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.
The Voice Of Reason says
Russo is a complete douchebag. A childish piece of crap. Claims to be a pastor of a non existent church. I bet he preaches to his dog and worships tea party dog turd symbols.
Edith Campins says
What a disgusting clown show. The vulgarity, the rudeness was appalling. As for the pathetic ones in their camo clothes and pseudo military accouterments…their attempts to intimidate the citizens in attendance was a failure. Since they couldn’t make their point with their intelligence they chose to parade around like refugees from a survivalist retreat, impressing no one. And shame on Macdonald for her obvious encouragement of their antics.
Damn thos Liberals.
No- they are right wing whack-jobs!!!!
Steven Lamoureaux says
People are tired of the tyrants in this county
Then why do they so willingly bend over and present to republican candidates that clearly hate what this country stands for?
Jane Gentile-Youd says
Sick world we have become
This is just never gonna stop, is it.
I cannot believe the ignorance and audacity of many of Flagler county residents. I feel sorry for the children of these parents. These parents are appalling and an embarrassment.
David Schaefer says
Truth. And they allow that idiot with a 3% shirt in the meeting. A lot of people in this county need to move out to the cow pastures and live there. This county is one of the worst in the state still following their master Trump…..
Alda Gentile says
Thats a horrible thing to say not knowing the intention of many parents that were there!
Deborah Coffey says
Jane said “many” of the parents. And, THEIR intentions were more than clear. The question that needs to be answered is WHY they are so miserable with their lives that they exist in a perpetual state of rage. I can’t really wrap my mind around it but, a good guess might be that some people need to hold others in contempt in order to feel better about themselves…kind of like bullies.
Common Sense says
The wheels are really coming off the bus …..
Wheres the Tylenol…..
The dude says
These morons act as if they’re the only ones with AR’s… they aren’t…
They are low IQ and hanging on to the last vestiges of a dying gasping for breathe minority movement that will be flushed down the commode over the next 3 or 4 Elections where it belongs. The more antics that are displayed in public by the GQPS only plays in favor of their disappearing act which will be swift and thorough. Sure a few will still be around disrupting and making Fools of themselves on occasion. It just proves how stable some of us are. Get rid of the Elected Officials in your Local Govt. that provide a platform for these Anti Everything dingbats and Voila problem solved… Vote Accordingly Good Luck
Mike Cocchiola says
I have been to many circuses in my life, but none so full of clowns as this school board meeting. Actually, it was more like the 1988 campy movie Killer Klowns from Outer Space. Two of the Klowns sat in front of me grunting and loudly mumbling throughout the meeting. They, like others of their ilk in the room, were furiously loud, demeaning and uncontrollable.
We cannot let this unruly mob control the dialogue. We cannot let them intimidate regular thinking and caring citizens. They want us to give up in despair and let them control Flagler, Florida and America. That will not happen!
Another One Lost says
I don’t agree with you much politically, but anyone who is a fan (or even has heard of) Killer Klowns can’t be all bad. One of the most ridiculous, best/worst movies ever!
When all these extremist madness, bullying and intimidation going to stop (one of them coughing on peoples faces with his flag on hand.) is going to stop. Where is the freedom of choice and safety for the mask wearers…do not harass with your ridiculous snaking flag on us. These vociferous disrespecting minority denying the rights of the majority? Shame our government meetings turned into battlegrounds by these cultist allowed to break all rules. Worst when it comes to denied the right of choice and safety for our students.
Is this the same Doug Russo..? Why he comes armed to harass Palmcoasters when he resides in St Johns County? http://cleanupcityofstaugustine.blogspot.com/2017/07/st-augustine-preacher-doug-russo.html
Here we go again with this incompetent Flagler County School Board that are useless waste of taxpayers money. And once again MacDonald is at the helm of the madness.
They all need to go because they are not able to work as adults for the benefit of the children in Flagler County. How much more of this do we have to read before someone with intelligence steps in and puts a stop to it?
And they walk among us. Scary!
There called patriots, coming to a town near you,
John H Yankovich says
Board sent to a safe room! What ever happened to stand and deliver? What a bunch of pussy’s!!!!
Common Sense says
What a fine example these individuals are setting for their children. Acting irrationally, uncivilized, and without any boundaries.
Terroristic Intimidation is a tactic used by individuals and or groups to impose their view on others. It is not a form of civilized educated debate.
This what appears to be a group psychotic episode would be a psychiatrist playground.
This cult, like distorted reality will only continue to fester as the amount of “misinformation” continues to increase.
When you have uncaring close-minded, FaceBook believing people, you have stupid outcomes. And this is why we have people dying from this virus. It will stop, when all the anti vaxers are either dead or vaccinated.
Wondering why we are seeing so many from out of town coming here attempting to stir up trouble? Is the Sheriff looking into these people? Somebody had better be doing it. Many of these people do not live here. Those who threaten violence need to be arrested. You have the right to protest, you do not have the right to advocate violence.
Not safe in PC says
Exactly. Why isn’t the sheriff publicly speaking out against violent threats from these people? He needs to nip this crap in the bud.
What do you suppose he’d have done if the obnoxious ones were brown or black? Ha!
This town is a terrible place to live now. Bunch of spreadnecks and fascists.
What’s scary is that these fools live among us.
These are the same people that want to make women and LGBTQ+ second-class citizens. They hold their pro-life flags and scream that women have no control over their own bodies. They spew hate toward trans youth (and adults) by saying they have no choice over their bodies. They don’t want LGBTQ+ people to have any rights or freedoms. Yet, here they are, screaming about their body, their choice, and their freedom.
The hypocrisy runs deep in this crowd. They want all for them and for everyone else they want to decide how you live and love. But that sums up their mindset. They’d rather listen to the guy that said drink bleach and stick a lightbulb up your a$$ to cure covid, but won’t take the same vaccine he already took. They’d rather take their chance with sheep paste and iodine and heaven knows what else, instead of wearing a piece of cloth over their ugly pie holes.
At this point, you can’t fix stupid. You can’t even try. But I will remember when they start screaming about limiting the rights of others. When they say women have no right over their own bodies. When they say trans people, even kids, can’t decide for themselves how they want to live. Bodily autonomy goes all ways, and you can shut your mouth about anything that doesn’t concern or impact your own body.
Yup, I like to call them hypochrists!
William Moya says
“There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States”.
This is what early 1900’s Germany looked like folks. You all know the eventual outcome of that. Unfortunately the outcome of this new 21st century insanity will take down the entire planet. The United States’ untethered “free speech” will end all humanity as we know it. When America implodes, other countries will attempt to swoop in, nukes will fly, and game over for all of us.
Now pass that over. I need another toke!
Claudia Herr says
This is not the Flagler County we happily moved to over 20 years ago. Where is the excellence in education? Where is the civility?
I just can’t wrap my head around why FCSO deputies are coaching these people on how to behave at every meeting.
A virtual meeting would be safer and more productive for all on many levels.
What Else Is New says
Shallow, right wing Republicans (?) grandstanding and knowing nothing of which they speak. Gov. DeathSantis stands with them. Indeed a travesty. Thank you for your excellent reporting, Pierre!
Absolutely Ridiculous says
I am stunned at what goes on now at these school board meeting…it appears everyone has their own agenda and no one is thinking about the students at all. The students who are permitted to speak do so with more poise and respect than adults and shame on those who had the nerve to comment on the student wearing a mask. How utterly disgusting and selfish to not even be able to realize that maybe this was child had a health issue. The majority of this board is non-deserving of their salary. Is anyone concerned about actually making sure the students are getting a good education??
Bill C says
Shouldn’t Sheriffs deputies be stationed outside in the parking lot as well? If they are putting people in safe rooms they obviously think there is significant risk of violence and bodily harm. And deliberately coughing in people’s faces? To me that’s an assault, threatening with a deadly disease, the same as putting a gun in someone’s face, doesn’t matter if it’s loaded or not.
Bill C says
PS Isn’t making terroristic threats a crime also?
It certainly is. But we saw what happened on January 6th and how many were given slaps on the wrist. The Sherriff needs to do due diligence here before one of these wackos hurts someone.
Bill C says
Agreed. Seems like the Sherriff, by his inaction, is more concerned about protecting the “rights” of the bullying right wing extremists than those of ordinary citizens.
I think we can it’s inevitable where this is headed if the right wing extremists are allowed to continue, unchecked, to intimidate citizens who don’t agree with their point of view. Eventually someone is going to get hurt or killed.
Why, oh why, did we move to this canker sore of a county!? Time to look elsewhere. Or, perhaps COVID will solve this county’s issues and take the COVIDiots down. The virus is indeed culling the herd.
Common Sense says
While a lot of this behavior can be contributed to lack of sufficient education , and mental health and capacity related issues.
The one thing no one ever considers seriously outside the social media poke. The elephant in the room that all want to ignore, the internet as a whole.
The internet while it has provided so much for all of us has taken, no stolen so much more from each and every one of us.
It allows for the perversion , distortion and overindulgence of any topic or subject. Common know facts, written history, and science are continually twisted, and warped. It has given the closet schizophrenia narcissist a legitimate platform. While providing total anonymity. Holding us hostage as they prey on our emotions and fears.
It’s a rabbit hole we all have gone down one way or another. There are some though that loose there identity and values along the way lost in the abyss of the internet.
Maybe the people that were threatened and coughed on should press charges. If you let these fools get away with this, they will think its ok. The sherriffs department is coddling idiots and letting low IQ morons threaten them. Not a good look. Wonder what would have happened if they were a minority. Scary.
I remember when Lisa Catalano and her husband got the news about their son. They are wonderful caring parents and how dare that SOB make that comment about child abuse. Mr. Catalano was a responsible adult by not responding to that piece of crap. I probably would have been arrested for popping the guy in the mouth. If you do not want to wear a mask then don’t but leave those alone who choose to wear one. Shut the hell up.
Just Curious says
Curious if any local elected official or working public servant has ties to extremist groups? Perhaps this can help clear up any confusion … https://ddosecrets.com/wiki/Epik
I agree with let the kids speak. Both Anti maskers and pro maskers take it to far. Kids needs more of a voice
TEAL TRUTH says
So many ignorant comments. The untreated survival rate is better than 99%. Wake up to the control they have over you for being sheep.
Tell that to all the Dead and their Families Globally. Drink more Koolaid refuse a mask and breath deeply TY Bye now
Bob Rollins says
I more worried about these right wingers than I am of Covid. And I’m very worried about Covid.
Honestly I don’t care who wears a mask and who doesn’t. I don’t care who is vaxed and who is not. My biggest problem with all of this is while in a grocery store and seeing people in masks remove the mash cough many times into their hand and then put mask on while touching everything the hand they just coughed into. I’ve seen it so many times it’s unreal. When I say something say “well why aren’t you wearing a mask” or “I’m not sick”.
Sad state that our country is in.
Timothy Patrick Welch says
Illinois – (mask mandate still in affect, resident vac rate: 54%) hospitalization rate .012%
Florida – (resident vac. rate: 59%) hospitalization rate .015%
Considering Florida has more elderly and more vacationers (non-residents) than Illinois, masking has little effect on the hospitalization rates.