The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, September 29, 2021 1:00 am

NACS mask battle grows

Carroll students make way through protesters

ASHLEY SLOBODA and JAMIE DUFFY | The Journal Gazette

Carroll High School students are getting caught in the middle of anger directed at Northwest Allen County Schools leaders.

Students participating in after-school activities Monday cut through a hallway crowded with parents holding “Unmask NACS Students Now” signs and chanting, “Himsel must go.” The adults also urged masked students to remove their face coverings, in violation of the district's rules.

The protesters showed up for a school board meeting, but six uniformed Allen County sheriff's officers kept all but 12 from entering the classroom where board members and administrators, including Superintendent Chris Himsel, conducted business. About a dozen people arrived early enough for seats, which were given on a first-come, first-served basis.

Afterward, administrators and board members unsuccessfully tried to wait out protesters wanting to engage with them in parking lots. One sergeant watched a group of people run after Himsel as he headed toward an exit, but that officer didn't hear any threats or other violent interaction, Sheriff David Gladieux said Tuesday.

Parents on social media have since shared stories of protesters making inappropriate comments to their children, and they are calling on the district to rethink the venue for board meetings.

“It is not a crowd you want your kids to be involved with,” said Sarah Bridgwater, a parent who wants the district to follow the advice of public health experts, who recommend mask mandates. She got a seat at Monday's meeting by arriving about 90 minutes early.

Michael Adamson of the Indiana School Boards Association said the unruly behavior isn't unique to NACS. There are pockets of it statewide.

“People are acting out in a way that I think is really unparalleled in recent memory,” Adamson said Tuesday. “People are just going nuts.”

The NACS board has been meeting in the high school's auditorium in recent months to accommodate unusually large audiences eager to talk about masks and other COVID-19 protocols.

The district announced last week it won't allow public comment at meetings until further notice. Officials consulted with law enforcement and legal counsel to determine Monday's meeting site, spokeswoman Lizette Downey said.

Tyler Leeper, a parent who is pro-choice regarding masks, called the unannounced changes unfair. He arrived 40 minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin, only to learn all the seats were filled. He sat in the cafeteria with 40 to 50 other people and watched a livestreamed broadcast.

Other events happening at Carroll that night – including a volleyball game, cheer practice and basketball practice – complicated officials' attempts to contain the audience, Downey said.

“We had some parents try to sneak into the meeting from different areas,” she said, “but we had an officer outside the meeting entrance who refused entry.”

A 34-year-old woman was cited for misdemeanor criminal trespass after a sheriff's deputy asked her to leave a hallway an estimated 13 times.

She repeatedly told him she didn't have to leave because the school is public property, according to a probable cause affidavit.

The woman appeared in misdemeanor court Tuesday and was assigned a public defender. She has an attorney conference scheduled for Oct. 19, court records show.

The Journal Gazette is not identifying her because it typically does not report misdemeanor arrests.

NACS board member Ron Felger, who supported the reinstated mask mandate, said safety is a concern. The meetings have gotten out of hand, preventing the board from conducting business without interruptions, he said.

“It's a very sad commentary on our democracy and our system of government that we've kind of devolved to that kind of place,” Felger said. “But people on the other side would say we're taking away their rights.”

Board President Kent Somers did not immediately return a call or text message seeking comment.

Adamson, of the state school boards associations, has experience training school board members. He said he doesn't know of any assault against a board member, but it wouldn't surprise him if such an incident happens. He said superintendents and other school officials are being treated like criminals as they make decisions in the interest of students, employees and their families.

“Critics are very, very bold,” Adamson said, “but it's easy to be bold when you don't have accountability.”

Protesters also targeted others Monday. They heckled media, students and parents wearing masks, Downey said.

Sheriff Gladieux said officers will walk NACS board members to their cars if they feel threatened, a service officers provided Monday night.

The NACS board next meets Oct. 13. Downey said the district will continue to work with law enforcement to determine optimal safety measures.

“It is our desire to resume public comment,” she said. “However, we are uncertain when that will happen.”

Adamson worries the ruckus at school board meetings could have lasting effects if behavior doesn't calm down soon. Experienced board members could decide not to seek re-election next year, he said.

Having a lot of new board members who don't know anything about school governance is, he said, “a scary thought.”

Felger, the school board member, is optimistic about the NACS board's ability to find common ground.

“It's been a real distraction,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I hope we can continue to come together and work for the betterment of our school system.”

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