The Journal Gazette
 
 
Tuesday, October 19, 2021 1:00 am

Editorial

Safety above all

Officials pandering to fringe do public no favors

EDITORIAL BOARD | The Journal Gazette

The noisiest fringe of the anti-mask, anti-vaccine element is proving irresistible to politicians looking to score points with a fired-up base. Voters should take note of those focused on their public duties and those sowing dissent.

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita is among the latter, wasting taxpayers' money as he panders to a handful of parents and others disrupting school board meetings across the state, including in Allen County.

“Hoosier parents have a First Amendment right to speak their minds to teachers, administrators and school board members,” Rokita said in a news release issued through his office.

No one can claim angry parents have the right to physically confront school officials, and Rokita must understand that. “Time, place and manner” restrictions allow government entities to require permits for meetings or rallies, for example. However, as a candidate last year, Rokita himself criticized Black Lives Matters protesters, asserting Indiana needed an attorney general “willing and able to push back against the chaos and stand for order.”

The state's public meetings law balances freedom of speech and the need to maintain order. Under Indiana's Open Door Law, the public has the right to observe and record public meetings. The law does not guarantee the right to speak or participate in a public meeting.

A governing body, including a school board, is required to allow public comment only during a public hearing, not a regular business meeting.

Retaining order is at the heart of the dispute at Northwest Allen County Schools, where the school board suspended public comment at board meetings in the wake of veiled threats and disruptions. The decision was based on “dozens of emails from parents feeling uncomfortable and unsafe at meetings,” according to Lizette Downey, chief communications officer for the district.

It also followed a Sept. 17 email addressed to Northwest Allen board President Kent Somers from Sgt. Kevin J. Neher, school resource officer supervisor for the Allen County Sheriff's Department, and obtained through a public records request submitted by The Journal Gazette. Northwest Allen contracts with the sheriff's department for the services of four officers assigned to district buildings.

In the letter, which you can read at journalgazette.net/opinion, Neher is critical of Somers' disregard for the safety of the school resource officers.

“I truly am concerned for the safety of everyone at those meetings as are the other officers who have worked them,” he wrote. “After the last meeting, it was crystal clear to the officers that you do not share the same concerns for the safety of all at the meetings. You gave numerous warnings but failed to act on your word.”

Somers and board member Steve Bartkus have repeatedly rejected Northwest Allen Superintendent Chris Himsel's recommendations regarding COVID-19 masking protocols for the district.

“Without the backing of the person or people running the meeting, it fosters an unsafe environment for the officers as well. It is incumbent of you to take the lead in setting the tone for these meetings and providing a safe environment for all in attendance,” Neher wrote to Somers.

Chief Deputy Troy Hershberger, a candidate for the Republican nomination for sheriff, joined the fray last week, telling a local radio personality he was “not aware” of any safety concerns expressed to the school board by his department.

It might be true that Hershberger is not aware of communications between Neher and the school board, but it's disappointing that he would speak publicly before consulting with the supervisor. His remarks, like Rokita's, only serve to embolden the small segment of parents determined to defy public health officials' counsel and prolong the pandemic.

The public health emergency has weighed heavily on everyone, and we are eager to see it end. Officials elected and sworn to uphold our democratic principles should be doing all they can to protect First Amendment rights and maintain order. Pitting one side against the other does neither.


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