A scuffle broke out during the Eastern Carver County school board meeting Monday night, prompting district leaders to call for civility and announce an increased police presence at future meetings.
The physical altercation came at the end of a 45-minute public comment period dominated by speakers opposing the district's decision to extend the masking requirement for students because of rising COVID-19 cases.
In a statement posted online Tuesday, school board Chair Jeff Ross and Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams said the issue of masking has become a "flash point" in the district, which includes Chaska, Chanhassen, Carver and Victoria.
"The behavior and conduct on display in our boardroom this week was unacceptable," the statement read. "It is healthy for us to disagree and to seek more information. It is not OK, and not acceptable to resort to violence or accuse decisionmakers of being Nazis."
The incident is the latest in a series of school board meeting interruptions — both locally and nationwide — caused by irate and even violent parents arguing over COVID-19 protocols, critical race theory and social studies standards. And it's not just yelling and pushing. Board members are also receiving new levels of harassment and threats, both in person and online.
Earlier this month, several fights broke out in a Missouri parking lot after a school board approved a mask requirement. Deputies have been called into several school board meetings across the country, including in Indiana, Ohio and Florida, to remove people disrupting meetings or refusing to wear masks inside.
The School Superintendents Association and the National School Boards Association issued a statement last week noting concerns about what rising tensions mean for the school officials and their work: "School leaders across the country are facing threats because they are simply trying to follow the health and scientific safety guidance issued by federal, state and local health policy experts."
The fracas in the Eastern Carver County boardroom was captured in the meeting video posted on the district's website.
Jonas Sjoberg said he attended the meeting to let board members know that not everyone in the community was against them. His daughter attends a private school, but he wanted to give a comment as a Chaska resident.
"I saw over the summer all of this negativity about masks, and I thought 'Holy moly, how nice it would be to see a board meeting with people standing up to say thank you to the board,' " he said. "But that's not how it works. That's not why people go."
He kept his mask on as he spoke to the board. As soon as he sat down, he said, an unmasked man moved his chair to sit directly facing Sjoberg and then shoved him as he tried to move away. Ten minutes later, at the end of the public comment period, Sjoberg said he raised his cellphone and took a photo of the man because he planned to address his conduct with the school board.
A woman in the audience asked Sjoberg to delete the photo and then the unmasked man rose from his seat, grabbing at Sjoberg's cellphone and yanking on his shirt.
The physical contact lasted just seconds before a principal intervened and someone called for an officer.
The Chaska Police Department is investigating the incident. No charges have been filed.
The school district's statement said such behavior will not be tolerated and in the future, those unable to follow protocols will be removed from the boardroom. Future meetings will also have more police officers. A Chaska police officer is typically at school board meetings at the request of the district and an officer was at Monday's meeting.
Sjoberg said he spoke to police after the incident and didn't return to the boardroom. He said he does not plan to press charges.
Kirk Schneidawind, the executive director for the Minnesota School Boards Association said in his 20-plus years with the group, he's never seen as much hatred in boardrooms and said most of the recent issues have come out of masking debates. Still, he said the issue isn't universal — there are many school districts hosting their meetings without problems.
The association is working to provide school boards with training and resources to educate the public on meeting procedures. Hot-button issues bring new waves of people to school board meetings, many of whom may have never attended before and don't know the structure, Schneidawind said.
The group is also encouraging board members not to let the incidents distract them from their mission of serving students.
"It really seems like all of a sudden it's the adults who need a reminder of civility," Schneidawind said.
Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440