SARASOTA, Fla — A Sarasota mom has accused the county's school board of trampling on her first amendment rights. The incident happened during the public comments section of a meeting last week.
According to Melissa Bakondy, she was ordered and escorted out of the April 19 meeting by school police for allegedly wanting to verbally attack a board member. The mom said she was preempted during her preamble as she was making a point going into what she came to say at the meeting.
She said she was interrupted by School Board Chair Jane Goodwin, who prevented her from speaking when the microphone was cut off and she was subsequently kicked out.
"I was actually going to say what Shirley Brown is quoted on a video on a hot microphone from the school board workshop last week," Bakondy said. "It was a sexual comment, inappropriate joke, and as a public school official, making policy for our children, I don't think it is appropriate for these individuals to be able to talk like that and represent our school district."
Bakondy added, "Any dissenting information is cut off as threatening abusive, a personal attack and right then and there [Goodwin] cuts off the mic she doesn't want to hear about it."
Bakondy, who has frequently attended school board meetings, said Goodwin's action of cutting microphones off during public comments amounted to censorship of parents. During the exchange, Goodwin asked Bakondy if she had children in the district, a question against which another board member, Bridget Zeigler spoke up.
"That is not appropriate. You don't get to ask people who come to a public meeting whether they have children or not. Period. You are way out of line," Zeigler said.
After being escorted from the podium, police asked Bakondy to leave the meeting room. When the board members returned from a five-minute recess, one board member briefly addressed the incident and why Bakondy was kicked out.
"A comment that a board member made on a hot mic is not associated with Agenda 35, so you know, who's right or who's wrong or what's the point of order. I would think that we have to do a better job of making sure that our public speakers are sticking close to the comments," said Tom Edwards, Sarasota School Board.
According to a statement from the school district, Goodwin's action "falls within the scope of School Board policy."
"As a district, we will follow policy as written by the School Board of Sarasota County," wrote Kelsey Whealy, communications and community relations specialist and spokesperson for the school district.
In the district's policy document on School Board Governance and Organization, Chapter 2.22, Section 6 A, which covers the public comments section, states that "All statements must be directed to the Chair."
The policy also states that the chair may also interrupt, warn or terminate a person's statement if it is lengthy, abusive, threatening, defamatory, obscene, or irrelevant to the business of the meeting.
In addition, items that are not on the agenda are allotted discussion time at the back end of the public comments session. Bakondy was kicked out after she made a direct reference to another board member, Shirley Brown, on a subject matter that was not specifically on the agenda.
After the law enforcement officers involved in the incident were misidentified as deputies, Sarasota Sheriff Kurt Hoffman weighed in on what happened.
"I do not condone tax-paying citizens being silenced. Your sheriff's office was not involved in this very unfortunate incident," Hoffman said.
Bakondy said she was not actively threatening anyone and maintained that her first amendment right was directly violated by the school board's action.
She added that the board has also placed several restrictions and changed practices at the meeting such as changing the camera angle, cutting down the individual comment time from three minutes to two minutes, and limiting public comments to one hour from two hours.
She added that parents have the right to petition and hold public officials accountable and Goodwin was being heavy-handed and quick to hit the off button.
"I feel like I was censored and cut off before I could even say anything. She said that my mic was cut off because of what I was about to say. So if you are cutting mic off because of what you think I am about to say you have violated my first amendment rights," she said.
"They are elected officials, we don't have to be nice to them. Not that I want to be mean, but sometimes it takes a little political theater to get attention to the issues," Bakondy said.