Put civility back in civil discourse

By David Wiley

A national trend of Americans yelling at others regarding COVID prevention measures landed squarely and publicly at a Hays CISD board meeting last week. 

The agenda item was identified as a COVID-19 Update and seemed to create a great deal of interest. Even though the meeting was held on a Thursday at 9 a.m. as a part of a longer board retreat, the Nolan Kunkel Room at the historic Buda Elementary campus was packed with 60-70 parents and secondary students. 

The lines were drawn before the meeting began as those who wanted loosening of the COVID restrictions wore no masks in the crowded meeting, while those who supported mandatory mask policies were consistently wearing masks. 

Twenty-nine people registered to speak and each person was allotted two minutes each. Board members listened patiently as parents and students complained about attendance limits at sporting events, cancellation of prom last year, seating arrangements for marching bands at football games, etc. The tone of the comments ran from quiet and respectful to yelling and finger pointing and were met with cheering and clapping from the audience as if they were in a pep rally instead of a formal meeting. 

One parent specifically noted that students needed protection from “bullying” should they decide not to wear a mask in school. Other citizens addressed the board to increase mitigation measures by mandating a mask policy, especially for elementary students who can’t be vaccinated. However, whenever someone testified about requiring more mitigation measures (i.e. mandatory masking policy) they were met with derisive comments and yelling from some in the audience in an attempt to intimidate and, ironically, bully. Even though the board president attempted to control the inappropriate behavior, it continued.

What everyone should know about school board, city council, etc. meetings are that they are not “public meetings” but rather “meetings held in public.” It is completely inappropriate and rude to make comments from the audience or yell one’s opinion about another citizen’s testimony. The public comment period is just that: public comment. It is not an opportunity to express one’s opinions, disgust or derision about what another fellow citizen feels about an issue. These meeting are also official actions of the board and are not intended to be an opportunity for raucous behavior by members of the community. 

You can be assured that good policy decisions are not based on who can yell the loudest.

Though school board members are elected officials, the school board race itself is non-partisan. There are no political affiliations listed on the ballot and each board member donates hundreds of hours of unpaid time to better the local school system. The COVID 19 pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetimes and public health orders, laws and science are changing on an almost daily basis. School boards and school administrators are currently caught between conflicting orders from the governor and the Hays County judge about mandatory masking mandates and are awaiting instructions from lawyers and upcoming court rulings. 

Regardless of what the policies end up being, citizens do not have the right to yell and point fingers at volunteer board members who are doing the best they can. In addition, it is not necessary for citizens to yell and harass each other just because their opinions differ on this very controversial issue.

Parents have the obligation to do what is best for their own child/children. School board trustees must do what is best for everyone’s child, even if the decision is not popular with some segments of the community. Though extracurricular activities are an important part of our community, the overwhelming majority of students in the district do not participate in these activities because they are elementary school children. The board is required to base district-wide policy on state law, the Texas Education Code, best practices, and legal advice. Yelling at the board and heckling other citizens in meetings accomplishes nothing but to raise the temperature in the room.

It is obvious that more of these meetings will be held in coming weeks and months. Try to keep in mind that everyone is doing the best they can and perhaps we can offer some grace and understanding to our elected officials, school administrators, and neighbors during these unprecedented times. For eventually, this too shall pass.

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