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An Echo Press Editorial: Disrespect at board meetings needs to end

By the Echo Press Editorial Board

We are part of The Trust Project.

The Alexandria School Board deserves credit for seeking a better way of dealing with public comment periods that get out of control.

Board members on Monday night decided to halt in-person public comments for the next two months while they explore options that would address the disrespectful and mocking comments that have disrupted recent meetings.

It’s important to note that the board is by no means shutting down all interaction with the public or their feedback. Citizens can send emails summarizing any concerns or questions they have. They can also contact school board members or the administration.

It’s great that parents and other community members are attending school meetings and sharing their thoughts about their children’s education. The issue is how some of them are presenting their ideas and not showing respect for others.

At the board’s Dec. 20 meeting, a group of parents repeatedly interrupted a parent who was trying to address the board about racism. They berated the speaker’s comments, intimidating her to the point that she later requested a police escort to her vehicle – all because her views didn’t square with their opinions.

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People shouldn’t feel under attack for simply expressing their thoughts at a public meeting.

Similar outbursts have taken place at other recent School Board meetings about wearing masks, getting vaccines and following COVID mandates, but the Dec. 20 meeting sank the discussion to a new low.

Emotions can run high at meetings and that’s OK – as long as the discussion doesn’t devolve into heckling and harassment. Some suggestions: Before they begin talking, speakers should clearly state their name and address. Disruptions should not be allowed, period. Strict time limits should be adhered to – and enforced – so more people have a chance to express their thoughts. No personal attacks should be allowed. Each new speaker shouldn’t bring up concerns that have already been addressed. There should be no clapping, booing, shouting or other outbursts, period. As a last resort, those who don’t abide by the rules should be escorted away from the meeting.

It’s a shame that rules such as these have to be considered in the first place. Adults should act like adults, not like children fighting in a sandbox. It all comes down to civility and respect, which, in these divisive times, appears to be increasingly difficult to find. The Alexandria School Board isn’t giving up, though. In the next few weeks, the board and administration will research how other schools allow for public comments and try to find a solution that brings back a more respectful exchange of ideas. Board member Dean Anderson pointed out that there’s a “negative momentum” at meetings that needs to stop. Searching for solutions that balance public comments with rules of decorum is a good place to start.

It’s important to realize that public boards do not have to allow public comments at meetings. Minnesota’s open meeting law gives the public the right to attend public meetings of public bodies in order to watch and listen to the proceedings but it does not guarantee the right to speak at an open meeting. If a public body chooses to allow public comments, the body can set the rules for commenters.

Public comments can be enlightening – an opportunity for the public to share their ideas or express a concern. It’s an opportunity the public shouldn’t waste.

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