Rules of decorum during public comment periods was a topic of discussion Monday, Sept. 13, among Brainerd School Board members, who questioned whether props like signs should be allowed.

The discussion comes after several meetings over the past few months have drawn public comment on issues like critical race theory and mask mandates, with boos, cheers, shouts and clapping ensuing from the audience.

“I just think it’s really important for people to remember there’s a level of decorum,” board member Jana Shogren said. “This is still a meeting that’s taking place, and while I think it’s wonderful when people attend and participate, I think there’s just a certain level of behavior that should be observed at a meeting whether you’re the one speaking or in the audience.”

Discussion started with the name cards public forum speakers are asked to fill out before the meeting. The cards ask for name, address, phone number and the topic a person wants to speak about. Board member Tom Haglin asked if that information is really necessary.

Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn said it is nice to know where the input is coming from — if the person is a district resident or not — and to have contact information if board members want to reach out to a speaker later.

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Board members seemed to reach the consensus that much of the information would be optional, though knowing where the comments are coming from — student, parent, district resident, etc. — is important.

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Several signs have shown up at meetings over the last few months, bearing messages against critical race theory and mask mandates, along with verbal audience responses to comments, drawing concerns from board members over what might be distracting and inappropriate.

Board member Charles Black Lance initially said he didn’t mind signs, as long as the message is appropriate and they do not block anyone’s view, but added it is not an issue he feels too strongly about.

Doug Kern wears a paper grocery bag over his head during the regular Brainerd School Board meeting Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, at the Washington Educational Services Building. Everyone in attendance was wearing a face mask, including Kern under the bag. 
Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Doug Kern wears a paper grocery bag over his head during the regular Brainerd School Board meeting Monday, Sept. 13, 2021, at the Washington Educational Services Building. Everyone in attendance was wearing a face mask, including Kern under the bag. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Board Chair Ruth Nelson said signs seem to rile people up.

“It’s a board meeting where we’re doing business. … It’s not a rally,” she said, adding she did not appreciate when people brought signs to meetings, but the sign issue was not a hill she would die on either.

For Shogren, she said her issue is with props — anything not worn on the body — that might be disruptive, such as a long petition that was rolled out on the floor at a meeting earlier this year.

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“I’m not picking on the folks that rolled the names up the aisle, but to me then you’ve created perhaps a tripping hazard for somebody who’s coming up here and having to walk across that paper,” she said. “And I’m truly not picking on that, but it’s one example. I mean, I saw people did trip on it that night, and eventually someone had to just get up and get it out of the way.”

Board member Kevin Boyles added audience members should remember the Golden Rule when attending board meetings and not talk over people who are speaking during public comment, as has happened this year.

“Come use your three minutes in front of us, but I’m sure you don’t want people heckling you or tsk tsk tsking or any of that other stuff behind your back while you’re speaking,” he said. “... Just be respectful and dignified when other people are speaking. It’s really that simple. And if you aren’t then we’ll talk some more about the process of what we’ll do about that.”

Black Lance added everyone should remember there are children — such as his — watching the meetings remotely.

“I want them to be a part of this process because this is the amazing part of our country, that opportunity for individuals to share their input, whether I like hearing it or not or whether it fits in my little paradigm. But it’s crucial that individuals like my children are not being taught opposite of what is respectful or honoring to anyone when they’re speaking,” Black Lance said. “So I challenge us to be looking through that lens as well. … I don’t want this to be a meeting that I need to shield my kids from seeing because people are getting off the hook because they’re frustrated. I get frustration, I do. But we need to be adults.”

Board members agreed to prohibit signs from meetings in the proposed guidelines they reviewed Monday, which will again be on the docket at the next meeting with the changes discussed.

The guidelines, Boyles summarized, serve three purposes: “One, maintain order. Two, make sure everyone who wants their voice heard gets their voice heard. And three, to have a process and ramifications for how we deal with people that refuse to follow those other two rules.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.