The most shocking moment of Tuesday’s evening meeting of the Flagler County School Board actually took place moments before the meeting, in a room two floors up at the Government Services Building, where the board had just concluded a five-hour workshop.
Flagler County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Jason Neat walked in briskly with two other deputies, huddled with the board members and the superintendent in a corner of the room, and gave them directions about what to do for their safety and where to go should the meeting go off the rails, as it did when the board met on Aug. 17, when two school board members didn’t immediately follow deputies directions when commanded to go to a back room for their safety (one of them claiming she had not heard that direction).
Never in the school board’s history–never in the history of any local government, at least not in the last few decades–had the members of an elected board had to be warned and guided on retreating to a safe room.
The board room was filling up downstairs, again with some people bearing signs calling covid a hoax and ridiculing masks. Outside near the GSB’s entrance, a few demonstrators with American and “don’t tread on me” flags, rimmed with signs about “lawless mask mandates,” “bad test” and “bad data,” glared at anyone walking in or out with masks on. One of the men waving a flag had been at the Aug. 17 meeting, aggressively coughing on masked people as they walked by. Elsewhere in the parking lot, a group of people, some of them in approximation or fake body armor, gathered under flags–and near a television news van. One of the men wore a t-shirt with the logo of the so- allied “three percenters,” a far-right, anti-government militia group, at least six of whose members have been charged in the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol.
Many people who had planned to attend left before the meeting started or stopped short of attending, apprehensive about the hostile atmosphere. “My heart is heavy tonight,” Lisa Catalano wrote on the Flagler Parent Facebook page this evening. “September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and a proclamation was supposed to be read at the school board meeting this evening. Many of the families and children affected by childhood cancer in our County planned to attend. Unfortunately due to the volatile nature of the crowd, it was decided that this was not an appropriate environment for our children and we withdrew our participation. My son was diagnosed with cancer at three and has suffered through three and a half years of chemotherapy. Today when my husband arrived at the school board meeting with my son, a man said to them, ‘look at this child abuse,’ because my son was wearing a mask. I’m sickened that my sweet boy had to hear that. No matter what side of the issue you are on, there is no excuse for this behavior.”
Word of the children’s apprehension had spread through some of the audience by the time the meeting neared its end at 8:30 p.m., when the board opened the floor to a second segment of public comments. “I’m asking you to please consider amending your policies or enforcing the rules so that people who have opposing views feel safe voicing their concerns,” Courtney VandeBunte told the board. (She is a candidate for the school board next year.) “Every single rule on the last page of the agenda was broken tonight multiple times. And this is creating a hostile environment where parents and constituents are not coming to voice their opinions.”
Another speaker–Jessico Bowman, who was at the center of a previous set of mostly fabricated accusations against the district and the health department–called VandeBunte’s statement “gaslighting” and ridiculed her claims that anyone had been offensive to anyone else. Then she called for the resignation of School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin using words like “legal standing,” “civil procedure and jurisprudence” and various legal cases as she lectured the board on the law. “I’m a certified paralegal, so I’ll just straight up say that I’ve been to law school,” she said. But she finished her statement with a sentiment that had been on many people’s minds, including school officials: “I don’t know why we’re still having this conversation at this point.”
There was little excuse for the display of militancy: masking was not on the agenda. Nor was anything remotely connected to public health issues, covid protocols, or anything related to covid. The school board had made very clear at its previous business meeting that the issue was settled: there would be no mask mandate in Flagler County schools this year. Students and staff were free to wear masks if they so chose–or not.
Nevertheless, a long stream of anti-maskers addressed the board, along with some–but far fewer–pro-maskers still asking for a mandate.
Only three speakers had addressed the board before the meeting had to be recessed and the board members and their staff once again directed to the safe room in the back. It happened in part because the unguarded–and unwise–outburst by Colleen Conklin, one of the school board members, as a speaker talking about the “madness going on with masks” and wondering if masks were an attempt to “push Islam” on people went on to threaten that “good men are ready to do some bad things right now.” Conklin, breaking the board’s rules, interjected, starting to say something about a family member. That only provoked the man further.
“His time has expired, I recommend we have him escorted,” Gavin said. A deputy escorted the man out of the room. The meeting was recessed.
This time all school board members listened to the directions without mannerisms or grandstanding. But during the recess, the crowd was overheated, and “I would say on the edge of violence,” in the words of Mike Cocchiola, one of the people who would later address the board ( “The governor is not in charge of the Flagler County School System. You are,” he told the board in a rejoinder against a speaker who had claimed Gov. Ron DeSantis was in charge, not the president or the health department. “You speak for the students,” Cocchiola said. “You don’t speak for the moms. You speak for the students.”) Cocchiola sat between people who continued to be derisive–just not loud enough to be heard by the chairman or the attorney–and had to be escorted to his car when he left, not because he asked to be, but because deputies were concerned for his safety based on what they had heard.
The meeting reconvened about 10 minutes later, with Tucker turning to Conklin: “Ms. Conklin?” he asked.
“I just want to apologize and breaking decorum in breaking our own rules by speaking, so I’m sorry,” Conklin said. She would apologize a second time later in the meeting.
As speakers addressed the board, the crowd continued with the clapping, the unruly comments, the occasional jeers despite Tucker’s admonitions.
Earlier this month during a school board “retreat,” the consultant hired to facilitate the meeting admonished the board for its conduct at the Aug. 17 meeting. She then used the example of how a middle schooler addressed another school board that had let its meeting turn to bedlam–to make the point that a child was wiser than the board.
An almost identical situation unfolded this evening when a middle schooler addressed not so much the board as the room in general. “I can’t understand why we are so uptight about these mask mandates that we speak of,” the student said. “I am a middle schooler, and I walk past kids who don’t have masks every day. Does anyone say anything to them? No. Are we judging them? No.” She said all have the freedom to walk around and speak their mind. “So I shouldn’t be scared to come up here and speak for myself, as a kid. You guys are advocating for kids, so why not let the kids talk. You guys are letting us talk and I appreciate that. But I shouldn’t be scared to come up here and speak.”
On it went, with the usual disinformation about covid deaths being undercounted, masks being ineffective, liberties being infringed, or rejoinders from the other side calling for science, evidence–and a mask mandate. Some speakers were more performance art than rhetoric, as when a man calling himself “John Galt,” in an apparent appropriation of the Ayn Rand character, went through his bag to show all sorts of protective gear in order to end with a mask, to suggest that masks are ineffective.
Others were more threatening, as when a man told the board–and the cops in the room–to “Monitor your oath, because I’m gonna hold mine. Everybody in here is gonna monitor theirs as well.” He paused. “You guys can mess around and find out if you want.” He paused. “I’m waiting. Let’s run it.” He paused. He turned around. Asked the audience if anyone had an objection. He walked off.
Another man compared vaccination to “the yellow star”–the star pinned on Jews in Nazi Germany. Doug Russo, between sexist, homophobic, transphobic insults and other vile statements that the chairman and attorney let pass, taunted the deputies in the room, pointed at the superintendent, and leveled explicit threats: “There’s going to be a day when our Patrick Henry is going to stand up and he’s gonna say we’ve done all we can George, and it’s time to bear arms.”
When Conklin made her closing statement, conveying more evidence about the pandemic, she was interrupted, and Tucker had the man interrupting her escorted out.
Near the end of the meeting, Board member Janet McDonald intimated that students should not have to be quarantined if identified as close contacts by the health department. Board member Jill Woolbright–who’s insisted that state law be followed at every turn– suggested the Department of Health, a state agency under the governor’s authority, should not have to be relied on for testing as a gateway to returning to school. “We need to control the narrative, and the narrative is, we’re over the mask mandate,” Woolbright said. (Unlike at the Aug. 17 meeting, this time when directed to the back room before the first recess, both immediately complied.)
Board member Cheryl Massaro in her closing statement reminded the audience: “There’s no going back” on masks. The board had voted. “It’s not going to happen.” She also reserved a brief, angry outburst at Russo, who “doesn’t even live in this county,” she said. “And I’m not going to tolerate it, or him anymore. I was hoping he was going to be here, but he couldn’t keep his mouth closed long enough and that disappoints me because I had a few choice items for him.”
The school board members had logged a busy but calm five-hour workshop this afternoon, where the public comments were dominated by rezoning plans that are still in flux. The board’s evening meeting, which started at 6 p.m., finally ended at 9:30 p.m.