Amid anti-mask mandate protest, Scottsdale Unified board members hold modified meeting

Officials with the Scottsdale Unified School District say they made some modifications to a board meeting on Aug. 24, due to concerns over protests.

"The Governing Board will meet in person at Coronado High School, the usual location of its regular, monthly meetings. Staff members who are needed to address specific agenda items will be permitted in the Boardroom. However, no members of the public will be permitted in the room other than during the Public Comment section of the agenda. One individual at a time will be invited in to address the Governing Board," read a portion of the statement.

Official expresses concerns over safety

According to a statement released by Scottsdale Unified School District Board President Jann-Michael Greenburg, the school district's administration was informed by Scottsdale Police officials they they were monitoring ‘chatter’ on social media and elsewhere related to the meeting.

"It is my understanding that since our May 18th meeting ended as a result of a mask protest, plus the fact that we expect a large anti-mask protest tomorrow night and given the arrest and guilty plea of a protester at our board meeting last week and other incidents, SPD recommended that we alter how we structure tomorrow night’s meeting," a portion of the statement read.

Greenburg said he has seen an escalation of incidents within the district, including an incident where a person was littering school properties with neo-Nazi propaganda three times before the person was arrested, and protests on Aug. 20 at two schools, where a protester told students that COVID-19 is a ‘Chinese Bioweapon’ and encouraged students to not wear masks.

"Given the tone of social media comments that I have personally seen, I am concerned that a small portion of our public is creating a culture and climate that can quickly lead to violence. We have already seen how other school board meetings across our country ended in physical assaults and even a stabbing," read a portion of the statement released by Greenburg.

May 18 meeting ended in chaos

The May 19 board meeting that Greenburg mentioned in his statement descended into chaos, with some of the attendees refusing to wear masks. At the time, Scottsdale Unified had a mask mandate, which expired on May 27.

"What I quickly saw occurring, and what our administration quickly saw occurring, was intimidation and concern for physical safety," said Greenburg at the time.

Scottsdale Unified officials say many of the people who disrupted the May 18 meeting were not from the Scottsdale area, and they say based on indication from social media chatter, they will likely return for the Aug. 24 meeting.

Scottsdale Police Chief Jeff Walther, on May 21, said some of the people involved in the meeting's disruption were seen in similar meetings elsewhere.

"We saw some of the same folks on the 18th at the SUSD Board meeting that they saw in Peoria, that they saw elsewhere. Same names, same faces, gathering supports or followers to participate in the meeting that are not connected to Scottsdale," said Chief Walther at the time.

SUSD recently reinstated mask mandate amid rising COVID-19 cases

This latest development came following a decision by the district to reinstate its mask mandate.

According to numbers provided by the school district, there were 12 cases of COVID-19 during the first week of classes, and that number increased to 66 cases in the second week, and 142 in the third week.

"It's a passionate debate, and it's important," said Greenburg. "While parents have to do whats best for their child, I have to do whats best for the SUSD family as a whole, and that's where that friction comes in."

Petitions to recall four of the district's governing board members, all of whom voted in favor of the mandate, have been filed. Greenburg is among the members named in the recall petition.

"The board has a history of ignoring parents, shutting out parents, and we want to take back our parental rights and be the voice for choice," said Amanda Wray. "We are not anti-mask, we are not anti-vaccine, but we are in favor of parents making the choices that they deem appropriate for their family, and not having a school board dictate what is best for our children."

Some protested while others thanked the district

Scottsdale Unified's board meeting on Aug. 24 did indeed drew protestors.

"It just feels wrong that we are being forced to wear masks. It should be a choice," said one man.

Others, however, expressed their frustrations over the mask use controversy. One parent, Alison Siegel, talked about how her son has to stay home because a family member is immuno-compromised.

"He wanted to go back to be with his friends, and I couldn't consciously enroll him because I knew this was going to happen," said Siegel. "All these people who say they care about other people's children, but only really care about their own."

Profanity uttered by Greenburg sparked controversy

The meeting took an unusual turn at one point, when a woman, during the public comment period, accused school district officials of orchestrating the neo-Nazi incident that Greenburg mentioned.

"I want everybody to know that that was actually one of your own employees that chose to drop that around," the woman said.

"I'm sorry. That isn't true. I just want to be very clear that that isn't true," Greenburg retorted.

"I don't think you're allowed to speak during my comment! Am I wrong? I'd like to have some time at it" the woman replied.

"You can have time at it, but I want to be very clear to people that it's not true," Greenburg said.

After the woman was finished with her comment, Greenburg once again refuted her accusation.

"I just want to be very clear, for the record, that no employee was involved in the neo-Nazi propaganda incident. That is incorrect," Greenburg said. "That is a reference to a pre-existing investigation that was not concluded. It has since concluded, and no SUSD employee was involved."

Immediately thereafter, Greenburg quietly uttered the profane word, which was captured by microphones in the meeting room.

In a statement released by School District Superintendent Dr. Scott Menzel on Aug. 25, it was acknowledged that Greenburg was the one who uttered the profanity.

"He acknowledged that later in the meeting and apologized," read a portion of the statement. "The district is committed to offering opportunities for the public to share their opinions and to listen to them respectfully as we work to meet the needs of our students while navigating the challenges of COVID."

Greenburg also apologized during a latter part of the meeting.

School board meeting disruptions happening more often

Scottsdale Unified is far from the only district to have had a meeting disrupted recently. According to various reports by the Associated Press, school boards in Delaware, Nevada and New York have seen meeting disruptions in August over the issue of masks.

The Associated Press is also reporting that in parts of the country, anti-vaccine and anti-mask demonstrations are taking scary and violent turns.

Educators, medical professionals and public figures have been stunned at the level at which they have been vilified for even stating their opinion, and they have been terrified over how far protesters will go in confronting leaders outside their homes and in their workplaces.

Some experts say social media may be to blame

Researchers, professors and political experts have varying opinions about how and why discourse seems to keep plunging to new lows over the pandemic, but many agree that social media is a big factor.

Barbara Rosenwein, professor emerita at Loyola University Chicago and author of "Anger: The Conflicted History of an Emotion," said social media can make minority views look more like the majority. On the many social media platforms, people validate each other’s anger as being from a just and righteous place.

"Over time the possibility of feeling righteous anger has become democratized. Everybody feels almost obligated to feel it," Rosenwein said. "That locks you into a position that will allow for no compromise, which is terrible for our country."

That anger also makes it seem OK to buck authority such as teachers and government at a time of heightened culture wars on topics like education. Getting punished or even arrested might feel like "a badge of courage," she said. "I don’t think these people are running into old-age homes and telling granny she better not get vaccinated. I think they’re telling the school teachers because teachers represent an elite that’s teaching their kids."

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.

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