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Shawn Vestal: SPS board president used his gavel to stop circus before it could begin

Jerrall Haynes, left, president of the Spokane Public School Board, smiles after swearing in Adam Swinyard, right, Spokane Public Schools’ superintendent on Wednesday, July 15, 2020, at the Spokane Public Schools Building. (Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

If there’s ever been, in the history of local government meetings, a more satisfying rap of the gavel than the one Jerrall Haynes delivered this week, I haven’t heard it.

Haynes, president of the Spokane School Board, joined his fellow trustees in the board room Wednesday to consider a packed agenda, and they found themselves facing a crowd of unmasked protesters who had come to rail against the mask mandate in schools. Many of them had demonstrated outside beforehand and were carrying signs with a decidedly feverish flavor, a la “Masks & Vaccines – The New Symbols of Tyranny.”

The potential of an angry, pointless circus loomed.

Haynes kept the circus tent closed. He started the meeting by asking if the unmasked crowd intended to follow the governor’s order requiring masks indoors in public facilities. When they said no, he adjourned, banged that gavel and moved the hybrid meeting entirely to Zoom.

Clean. Effective. And – at this stage in the COVID circus – exhilarating.

If you’ve been frustrated by seeing public officials hectored, abused and dragged around by the imperatives of the extravagantly stupid anti-mask movement, it was pure catharsis. And yet the most important part of Haynes’ action was that, while it prevented a stunt takeover of the meeting, it did not shut anyone up.

No one was denied a voice. They were denied the ability to throw a tantrum and get their way.

The meeting proceeded on Zoom, and many people testified remotely, including some of the people who’d been in the audience and many more who supported masking as an important way to allow school to go forward.

Spectacle denied.

“Next Thursday, 30,000 students are showing up for school and we had business to attend to to allow us to adequately serve the students when they return,” Haynes said in an interview Thursday. “I refuse to allow our meetings to be hijacked.”

The Spokane board wasn’t the first to take this route locally. Central Valley’s board made the same call. And so did the board at Nine Mile Falls. Both did so after protesters refused to put on masks despite being asked repeatedly.

The key difference Wednesday was that the Spokane board didn’t wait around for things to drag on and on, and it didn’t waste time pleading with people. That was smart. After all, the question is not whether people have a right to come to their school board and speak their mind, no matter what’s on them. They do.

But, as in all aspects of life, whether it’s shopping in a store or eating in a restaurant or testifying at a public meeting, there are rules. Testimony at public hearings is limited by time and rules of comportment. You don’t get to talk for 10 minutes, even if you believe the Constitution gives you that right.

Under the current mask rule, you need to wear a mask at indoor gatherings, a rule the school board is responsible for enforcing. If you won’t do that, you have other ways of communicating your opinions to the board. Haynes said Wednesday’s action was a reflection of the board’s commitment to doing everything it can to protect people’s health and make it possible for students to get the best possible education under difficult circumstances.

“It starts with the commitment we made at the very start of the pandemic, to never compromise the health of our students, our staff or ourselves on which guidelines we will follow,” he said. “We follow all of them.”

He said he was not trying to shut down speech he disagreed with and that it was “100%” about the state mask requirements. He noted that two weeks ago, when the mask guidance was different, unmasked people attended the school board meeting and delivered a lot of criticism about masks.

“And that was fine,” he said. “There’s a misconception that we did that (Wednesday) because we didn’t want to hear from people. That couldn’t be further from the truth. … I asked people to mask themselves so we could hear them.”

There are legitimate questions about how much of the mask protests are arising from local parents, and how much is driven by the opportunistic groups on the radical right – like the Proud Boys, whose members include key instigators of the Jan. 6 insurrection, and the John Birch Society – making hay out of vaccine and mask resistance.

But that does not represent all mask opponents, either, who have a right to be heard, just as the board has a responsibility to hear them.

They don’t, however, have the right to stomp their feet and declare their own rules.

They don’t have immunity from responsibility.

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