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Wisconsin DOJ warns debates at school boards that go too far can be criminal

“When it goes into threatening a person, threatening to harm someone or something, that is when we see it move into criminality"
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Posted at 6:00 PM, Aug 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-25 09:49:36-04

Out-of-control school board meetings over COVID-19 protocols has the Wisconsin Department of Justice's Office of School Safety warning if people go too far in debates, that speech can become criminal.

The Office of School Safety spoke to school leaders about what kinds of speech are protected and when police involvement is appropriate. This comes as school board meetings have turned heated around issues like mask mandates.

At the Burlington School District Board meeting earlier this month, people shouted things like “Cowards. You [expletive] cowards" and “we pay tax for you to be in that job.” At that point, the board took a recess to let things cool down. However, police became involved when members of the public started searching the school building for the board members.

“So when we think about is it typical for people to voice their opinion at a school board meeting, yes it is,” said Kristin Devitt with the DOJ's Office of School Safety. “One thing that is different is where we see people making threats - where there is physical violence involved. When the emotions are high and that is when we see behaviors changing and things becoming concerning.”

Kristin Devitt
Kristin Devitt, office of school safety, Wisconsin Department of Justice

A mask debate in Oconomowoc caused three board members to quit last week. Last night in Pewaukee, a police officer had to calm down an audience member as the board members discussed COVID-19 mitigation plans.

Devitt says if people go too far in a school board debate, it could mean facing criminal charges.

“When it goes into threatening a person, threatening to harm someone or something, that is when we see it move into criminality,” said Devitt.

Tanya Kitts-Lewinski is so concerned about her safety that she is attending the Kenosha School Board meeting Wednesday night virtually. There the board will be discussing a mask mandate.

“People have posted pictures of my daughter and where she goes to school. People have screamed at me in public and sent me messages, like 'stay away from my child' with a lot of expletives, and it’s hurtful. I think it has also risen to a level of dangerous,” said Kitts-Lewinski.

Her hope is the debates remain civil so all sides can be heard.

“Remember again, our kids are watching us. It’s okay to be passionate, but when it goes into the realm threats and harassment and danger to people - that is not healthy debate at all,” said Kitts-Lewinski.

The DOJ’s Office of School Safety says if you want to have your voice heard at any school board meeting, but don’t want to attend in person, you can write a letter or send an email to the school board as public comment.

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