Virginia Parents Say School Board Gag Rule Stifles Criticism

Prince William County limits public comment amid debate over COVID, woke curricula

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September 28, 2021

Parents are criticizing Virginia's Prince William County School Board over a rule limiting public comment, a move community members say is an attempt to stifle debate around hot-button issues.

The school board approved changes to its "Citizen Participation" rule during a tumultuous Sept. 15 meeting. The updated rule limits time for public comment to one hour and prohibits attendees from bringing posters or signs into meetings without prior approval from the board.

The rule comes as Prince William County parents and teachers debate COVID-19 policies and "woke" curricula. The changes demonstrate the board’s apathy toward concerned parents and taxpayers, several attendees and concerned community members told the Washington Free Beacon.

"They don't want to hear from the citizens. They don't care what we have to say," Carol Fox, a former Prince William County Public Schools teacher who attended the Sept. 15 meeting, said. "They’re going to run the school how they want to run it, and they don't care."

Prince William County is one of several Virginia counties where school board meetings grew contentious throughout the pandemic. Parents in some districts have organized to oust school board members who promote critical race theory or refuse to reopen schools. Fairfax County Public Schools officials cut off one mother from speaking after she began reading graphic material from a novel offered to high school students.

The Prince William County School Board was set to vote on a swath of measures during the Sept. 15 meeting, including changes to guidelines for public comment. While the board was in private session, parents on either side of the critical race theory debate began loudly taunting each other, one attendee told the Free Beacon. Security ended the meeting after local Democratic leader Tonya James began shouting "fuck you" at attendees.

William Deutsch, a former school board member who attended the meeting, said a select few attendees were allowed back into the meeting space for the board to vote on its agenda.

The newly passed rule only allows for one hour of public comment at school board meetings. Half of that time is dedicated to agenda items, leaving only 30 minutes for parents to discuss other issues. During that 30-minute period, only 10 attendees are permitted to speak for three minutes each.

The school board implemented the rule "in order to conduct its business in a timely and orderly fashion," the final draft of the updated measure states. Those who are not able to speak at meetings due to the time limitation are encouraged to submit their concerns via video message or email.

Deutsch told the Free Beacon he thinks the rule change could give board members the opportunity to tee up a slate of friendly speakers and exclude dissenting voices.

Several attendees at the Sept. 15 meeting said they had gone to debate the district’s coronavirus mitigation strategies and its embrace of critical race theory. Though the school board denies using critical race theory in its curriculum, the district has adopted the Virginia Department of Education’s equity plan. The state’s "Road Map to Equity" cites controversial "antiracist" scholar Ibram X. Kendi and the educational arm of the left-wing Southern Poverty Law Center.

Prince William County Public Schools' equity statement commits district employees to "examine and interrupt beliefs, implicit and explicit biases, policies and/or practices that perpetuate systemic racism and discrimination."

According to Deutsch, now is not the time for the school board to stifle public comment.

"We’re at a time when there is increasing polarization and division within our school system and it’s up to our leaders to lead by example and listen to the public," Deutsch told the Free Beacon. "Sadly, the school board has made it clear that they are not willing to listen to the public and shut down viewpoints they disagree with."