Spurred on by segments of public participation that at times grew tumultuous during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Volusia County School Board is looking into updating its public participation policy by adding a section on decorum.
At the School Board's workshop on Tuesday, Nov. 9, Volusia County Schools attorney Kevin Pendley said that, in the last several months, there has been a rise in challenges pertaining to the public maintaining civility and decorum while speaking before the board. The proposed revision to Policy 801 is meant to clarify previously vague provisions so that the board chair and speakers know what is expected of them, explained Pendley.
Under decorum, the first new addition to the policy states that "citizen's remarks should be directed to the presiding officer or the Board as a whole and not to individual Board members. Speakers may not address board members by name, and personal attacks against individual board members, the board as a whole, the superintendent or district staff are prohibited." In addition, if approved by the board at a later date, speakers would be prohibited from discussing pending court cases and filed claims or complaints against Volusia County Schools or district personnel. Employees would also be barred from discussing individual disciplinary matters, unless it is included in the board meeting's agenda.
“That’s the problem here," Pendley said. "Someone can come up and make an unfounded, completely spurious allegation against any one of you or any one in staff, or against any issue, and there’s no opportunity to clarify that on the record. That’s why that language is in there.”
The proposed policy also prohibits signage; the current policy only authorizes them if they are part of a speaker's presentation. Profanity, "loud abusive comments" and personal attacks are not allowed.
Another notable addition to the decorum section is a provision that gives the board chair permission to turn off the microphone or call a recess if a speaker is engaging in personal attack or addressing "irrelevant" topics.
Not all School Board members were in favor of the revisions. School Board member Ruben Colon said he didn't think there was an issue with the current policy and that the proposed changes were not needed.
School Board member Jamie Haynes agreed.
“I feel as if a person takes the time to come here, whether they’re having to leave work early or arrangements for their children, whatever, to come and speak and sit here for the time period that sometimes we make them sit — which is hours — to be able to have three minutes to speak to us, I feel like we need to hear what they have to say," Haynes said.
Haynes did take issue with the policy's clause that allows disruptive speakers to be trespassed from the building, as she said she feels certain individuals have been "targeted" in the past. When this happens, she said, trust is broken.
“I have watched some people sit in that audience, yell, make statements, be very rude or cross that line, and nothing happened to them, and then I’ve watched someone make one statement and immediately be trespassed," Haynes said. "There’s no consistency with that and that does bother me.”
Colon also disagreed with the policy prohibiting citizens from speaking on complaints against the district, as he felt even if they were employees, they were coming to the board to speak as private citizen on an issue that affects them. However, School Board Chair Linda Cuthbert said it has been an issue in the past.
“There are things that we need to be able to control in order, not only to protect our ability to vote fairly for maybe a future decision, but also to protect the speaker so that speaker does not in vehemence of the discussion compromises his or her own litigation," Cuthbert said.