Gwinnett school board meeting ends after mask protest in audience

The Gwinnett County Board of Education meets in the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Service Center.
The Gwinnett County Board of Education meets in the J. Alvin Wilbanks Instructional Service Center.

Credit: Ben Gray

A meeting of the Gwinnett County Board of Education ended early Thursday after several audience members removed their mandatory masks and defied requests to leave.

The confrontation began nearly an hour into the meeting, after the board had voted on all its agenda items and while citizens were addressing the board. During a break between speakers, Board Chair Everton Blair addressed a few audience members who were not wearing masks or wearing them properly, asking them to comply with the mandate or leave.

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“You can remove me,” said Karen Pirkle, the mother of a ninth-grader at a Gwinnett high school. “I’m not putting my mask on.”

“What about our children?” another man yelled.

“I am not leaving here willingly,” Pirkle said.

Several more people in the audience then removed their masks and chanted, “Unmask our children.”

The board moved the meeting into a smaller room, then quickly adjourned for the night.

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The meeting echoed an incident in May, when about 100 people crammed into the board room and refused to wear masks or leave. Gwinnett County Public Schools increased security at board meetings after that night, and more school resource officers have been present since.

The National School Boards Association cited the May meeting in Gwinnett when the organization asked President Joe Biden for help combating threats against school board members and employees.

Pirkle said she has been attending school board meetings wearing a mask and that she walked into the room Thursday wearing one that she then took off.

She said her daughter comes home with a headache after wearing a mask all day.

“I have to fight for my child’s freedom,” she said.