Safety Planning for Volatile School Board Meetings
These strategies will help maintain security during school board meetings, protecting board members from potentially violent acts by disgruntled parents and other community members.
With the United States in its 18th month of the COVID-19 pandemic, the K-12 school safety and security issues now at hand are parents attending school board meetings to protest mask mandates in schools. Yes, parents speak at school board meetings in favor of masks, but as a rule, they are not the ones screaming profanities, making threats or disrupting meetings.
Yes, it’s important for parents to be able to come to board meetings to represent what they believe is in the best interest of their children. However, disrupting a public meeting, disorderly conduct and menacing others are crimes. The increasing prevalence of these types of behaviors means schools and districts need to have safety plans for board of education (BOE) meetings. When creating safety plans for BOE meetings, follow the same phases of emergency management we use for all identified hazards.
Can BOE members and administrators park their vehicles in a secured area? Depending on the size of the facility, can their vehicles be parked at a location away from general parking?
Look at the room where the board meets. What is the maximum occupancy of the room? If your room has an occupancy of 150, make sure there are only 150 seats. This includes BOE members, administrators, the media and all those who want to attend the meeting. As a school or district, it is your responsibility to make sure you do not go over the occupancy number.
We do not want to put this responsibility on our law enforcement agencies or fire departments. Although first responders are allowed by state and local code to enforce occupancy code, it puts those agencies in a position where community members believe they are enforcing a code because they are taking the side of the BOE.
As the room fills, keep track of the number of seats left. Once the room is at capacity, let people know and do not allow any more to enter.
We do recommend law enforcement presence at your meeting. Have the officer stand at the entrance. You can explain to those outside that the room is now at capacity and no additional people can enter without violating fire code. Parents often bring small children who sit on their lap, and this causes us to go over the occupancy level. Since we are over capacity, when a person leaves the meeting, we do not allow others to come in and take their place.
We require all in attendance to be in a seat during the meeting. This does not mean parents won’t get on their feet when expressing their opinions, but starting the meeting with everyone seated means we keep aisles clear and we can do a visual check to see we are not above capacity.
Before the meeting starts, the board president should read a prepared script describing how public input will be handled, expectation of behaviors for all in attendance and possible consequences for inappropriate behaviors and actions.
A key component of creating safety plans is working with first responders, and creating a safety plan for a BOE meeting is no different. Plans for the removal of attendees, actions to be taken if the meeting is adjourned early and communication during the meeting needs to be in place. An ICS 201 action plan form can serve as a template for your safety plan.
It is best that the first part of the agenda cover items most people don’t care about like field trip approval or textbook purchases. Get the business part of the agenda taken care of before moving on to the hot button topic. If the behavior of those in attendance warrants clearing the BOE room or adjourning the meeting early, the normal business of the BOE is still completed.
Decide whether you will allow parents to bring signs into the BOE room. I do not like signs at the meetings if they obstruct the view of law enforcement or your security personnel when everyone is holding their sign. However, I tend to look at worse case scenarios. Schools and the BOE are also in the public relations business. This pandemic will eventually be behind us and schools and the BOE should avoid decisions that will impact their relationship with parents in the future.
Is there an exit plan for the BOE members and administrator if the behaviors of some in attendance requires a law enforcement action? Many BOE rooms are designed with an area just off the room for meeting in executive session. Can you quickly move everyone out of the BOE room and into that room?
Sadly, we are seeing BOE meetings ending early throughout the country because of the behaviors of those in attendance. Once a shouting match starts, it is best to conclude business and adjourn the meeting. BOE members and administrators should quickly be directed out of the BOE room.
If the executive session room is to be used, your law enforcement officer can be positioned outside of the room. If the BOE members or administrators stay in the BOE room, members of the audience will continue shouting and demanding answers to their questions. The sooner they move out of the BOE room, the sooner the crowd will leave. Once everyone has left the BOE room, lock the entrance and turn out the lights. If necessary, BOE members and administrators can be escorted to their vehicles.
The district superintendent or public information officer should release a statement to the media regarding the incident at the BOE meeting. The message should reiterate the BOE’s desire for public input and discussions, as well as reinforce the rules for behavior during the meeting. This statement can be shared on the district’s website and social media platforms.
As with every incident, the school or district should conduct an after-action review (AAR) with first responders. During the AAR, we ask four questions:
- What did we do well?
- What would we do differently during future incidents?
- Do we need to change our plans?
- Do we need to change our training?
We cannot plan for every scenario, but if we keep at the forefront of every event the importance of life safety and incident stabilization, we will be better prepared than most. The key will always be working with your first responders and developing a plan that meets your needs.
Gary L. Sigrist Jr. is CEO and president of Safeguard Risk Solutions. He can be reached at [email protected].