Gwinnett school officials to discuss security after disorderly meeting

Almost 100 audience members refused to wear masks or leave the Gwinnett County Board of Education meeting Thursday, May 20, 2021.

Credit: Alia Malik

Credit: Alia Malik

Almost 100 audience members refused to wear masks or leave the Gwinnett County Board of Education meeting Thursday, May 20, 2021.

Officials in Gwinnett County Public Schools plan to discuss security after a disturbance at a recent board of education meeting when nearly 100 people refused to wear mandated face masks.

“I want our board to really agree to how we will operate and what actions we will take when our meeting is obstructed, and how we will enact a safe transition plan,” Board Chair Everton Blair told the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The board will review Gov. Brian Kemp’s executive order restricting public schools from requiring masks.

But Blair said Gwinnett’s board would likely continue to recommend and provide masks at meetings.

“I’m prepared to follow the law, but I think ultimately we’ll continue to encourage people to do and follow CDC-based guidelines that keep us safe,” Blair said. “We still need to talk about the disruption, and management of the chaos that precludes us from having an effective business meeting.”

At board meetings over the past few months, some parents spoke against school mask mandates. In April, several parents and community members refused to wear masks until an administrator provided them to those who planned to stay.

Sloan Roach, spokeswoman for Gwinnett County Public Schools, said in an email that the district anticipated a clash of opinions over masks at the May meeting, but “we had no indication of the number of people or any specifics regarding their plans.”

Some who attended the meeting said the protest was openly planned on social media.

In recent months, the district increased the number of school resource officers staffing board meetings from two to six. The school district expanded the security force again last week to eight officers, Roach said.

At the central office doors, staffers handed out masks and told those arriving to wear them, but did not prevent people from going inside without them, Roach said.

“Their responsibility was to inform visitors and to provide masks, not to physically restrain individuals from entering,” she said.

Some of the visitors entered wearing masks but removed them inside.

Others told district employees that they would not wear masks, citing recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that vaccinated people did not need them.

Some were also confused because Gwinnett County ended its mask mandate in government buildings that day — but that did not apply to the school district.

At the May board meeting, Vice Chair Karen Watkins asked a top administrator and security to remove people who wouldn’t comply with the mask rule. They escorted at least one person from the room, Roach said.

The board tried to de-escalate the situation by moving into a smaller room after determining many of the protesters were not going to leave willingly, she added.

While the board conducted its business, most of the anti-mask crowd waited in the larger room, where the board eventually returned for public comment.

In hindsight, Blair said he could have considered many alternatives, including holding public comments in the smaller room for masked people only or suspending it altogether. There was also confusion, in the moment, about whose job it was to decide how the meeting would proceed, as the board chair runs the meeting but the superintendent implements policy.

Watkins and Tarece Johnson, another board member, left the meeting before public comment began.

Watkins said she saw a tense, rowdy scene before the meeting reconvened, with people chanting, “stand your ground,” and she left because she was concerned for the safety of everyone in the room. She said she watched the livestream of the public comment session.

Johnson did not return a message seeking comment.

“We can’t continue to condone certain behavior that we wouldn’t want our staff and students to model,” Blair said at the end of the meeting.