Fraught Douglas County School Board meeting follows judge's ruling on masks

People showed up in support and opposition to the masking mandate


They’re sociopaths. They should resign. Nothing but dictators. They don’t care about kids, they just use them as political pawns. Those are a few of the comments slung at Douglas County School Board members and the district's superintendent during an emotional, hours-long board meeting Tuesday.

“They are possessed with the spirit of tyranny,” a man in the audience said about the board.

But to other speakers, the board is a desperately needed sign of hope in a county where other elected officials have walked back COVID-19 safety measures. Those speakers said they support masking mandates, for their vulnerable loved ones, and their children with disabilities. Several lamented COVID-19 misinformation shared at meetings.

“I appreciate you fighting for the mask mandate,” said a mother of children with disabilities.

Like numerous others during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Oct. 26 school board meeting stretched late into the night after dozens of people gave public comment.

The agenda included talks about compensation, a capital master plan and staff recognitions, but most people had come to talk about masking policies and COVID-19. A few broached equity in education too.

The meeting came hours after a federal judge temporarily blocked an order from Douglas County's new board of health that allowed people to opt out of the school district's rule that everyone wear masks in its schools as a pandemic-safety measure.

U.S. District Judge John Kane had granted a temporary restraining order requested by the district’s civil lawsuit against the new Douglas County Health Department.  For at least two weeks, the district will be able to resume its policy requiring masks unless someone has a medical exemption.

Later Tuesday, the crowd at the school board meeting cheered and applauded as leaders from four charter schools requested waivers from the district’s common communicable disease policy, an effort to set their own COVID-19 protocols.

Leman Academy, Aspen View Academy, North Star and American Academy want waivers from the disease policy. American Academy and Leman also requested waivers from the equity policy.

“We only want the autonomy that we had last year where we had the ability to determine our own COVID protocols and practice,” said Erin Kane, executive director of American Academy.

Multiple times, school board President David Ray asked the audience to refrain from outbursts after they heckled people who supported masking or shouted their support to people who opposed mandates.

Ray said it created an unsafe environment for people who might have a different opinion, although that argument did little to pacify people, who frequently laughed when he said that.

The meeting capped with a tense moment between two attendees.

After the last speaker, Ray announced a meeting break. A man stood up and urged the room not to mask their children. The district could not force students to cover their faces, he said, citing the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

As he spoke, Sarah Wu, the campaign manager for Juli Watkins, a candidate for Douglas County School Board in the election that ends next Tuesday, appeared to lose patience. Wu had sat through much of the meeting knitting, but now yelled at the man to “Just shut up.”

Wu told the man to get out, then began briskly walking toward him from across the room. People including school board member Kevin Leung — a candidate for re-election — rushed to stop her, calming her down and leading her away.

A woman in the crowd told Wu not to do something she might regret. Another shouted, “Arrest her.” A woman who exited the room as the commotion unfolded said loudly as she left that people who wore masks were cowards.

Wu left the room minutes later. Ray asked security to clear people from the area.

Wu told Colorado Community Media on Oct. 27 she had felt heckled and bullied by people in the room throughout the evening and lost her composure when the man made anti-masking comments. 

"No, it was not the right response. I definitely regret letting my emotions get the best of me," she said. "I am apologetic and embarrassed." 

Wu said she did not intend to walk closer to the man than she did, but that she understands video of the incident looks intimidating. She was glad friends stopped her so security did not have to deal with any sort of altercation, she said. 

"It didn't look good, it looked unrestrained," she said. 

She was disappointed the board did not remove people who broke decorum rules, she said.  She felt personally mocked after people made jokes about creating safe spaces for everyone to share their opinions. Wu said during her public comment heckling made her feel unsafe.

"It's just never been that bad, with threats and them slowly moving close toward us," she said. 

It’s not the first exchange between public speakers that raised eyebrows. At a meeting in September, Steve Collier, a Douglas County GOP officer and vocal supporter of the Kids First slate challenging certain policies of the district, was leaving the lectern after his public comment. He looked at a man seated in the audience who spoke earlier in support of issues like the district’s equity policy.

As he passed by, Collier leaned in and rapidly jabbed his finger toward the man, yelling, “Hi, buddy.” The man had little reaction beyond shaking his head.

A district spokeswoman was not immediately able to confirm if the district received complaints about either incident or if the district would take action.

Tuesday's meeting resumed and finished its regular agenda, concluding with an executive session about the lawsuit.


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