized the superintendent’s pre-walkout briefing to board members and blamed the administration for allegedly keeping her in the dark–about what, she never made clear, though on operational matters it is inappropriate for school board members to meddle. She claimed, without evidence, that there were “huge, huge safety issues at both schools.”
School Board member Janet McDonald openly asked for closed-door meetings to discuss such matters as the walkouts, though that would be illegal, indicated that the walkouts should not have been allowed, and said her pride in the district stopped on March 4, the day of the walkouts.
Both board members made unfounded allegations about security issues–the only unauthorized individual to enter either schools during the walkout was McDonald’s husband–and asked for a review of the policy and procedures controlling student walkouts and the like.
But they drew sharp and immediate push-back from Superintendent Cathy Mittlestadt, who drew a bright line in the sand. Policy is under the board members’ purview. Procedures–how administrators and staff handle anything–are not: that’s the superintendent’s purview.
By law, school board members are barred from interfering with the day-to-day running of schools, with telling any administrator or staff (from teachers to principals to cooks to custodians), or with using their position to effect any form of decision-making at a school-based level. Other than policy-making, they may only channel their wishes through the superintendent, with the consensus of the entire board.
Woolbright and McDonald have been creating their own gray areas, potentially skirting or transgressing what Mittlestadt refers to as proper “lanes.” The workshop discussion that followed, emphasized at the evening meeting later, revealed to what extent two board members are leveraging their positions to insinuate themselves in the day-to-day running of schools or to second-guess administrative decisions that don’t go their way. They are the only two board members who attended the walkouts, one at each school. They did so not in a supportive but a prosecutorial mode, as their reactions showed during Tuesday’s meetings.
“So let’s be careful, board,” Mittlestadt told the two board members, “because to discuss operationally how we handled that, managed the situation, I don’t know that that’s a public conversation. I think what’s more important is, we as a senior leadership team, working with our school-based leaders, are looking at recommendations for developing a standard operating procedure if we have an event like this again in the future, so our leaders know how to manage something and keep it in a good place.” That could lend itself to policy language and the code of conduct, but until then, the board members could not second-guess the administrative workings of the schools, operationally.
“No conversation about whether policy was followed or not?” Woolbright asked.
“I asked for an executive session on that and got nowhere,” McDonald said, using the words for a closed door session. She got nowhere because it would have been illegal: the board may have closed-door sessions only to discuss pending litigation, contract negotiations with their two unions, specific disciplinary cases involving specific students, or to review tactical security procedures that keep students and staff safe–not to review an event like the March walkout or debate whether the administration handled it properly or not. Board Chairman Trevor Tucker reminded his colleagues that they had to keep student privacy in mind: that, too, was why discussing the event’s procedures was not a board purview.
“This is an operational and administrative issue,” Board member Colleen Conklin said. The policy, she said, “has worked for years, through multiple events that are similar to this. But as far as I’m concerned, this is operational and administrative. And we need to stay in our lane.” McDonald, again without evidence, said the policy was “violated in numerous ways.”
“Some people may feel that way and others may not,” Conklin said.
Contrary to McDonald’s and Woolbright’s claims, the record indicates that there were no serious safety issues at either schools. There was one brief incident involving a small group of students who got into a confrontation over a Trump flag. The incident, which involved the alleged choking of a student (a claim disputed by the assailant) was investigated by the Sheriff’s Office and the school administration, it was reported in detail here and elsewhere, it led to at least one brief suspension, but it caused no injuries, and all parties involved declined to press charges against each other because they expressly stated that they did not want to blemish each others’ records: the students, in other words, ultimately handled it as much as the administration did.
Beyond that incident, a thorough verification of the sheriff’s record, as of today, pointed to zero additional incidents or calls for service at either school, while from within the district and the schools, Board Attorney Kristy Gavin said only one other situation had been reported, and it proved unfounded. “It was alleged statements made on a bus, like somebody overhearing something,” Gavin said. “There were people talking about the walkout and people talking about other things, so whatever got overheard, they blended the two issues together, kind of like that telephone thing.” Beyond that, the attorney said, “I don’t believe there’s anything outstanding,” other than the administration going through its own debriefing and analyzing what concerns there may have been, what can be done better, and so on.
For board members to claim that there were “huge” safety issues at either walkout, in other words, is sheer fabrication–but alarming fabrication, because the two board members are using that very claim as the basis for a policy rewrite–and as a basis for Woolbright’s subsequent attack on the administration and the superintendent in particular. That took place during Woolbright’s closing comments at the evening meeting on Tuesday, when she may have been smarting from the superintendent pushing back against her at the afternoon workshop–twice, and in no uncertain terms, when Woolbright claimed there’d been safety issues.
“So again board, I just caution us to think about operationally, and I’m the superintendent and I worked with my staff and the leaders to stay within the lanes of your school board policies and our Code of Conduct,” Mittelstadt said. “We had two events that occurred. We manage that. From that, if I’m hearing that you want language changed in the school board policy, I lean to the direction of the attorney to make sure that as we make a recommendation, it is what you choose to move forward. But to have a public conversation about what we perceive to be a violation of something: we’ve already managed that. We’ve already managed that.”
“So how do we manage it for the public?” Woolbright pressed.
“We can’t address code of conduct, as board chair said, regarding FERPA manners,” Mittlestadt said, referring to the The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. “That is not to be discussed in a public forum.” If students don’t feel safe, they can address that at the school.
Conklin and Massaro had no interest in reviewing the policy in question. Woolbright and McDonald did. Tucker joined them, only to the extent that he did not want to oppose any policy review as a matter of principle, but he insisted: “I’m okay reviewing policy 522. It is just the policy. We’re not going to get into that event that day at all,” Tucker said.
“Every time we have a new circumstance, we always try to figure out how we’re going to be better from it,” Mittelstadt had said as a preface to the discussion. “So from this event, it could be an opportunity that we bring forward at a workshop discussion opportunity regarding the language of 522 that addresses a walkout or protest on behalf of students. And then does that even align with maybe making some tweaks to our code of conduct?” The administration is exploring those issues and may bring some new language to a workshop addressing either the policy or the student code of conduct.”
A few hours later, at the evening meeting, the same board members again went on the attack, this time ridiculing the students who took part in the walkouts as McDonald made her wishes explicit: she’d wanted the walkout banned.
“I believe as a district we failed our students on the third [of March] and the second and the first in order to redirect them to a more purposeful, productive and educational handling of the situation,” McDonald said. She then claimed, with no evidence, that students “had no idea what the legislation was about” and called them “immature adolescents thinking that they had made a statement.” (Massaro conceded that some students may not have known what they were protesting about, but “at least half did.”)
“Their statement was not received well by the community. And I think as educators and board members, we failed our students,” McDonald continued. “There were requests from the community, from board members to not allow those events to happen.” There may have been, but McDonald appeared not to understand that neither board members nor the “community” had the authority to decide whether students had the right to protest or not. “I was very proud of Flagler schools until the third of March and it breaks my heart,” she said.
Woolbright was equally accusatory, claiming she had sought information about the walkout and was denied it until the morning of the event. “At four o’clock in the morning we all got–the board finally got an email that there was going to be a walkout, that’s pretty much all it said,” she said.
Woolbright was being dishonest. The email she was referring to came from the superintendent. It transcribed the segment of the policy addressing walkouts, which are subject to serious disciplinary action, but also noted that “in the past our school administrators have successfully worked with students who have held walkouts to take part in a peaceful protest, while not interfering with the learning environment of students who do not wish to participate. That is the same in this case.” One such walkout was organized on Feb. 21, 2018, a week after the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas high school massacre, when some 200 students at FPC and Matanzas walked out for 17 minutes, in commemoration of the 17 lost lives at the Parkland school and to protest the absence of better safety and gun control measures. At Matanzas, the students walked the track. At FPC, they gathered in the gym, where school officials actually encouraged the students to write legislators for more safety in schools.
No school board member protested the walkout. None would have dared. But the precedent was set.
Mittlestadt’s email went on to explain to board members, over four paragraphs, that district and school-based administrators worked with both Matanzas and FPC “to establish a plan of action to allow for the student protest, while not disrupting other students who prefer to not take part,” and to ensure the safety of those who would take part. She described the necessity of an “open line of communication” between student leaders and administrators and teachers, and the importance not to marginalize students’ concerns “or upending the learning environment for other students.” And she described the procedure to be followed–and the consequences if procedures were not followed.
What it did not say–what Woolbright and McDonald appeared to be complaining that it did not say–was that the walkout would be prevented.
Massaro and Conklin defended the walkout and the way they were handled by the administration. “Needless to say, they don’t shed their rights at the schoolhouse door,” Massaro said, echoing the celebrated words of Justice Abe Fortas in a 1969 decision upholding the right of a 13-year-old girl to protest the Vietnam War at school (three students wore a black armband to school. They were suspended.) “Students have rights. They have rights.” Massaro reminded her colleagues of their own lectures about students’ rights not to wear masks. “How long did we hear that?” she said. “High school students, they’ve demonstrated and protested as long as I can remember. This is not the first time this happened in Flagler. It is not. It was handled by our professionals. And that’s what they should do.” Students, she said, “are always going to do what they’re going to do. We just have to figure out how to work best with them,” even if at times a protest could be diverted into other means of expression.
Conklin, after calling out her colleagues for abusing their authority (“Do I think some people crossed the line into operations, and that’s not their responsibility or their role”) alone spoke in defense of Jack Petocz, the student leader who organized the walkout. “We have a student that, yes, has become an advocate. And I don’t think he should be disrespected for that. He’s a young man. He is a student. He is learning and he is passionate about his voice because he feels he was treated wrongly. Let’s stop trying to say that it doesn’t matter because it matters to some students.”