School board meetings on Long Island have broken down, if not shut down, in recent months because of outbursts over COVID-19 restrictions and how cultural differences are being discussed in classrooms. Police patrols have increased around meetings due to the intimidating behavior, while some districts have switched from in-person to virtual meetings.
The majority of unruly behavior in meetings has been sparked by those opposed to student masking, according to a Newsday review of meetings. Some in the communities also have pushed back against how districts are teaching topics such as culture, race and economic disparity.
What to know
Numerous school board meetings on Long Island have broken down, if not shut down, because of outbursts over COVID-19 restrictions and how cultural differences are being discussed in classrooms.
Police have been asked to increase patrols at school board meetings in several Long Island districts. Other school boards have started meeting virtually because of chronic disruptions.
Opposition to masks on Long Island comes from a mix of local people and those tied to various groups, including the Long Island Loud Majority and Moms for Liberty.
A board president in one Suffolk County district said such public intimidation has board members feeling under attack. Long Island has 124 public school districts, each with its own board of education.
'It feels like we became the enemy.'Karen Lessler, Middle Country school board
"It feels like we became the enemy," said Karen Lessler, of the Middle Country school board. "It's a lot of stress. You're volunteering your time. Most board members are not political. They work for what's right for the children."
Lessler criticized the behavior seen at a June meeting, saying that in her 22 years on the school board, it was never treated with such disrespect, according to meeting minutes.
"The disrespect, sarcasm, and unruly behavior by some community members was uncalled for," she said, according to the minutes.
The board ended an August meeting because of "very disrespectful and rude" behavior toward Lessler and the board, according to minutes.
In Smithtown, a hotbed of controversy over masking, board members temporarily stopped their June 8 meeting for a recess when the disruptions became too intense.
At the June 22 meeting, after further outbursts, the board did it again. Smithtown conducted its Sept. 14 meeting virtually.
"The environment … over the past couple months has declined greatly, and it really has impacted the district’s ability to conduct its business and to get information to the community," board president Matthew Gribbin said at the meeting, explaining why the board moved to a virtual setting.
Gribbin said he has seen a boy ridiculed at the microphone and a woman who was grieving for her lost child taunted. Physical threats have been made to people in the district and in the auditorium audience, he said.
"It really has become a dangerous place where a lot of people … don’t feel welcome, they don’t feel safe, and that’s a problem," Gribbin said.
'A lot of people … don’t feel welcome, they don’t feel safe.'Smithtown board president Matthew Gribbin
Members of the Kings Park school board have received "offensive and threatening emails," which led to reports being filed with the Suffolk County Police Department, according to a June 16 district letter sent to parents. Police determined there was no criminal activity.
Suffolk police increased outside patrols during board meetings in the Fourth Precinct, which includes Smithtown, Commack, Kings Park and Hauppauge, this past spring and summer due to the masking controversy. In addition, disruptions have occurred in districts including Northport, Longwood and Farmingdale, among others.
Elsewhere around the country, flare-ups at school board meetings have led to physical intimidation or violence.
Opposition comes from a mix of locals and groups
Opposition to masks on Long Island has come from a mix of local people and those tied to groups, including the Long Island Loud Majority and Moms for Liberty. The Loud Majority group is being monitored by the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which says it tracks extremist groups known for hate speech.
'You have to be loud and upfront.'Shawn Farash, co-founder of Long Island Loud Majority
Shouting at school board meetings is not against the law, but it does go against board protocols. Most public comment periods come toward the end of board meetings, with attendees allowed a few minutes to speak.
"The reason you have to be loud and upfront and vocal is because it is something you believe is important," said Shawn Farash, co-founder of Long Island Loud Majority.
Critics of these flare-ups said the tactics represent an appeal to anger that infused politics during the presidency of Donald Trump and has been fostered by some conservative television and radio talk show hosts.
Farash, 30, of West Babylon, said that "if Donald Trump's politics of putting America first, and talk radio hosts advocating for the conservation and preservation of basic but essential civil liberties is how we define 'loud and aggressive' today — then I guess we are loud and aggressive."
The ire and outbursts have come from different directions during meetings. Alex Piccirillo, the Sachem school board president, said he's seen "people passionate on both sides, but nothing rowdy," though people opposed to masking have been the most outspoken.
Some people have said at board meetings that masks have little, if any, value in preventing the spread of COVID-19, and that decisions about masking should have been left up to parents and the community.
School districts had been left to decide their masking policies, until Gov. Kathy Hochul in August mandated that schoolchildren and staff wear them indoors. The mandate, detractors say, represents an attempt by the government to control people's lives.
Two school boards — Massapequa and Locust Valley — have filed a lawsuit against the mandate.
Hochul, a Democrat, said the masking decision was made after meeting with education officials, including PTAs, school boards and superintendents, teacher unions and immigration groups. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said masks help protect the people wearing them and others.
'Unruly' cause for online meeting to shut down
The disruptions and potential for trouble have caused at least three districts — Commack, Kings Park and Smithtown — to hold some meetings online. At Commack's online meeting on Sept. 9, public questions and comments had to be submitted to the board.
Kings Park's meeting on June 8, held virtually, was shut down after people became "unruly," the letter to parents said, and an emergency meeting was later held with the district's legal counsel to discuss possible responses.
Commack shifted to an online meeting last month after several people said they planned to refuse to wear masks in person.
Meanwhile, the National School Boards Association asked President Joe Biden on Thursday for federal help to investigate and stop threats over policies including mask mandates.
"As these acts of malice, violence, and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes," the association wrote.
The New York State School Boards Association recently held a webinar on handling such meetings, and 600 people signed on.
"The number of board members does suggest widespread concern about what's happening," association spokesman David Albert said. "In some cases, it has become toxic."
Lorraine Deller, executive director of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association, criticized the behavior of the anti-maskers.
"That some individuals and disruptive groups have chosen to use school board meetings as a platform for intimidation is truly disturbing," she said.
School boards are struggling to deal with the outbursts, Deller said. Many members don't want to speak about it publicly, concerned that would add fuel to the fire or they would become a political target, she said.
Newsday tried to contact a dozen school board leaders on Long Island for comment, and only two responded to a request for an interview.
The rancor over school masking comes as the number of COVID-19-related deaths in the United States topped 700,000 people, exceeding the number who died from the 1918 flu pandemic. Moreover, the highly contagious delta variant has proved more dangerous to children, who on Long Island are full time in-person after an academic year that mostly included remote instruction. Some 30,000 children were hospitalized in August nationwide related to the virus.
Long Island had the second-highest number of coronavirus cases — 4,445 — among students statewide, behind New York City, according to data from the state's COVID Report Card released Thursday. Long Island has the second-largest enrollment in the state behind New York City.
Groups urge members to attend meetings
Long Island Loud Majority and Moms for Liberty both have urged their members to attend board meetings in opposition to the mask mandate, listing the dates and locations of meetings on social media posts.
Long Island Loud Majority has a robust social media presence, with its own website and accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It has a separate Instagram account geared toward teens. The group raises money on its website by selling shirts, flags and other products that say "You've been warned," "Not my president" and "Team Deplorable."
The group has more than 11,000 people following its Facebook page and describes itself as "The Silent Majority — except much, much louder."
Farash, often seen wearing a Revolutionary War-era tricorn hat at events, is a Hofstra University graduate who studied radio and political science. He does not have children, and is an outspoken Trump supporter who helped put together rallies on the Island in support of him.
As for the mobilization to attend board meetings, Farash said it shows democracy in action.
"There is something good going on, in that parents are getting involved in the policymaking and governance of schools," he said. "Anybody calling it intimidating is not looking at it closely."
Farash has said he and about 300 local Loud Majority members attended the Jan. 6. rally in Washington, D.C., but that none of them participated in the siege on the Capitol. The Southern Poverty Law Center has cited Long Island Loud Majority's "hateful views espoused by members and anti-democratic activity."
Susan Corke, the center's Intelligence Project director, said the Long Island group appears to have started as more of a pro-Trump group.
The group's social media posts "appear to be anti-immigrant, pro-police, anti-Black Lives Matter, and opposed to critical race theory and schools implementing diversity, equity and inclusion curriculum," Corke said.
Farash said the Southern Poverty Law Center is biased against his group, which he said does not spread hate and is not against immigrants or Black people.
"We believe everybody matters," Farash said. "Several of our members are immigrants."
On Friday, Farash posted a livestream on the group's Facebook page in which he praised Trump, criticized Democrats as wanting to "weaponize government," and raised concerns about absentee voting. He also warned listeners that the political left will be trying to take away people's guns, and spoke against the effectiveness of masks in the fight against COVID-19.
Farash said Long Island Loud Majority has not received funding from Republican groups. The group is not registered as a nonprofit, so it does not have to register any donations with the state.
"We are completely self-funded," he said.
Long Island Loud Majority is registered as a limited liability company, at a Lindenhurst address, according to state documents filed in November. Limited liability can protect people's personal assets in the event their business is sued or cannot pay its debts.
"We decided to form an LLC because we sell merchandise in the form of T-shirts, flags, hats, etc. and wanted to do so legitimately for tax reasons. Our merchandise sales are our only source of income/funding, hence, 'entirely self-funded' in response to any assertions that we are funded by an outside source," Farash told Newsday in an email.
The group, Farash said in an interview, does take exception with the teaching of critical race theory, which he said would instruct children that white people are oppressors and Black people are oppressed.
Critical race theory, a body of academic study centered around the idea that racism is embedded in American institutions, was developed during the 1970s and ’80s at the college undergraduate and graduate level. Long Island districts repeatedly have said they do not teach the concept, which also states that racism is not merely the product of people's individual bias, but also something built into legal systems and policies.
Brandy Scott, president of the Long Island Black Educators Association, said critical race theory opponents "are trying to put fear in people, fear of other ethnic groups."
The state Board of Regents, which sets education policy, adopted guidance for schools on teaching diversity, equity and inclusion in May. The guidance asks educators to affirm students' racial, linguistic and cultural identities.
Farash believes the guidance is similar to critical race theory. "It talks about systemic racism. But I don't believe there is systemic racism," he said.
Lester W. Young Jr., the state's Board of Regents chancellor, said in August that schools should affirm students' racial, linguistic and cultural identities.
'Discussion of racism and bigotry is part of the American experience.'Lester W. Young Jr., Board of Regents chancellor
"Discussion of racism and bigotry is part of the American experience," Young said. "This is not an attempt to indoctrinate, it is not an attempt to make young people feel bad, and it is not an attempt to talk about groups in disparaging ways."
Roger Tilles, Long Island’s representative on the Regents board, said it's important to teach about the historic role of government-linked racism on Long Island.
Tilles noted that minority soldiers returning from World War II were excluded from Federal Housing Administration low-interest loans and the education benefits of the GI Bill because of their race.
In addition, Tilles disagreed with those who said school masking is the government intending to control the population.
"I don't think these pandemic issues should be seen as government overreach," he said, pointing to government mandates during the fight against polio. "It was just something done to reduce polio. It's been done time and time again."
As for the angry behavior at school board meetings, Tilles said, "We don't want that as an example for our kids."
Moms for Liberty appears to have at least two groups locally, a Nassau and Suffolk chapter. The Suffolk branch has a private Facebook page that says it has about 4,500 members. The Nassau group listed about 3,500 members.
Barbara Abboud, chapter president of the Moms for Liberty-Nassau County, said parents are upset because they don’t see the school boards responding to their requests.
"I understand meetings are getting rowdy, with more people in attendance," Abboud said.
She added that she has not seen intimidating behavior at the board meetings she has attended. But, she added, people are passionate about their issues.
'We are looking to protect our children, and nobody is listening.'Barbara Abboud, chapter president, Moms for Liberty-Nassau County
"We are looking to protect our children, and nobody is listening," Abboud said.
Abboud said her group’s next meeting will address how people can run for school board seats.
Moms for Liberty-Suffolk County could not be reached for comment. The Suffolk group describes itself on the page as "dedicated to the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government."
The future: Districts hope this will peter out
It is unclear whether the atmosphere at meetings will continue. Deller said there's hope it will peter out, at least regarding the school masking issue.
Sachem's board chair, Piccirillo, who opposes school masking, said he understands opponents' frustration with state mandates. He said Sachem schools had no mask mandate over the summer, with more than 1,000 students coming in for classes and sports workouts. The district had only three adult cases reported over the summer, he said.
"People are less angry at the school board, and more angry with the state," Piccirillo said.
Some people, such as Amy Fortunato, a Smithtown minister and grandmother, have stopped attending meetings because of the angry atmosphere.
"Those of us that are speaking up for masking and to follow state guidelines — what we think of as protecting our kids — we are being abused by the opposite side, but not being defended … by the board of education," she said.
Some parents continue to attend and speak in favor of masking.
During a contentious Riverhead school board meeting in August, Larrin Gerard, a parent and nurse from Aquebogue, criticized the claims by some that masks obstruct breathing.
"You are not breathing in your own carbon dioxide all day. If I was, I'd be on the floor. I work three 12-hour shifts in a row and I’m wearing my mask all day long," she said. "Masks are what keep us safe."
'Masks are what keep us safe.'Larrin Gerard, parent and nurse from Aquebogue
The CDC said wearing a mask does not raise the carbon dioxide level for people. Cloth masks and surgical masks do not provide an airtight fit across the face, and carbon dioxide escapes into the air through the mask when a person breathes out or talks, the CDC said.
Masks are intended to be used with other measures, including social distancing and hand-washing, the CDC says. Masks are particularly relevant for asymptomatic or presymptomatic infected wearers, who are estimated to account for more than 50% of transmissions, the agency said.
Gerard, who has a daughter in the school system, said she was heckled while she spoke. "It was intimidating," she said.
With Nicholas Spangler and AP