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Pulled from class: How PBC public schools discourage public dissent

Miguel Cardenas had already called the county school board’s office and signed up to speak about the recent turmoil at his school, Lake Worth High School. He’d already thought about what he’d say at the upcoming meeting and how he’d say it.

And then on the big day, Jan. 18, the public-address system buzzed in the 15-year-old freshman’s sixth-period English class. A voice summoned him to the principal’s office.

Technically, anyone can speak during the public-comment portion of a school board meeting. But as Miguel would soon learn, when students plan to bring up sensitive topics in that public forum, the school district works hard to dissuade them.

As Miguel left his classroom that afternoon, he knew that the principal wouldn’t be in his office. Both he and an assistant principal had been removed from campus weeks earlier, fallout from an ongoing investigation into the school’s discipline practices.

That was precisely why Miguel wanted to speak. He was upset by the transfer to an alternative school of Assistant Principal Terence Hart, whom he admired and whose daughters he was friends with. He intended to ask the school board to reinstate Hart.

When he walked into the principal’s office, an assistant regional superintendent named Geoff McKee was waiting for him. A few minutes later, Frank Rodriguez, a regional superintendent, arrived. Both had taken part in the decision to remove Hart from the school.

They asked Miguel why he wanted to speak at that evening’s school board meeting. They pressed him about what he planned to say.

They took notes as Miguel gave a circumspect explanation. Then he sat nervously, he recalled, as they tried to convince him why he shouldn’t speak.

Practice defended as ‘responsive’

Though the practice is rarely discussed openly, school district administrators regularly work to head off speakers planning to say unflattering things at board meetings about the county’s public schools or their employees. Teachers receive visits to their classrooms. Students are pulled into the principal’s office. Parents get phone calls home.

Last year, after a Palm Beach Lakes High student surprised board members with complaints about not having a permanent teacher in his math class, teachers reported that district administrators grilled him and several classmates at school the following day, with a focus on finding out whether a teacher had put them up to it.

Administrators acknowledge they occasionally contact people signed up to speak at board meetings, but they say the efforts are simply a proactive attempt to address the speakers’ concerns, not to discourage a public airing.

“We call because we’re trying to be responsive and say, ‘What is the issue and what can we do to resolve that issue?’” Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa told board members last month.

But people who have been on the receiving end of those efforts say administrators go further and pressure them to cancel their speaking plans.

During Miguel’s meeting with Rodriguez and McKee, the administrators never ordered him not to speak and made it clear he had a right to do so.

But he said they tried repeatedly to convince him not to. They told him there were other ways, that he could trust them to fix the problems on campus. They said that if he spoke out, it would only hurt the school.

“They tried to give me other options,” he said. “They said I would give the school a bad reputation.”

In an interview, Rodriguez acknowledged he had spoken with Miguel and other students about their plans but denied asking them not to speak.

“We essentially wanted to find out what their concerns were,” he said. “They have every right to speak.”

Mother ignored until

she decided to speak

As Miguel walked back to class, he mulled whether he should go through with his speech. After talking to one of Hart’s daughters, he decided to speak out anyway.

“You don’t let anything stop you, especially fear,” he said later.

Miguel wasn’t the only one who got a call that day. Kristina Carmichael, whose son attends Lake Worth High, had also signed up to speak that evening about her concerns about violence at the school in the weeks since Hart was removed.

On the day of the meeting, her phone rang.

She had raised her concerns once before, in an email in December to Avossa, and never heard back.

But now that she wanted to speak publicly, the school district was laser-focused on her. On the call were McKee and Rodriguez, on speaker phone.

When she told them her concerns, they disputed her characterization of the school as troubled by violence. They said they had worked hard to stabilize it, she recalled, and that they felt the school was in good shape.

Then, she said, they asked her not to speak.

“They were very pleasant and not threatening in any way but did ask me to let them handle this internally and not speak at the meeting,” she recalled later.

As they discussed her son’s experience on campus, Carmichael said McKee pulled up her son’s grades on a computer screen and began to discuss them with her over the phone.

Then, she said, McKee asked whether they could call her son out of his class to ask him personally about the things he had told her about the school.

“He said, ‘Can I pull your son into the office?” Carmichael recalled. “And I said, ‘No.’”

McKee did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

‘Don’t use anybody’s names’

Others heard from Rodriguez and McKee, too. Hart’s wife, Ayana Hart, said she received two phone calls from Rodriguez about her two daughters’ plans to speak.

Rodriguez “tried to persuade me again to not allow my daughters to speak at the board meeting,” Hart later wrote in an email to Avossa. “He said to me that the board meeting was not the time or the place for them to voice their concerns.”

Miguel, Carmichael and Hart’s daughters all spoke that day, along with two other students. But others did not. A Lake Worth High teacher who had signed up to speak never went to the microphone when his name was called. He did not respond to a request for comment.

And though Miguel had set himself on speaking, he faced another hurdle.

Chuck Shaw, the school board’s chairman, decided that evening to invoke a rule he often imposed when he worried that speakers might speak disparagingly about school district employees. He instructed the speakers not to mention anyone’s name.

“Please be aware that this is an open case that’s being reviewed,” he told the group of speakers before the public-comment period began, “and we also ask under no circumstances, please do not use any individual’s names or anything along that line.”

When his name was called, Miguel rose, his hair parted neatly to the side. In a maroon collared shirt and grey vest, he walked to the speakers’ table. Before him stood the elevated dais where board members sit. Behind him, a series of long tables lined with the administrators who run the county’s public schools.

As a digital clock ticked off his three minutes of allotted time, he started with a nervous introduction. In the audience behind him, dozens of people watched silently while a series of TV cameras broadcast his words across the county via the school district’s in-house cable TV channel.

“Good evening, my name is Miguel Cardenas and I go to Lake Worth Community High School,” he said softly, “and I am speaking on the behalf of the Hart family.”

“OK, please don’t use anybody’s names,” Shaw said again.

The interruption fazed Miguel, who had planned to praise Hart, not disparage him. He struggled to regain his composure.

“Sorry… um … the A.P who is no longer there….Two months ago was… Um…. There was an incident um… And ….”

There was a long pause. Miguel had written out his comments, but Hart’s name was used throughout. To continue, he’d have to substitute generic terms.

The reading became an obstacle course, but he struggled through it, praising Hart as an administrator who “would always be so supportive and would have the backs of students and staff.”

Toward the end, he added that he “felt threatened today and intimidated” by being pulled from his class and questioned.

Worries about slander cited

Shaw, a former principal, later admitted he can’t legally stop speakers from saying names during public comment. It’s a form of content-based censorship that risks running afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s free-speech protections.

He had not given the speakers any indication that mentioning names was an option, but in an interview he said his instruction wasn’t a directive but a request, one driven by his desire to keep employees and students from being publicly slandered by unfounded claims.

“It’s almost always where there’s some ongoing investigation of a personnel issue or some kind of controversy that somebody’s got over a student issue,” he said in an interview. “They’re accusing people of things that they’ve not been convicted of, or there’s no finding on it. But meanwhile these people have had their names talked about at a board meeting.”

Miguel went home afterward. In the following days, word of his speech made the rounds on campus. Teachers and students asked him about the experience.

He never heard again from Rodriguez or McKee.

The investigation into the problems on Lake Worth High’s campus continues, and both Hart and the principal remain off of the campus. This week, a new interim principal was named to head the school.

Miguel, though, said he decided not to stick around for a resolution. This month, he transferred to a new high school five miles away.

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