Following heated August meeting, Frontier School Committee revises public comment policy

  • Frontier Regional School in South Deerfield. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2021

DEERFIELD — The Frontier Regional School District School Committee revised its public comment policy Tuesday night following a tense and drawn-out mask mandate discussion in August.

The new policy addresses the Frontier School Committee’s responsibility to address inappropriate comments, while also eliminating the public reading of all written comments sent to the committee.

Both the Deerfield and Whately school committees approved the revised policy Tuesday night as well. Sunderland and Conway’s school committees are meeting next Monday and the policy is on their agendas.

Darius Modestow, superintendent of the Frontier Regional and Union 38 school districts, said it is the School Committee’s responsibility to moderate public comment so everyone feels welcome to speak and share their thoughts.

“We did have a very difficult School Committee meeting where statements were made that were offensive to groups of people in our community,” Modestow said. “We are in a position of leadership where we need to react when policies are broken, which includes inappropriate comments.”

The revised policy comes on the heels of Aug. 18’s joint boards of health and school committees meeting regarding the continued implementation of a mask mandate in all Frontier and Union 38 schools.

At the meeting, which was attended by more than 200 members of the public, a comment was made comparing a mask mandate to slavery, drawing backlash from the public and board members.

Modestow said the revised policy encourages School Committee members to address the chair if an inappropriate comment is made, who will decide the course of action to address the violation.

“When someone says something or does something that’s out of line, you do a point of order to the chair,” Modestow explained. “You’re not talking to the person who made that comment, you’re talking to the person who enforces the rules of the meeting.”

He added it is a difficult time for school committees and boards across the country, and they need to make sure both themselves and members of the public are comfortable.

“We need to support each other on how to address those kinds of things,” Modestow said. “It is our responsibility to look out for all groups and look out for all statements.”

Modestow said he attended a Deerfield School Committee meeting where members decided to reread the rules of public comment each meeting. The Frontier School Committee agreed it was a good practice and adopted that to its policy as well.

“I think that it’s really helpful to outline what the rules are before public comment, not just as a reminder for the public, but for ourselves for what rules we are enforcing,” commented Frontier School Committee member Missy Novak. “I think it’s really helpful to make it a more consistent safe space for folks.”

The revised policy is also suspending “double reading” of written public comments. It took nearly an hour for all public comments to be read during the Aug. 18 meeting. The comments will still be read by School Committee members outside of the meeting, but they will not be orally entered into the record unless the person who submitted the comment does so during the public comment period.

Modestow said this will protect School Committee members from audience members taking out-of-context videos and will prevent them from being accused of censoring comments if they need to remove expletives or other inappropriate comments. He added the recent influx of written comments has made them too time-consuming to read aloud during meetings.

“The attorney advised us that you don’t read other people’s statements into the public record,” Modestow noted. “In the old policy, there was never the assumption that you would read any written comment sent to the School Committee.”