Public barred from Salem-Keizer School Board meetings in-person following escalating political conflicts

The Salem-Keizer School Board will no longer allow the public to attend meetings in-person following a district review of an August board meeting where tensions between groups of attendees escalated into threats and conflict.

The board will meet mostly in person Tuesday, with some members attending remotely by phone or video call. But members of the public will only be able to watch via Zoom and provide public comment in writing, or by signing up to call in during the meeting.

Superintendent Christy Perry announced the decision Friday following a recommendation from Chris Baldridge, the district’s director of safety and risk management.

Perry told Salem Reporter much of the conduct that led her to act occurred in the parking lot outside the Aug. 9 meeting where adults from liberal and conservative groups clashed and argued, requiring intervention by the district’s security officers to stop physical altercations.

“We just had some huge escalation out in the parking lot,” she said. “We just can’t do it.”

She acted following an investigation initiated after an attendee of the Aug. 9 meeting filed a complaint with the district about conduct during the meeting and in the parking lot before and after.

“The results of that investigation have made it clear that adults from differing ideologies engaged in negative, aggressive, and unacceptable behavior, knowing it would result in conflict, and that the youth who were present did not initiate any conflict. It is also clear that public comment has become a public forum for political agendas, rather than a way for the board to hear concerns, constructive criticism, ideas and information. It has continually escalated into threats and disrupted meetings,” Perry wrote in a Friday message to the community attached to the school board agenda.

State law requires public meetings to be open to the public, and a pandemic revision to the law allows for public access via livestream or other electronic means when a meeting is conducted by telephone or electronic means. Because some board members will attend Tuesday’s meeting virtually, Rebekah Jacobson, an attorney for the district, said the meeting is hybrid. She said under the law, there is no requirement for in-person attendance so long as the public can access the meeting virtually.

The Aug. 9 meeting included a board vote on banning concealed carry permit holders from bringing firearms onto school campuses. That ban, as well as two recent unsuccessful efforts by community members to remove books from school libraries, were the subject of much of the public comment during the meeting.

As has often been the case over the past two years, public comment became heated, with board Chair Ashley Carson Cottingham at one point having tostop the meeting to address members of the crowd who were chanting “hate speech” and arguing with a parent testifying against keeping the book “Gender Queer: A Memoir” in schools.

“This is an opportunity for public comment and this speech is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution … I’m not debating with the audience. We’re going to have an orderly meeting with public comment,” Carson Cottingham said.

Perry said Baldridge, the security director, initiated an investigation following the meeting and told board leaders and Perry that security officers could not keep meeting attendees safe under current conditions.

Perry said the district will release the findings from that investigation to the public once the meeting attendee who filed a complaint is notified. She expects the release later this week.

Perry and Baldridge met with Carson Cottingham, board Vice Chair Maria Hinojos Pressey, and second Vice Chair Karina Guzmán Ortiz last week before making the decision.

“We’re definitely really concerned with the safety of community members and also of the two students that are on our board,” Hinojos Pressey said, referring to the board’s non-voting student advisors.

The move by the district isn’t the first time a government body in Oregon has acted to bar the public from in-person meetings. In 2016, the Portland City Council moved a meeting discussing a police union contract to livestream-only access after disruption by activists, the Portland Tribune reported. That was prior to the pandemic law change on remote access to meetings.

Hinojos Pressey said she’s hopeful a period of meetings with virtual participation only can lower tensions to the point where in-person public access can resume.

“It’s really important to us to be able to have in person testimony for a variety of reasons. It’s important to be able to see the folks that are providing testimony, being in the same space, sometimes being able to chat with them at the meetings, just getting to know people,” she said.

Asked her opinion about the switch, Carson Cottingham wrote, “I respect our district leadership and security staff, and I always take their recommendations seriously.”

At their meeting Tuesday, the board will consider appointing the inaugural members of the district’s equity committee, which is newly required under a 2021 state law. The board will also consider a proclamation for Hispanic Heritage Month, a resolution on suicide prevention and nominations to the Oregon School Boards Association’s board of directors, according to the agenda.

Members of the public can watch the meeting on YouTube in English or Spanish, or on CC:Media, channel 21. Written public comment submissions closed at 3 p.m. Monday, but members of the public can also email school board members directly via the district website.

Perry and the board have not set a date to resume in-person access to board meetings.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.