An increase in incidents of parents being abusive and making threats to school employees over COVID prevention measures prompted the Estill County Board of Education on Thursday to issue a stern warning.
A “civility statement” from the school board said members were not trying to deny freedom of expression, but wanted to be clear about the possible consequences of parents abusing staff.
“In recent weeks, we have seen an increase of incidents where parents have been abusive to school employees and have made comments of a threatening nature. This is a direct violation of state law,” the statement said.
Estill Superintendent Jeff Saylor told the Herald-Leader the district had had phone calls and emails sent to principals and other school personnel about masking, quarantines and other coronavirus mitigation that he thinks crosses a line.
“We are not going to have school employees that are mistreated,” Saylor said
The statement said behaviors which could warrant further action include but are not limited to cursing and use of obscenities, disrupting or threatening to disrupt school, acting in an unsafe manner that could threaten the health or safety of others, verbal or written statements or gestures indicating intent to harm an individual or property and physical attacks intended to harm an individual or substantially damage property.
If an individual behaves in a discourteous and uncivil manner, employees can respond as needed. That includes hanging up on a caller, ending a meeting, asking a disruptive parent to leave school or calling the police, the statement said.
Employees are required to report all incidents which involve incivility to their administrators and to the superintendent. Incidents will be reviewed for further action by the superintendent including getting a restraining order.
Saylor said some families are upset their children have to wear masks and their children are being quarantined to prevent the spread of COVID.
A school resource officer was asked to investigate an incident in which a parent went to the high school and acted “very inappropriately with three staff members and (in) my opinion used threatening language that should not have been used” because they were upset about a COVID quarantine, Saylor said.
The parent was interviewed by a school resource officer. A principal asked them to leave the building, he said.
Saylor said there had been less than five threatening incidents this fall, but they have been “pronounced” and have been by phone, email or in person.
He wants to let people know “we were not going to tolerate that.”
After the civility statement was posted online by the district, dozens of comments followed both for and against COVID mitigation efforts at school.
Saylor took the civility statement to his school board for action in September and the district released it publicly Wednesday.
Josh Shoulta, a spokesman for the Kentucky School Boards Association, said he was not aware of other Kentucky districts issuing similar statements.
He said his group has seen a general increase in incivility and disruption at or around school board meetings in recent months, and “unfortunately that includes incidents of threats and intimidation of school board members and district personnel.”
KSBA is aware of incidents throughout the state – and across the country - in which local school board meetings have been disrupted,” Shoulta said.
“We are also aware of threats and intimidation of school boards and district personnel and even disruption of meetings to the degree in which they had to be adjourned. Illegal acts of any kind, including violence and intimidation of public officials or school employees will not be tolerated, and those responsible should be held accountable to the full extent of the law,” he said.
The setting of tax rates, facility planning, closure/consolidation of schools and adoption of board policies are prone to heated discussion, Shoulta said.
A lot of the increase in participation in recent school board meetings has been “driven by how schools are handling COVID mitigation,” Shoulta said.
“Passions run high over decisions that ultimately have major impact on our children and their futures. School boards do not take those decisions lightly, nor do they shy away from the difficult work that must be done,” he said.