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Police arrest parent during Pinellas School Board hearing on mask rule

Other parents said they were blocked from leaving the school district building unless they put masks on.

LARGO — Twenty-five parents had turned out to Tuesday’s Pinellas County School Board meeting, some with their children, to argue against a masking policy to combat the coronavirus.

Things were fine until they tried to leave. Several parents said school district police stopped them, saying they had to wear masks in order to walk through the building.

One, Kari Turner, was arrested in front of her two children. On a video that circulated around social media, her teenage daughter can be heard shrieking, “That’s my mom! That’s my mom!”

School district police charged Turner, 40, with battery on a law enforcement officer, trespassing, and disorderly conduct.

“The individual refused to wear a mask, which began a series of events that led to the arrest,” said spokeswoman Isabel Macarenas. A more detailed report will be available later, and School Board chairwoman Carol Cook promised, “we will be completely transparent.”

This isn’t the first time opponents to the masking rule have made their feelings known at public meetings.

But usually, parent Debra Williams said, “it’s been extremely civil, for the most part.”

Not on Tuesday. Williams said an officer chased her out of the building, holding handcuffs up in a threatening manner.

A girl, identified as Alia Kench, left, speaks, as an unidentified woman, right, looks on during Tuesday's Pinellas County School Board meeting. In a video posted on Facebook by Sam Stefano, Kench is seen screaming for her mother who is being detained by police.
A girl, identified as Alia Kench, left, speaks, as an unidentified woman, right, looks on during Tuesday's Pinellas County School Board meeting. In a video posted on Facebook by Sam Stefano, Kench is seen screaming for her mother who is being detained by police. [ Times ]

Before that happened, she took a video of police blocking the exit to parent Sam Stefano. “They were holding her. They would not let her leave,” Williams said. Stefano described the incident, tearfully, in her own Facebook video.

Michelle Stille, who earlier had spoken to the School Board alongside her daughter, said she was trapped in a hallway until she put a mask on, as instructed. “I have other kids, so I didn’t want to be arrested today,” she said.

Stille acknowledged there are differing views on face masks. But she did not think the police treatment of her group was warranted. “It’s unthinkable,” she said. “They escalated the situation in a way that never should have happened,” she said.

The parents wondered why they could not be allowed simply to leave, as happens in stores when a customer does not wear a mask.

And they said the officers risked doing real harm to people who cannot tolerate masks.

In this still image from video, an unidentified woman is detained by police at the Pinellas County School Board building Tuesday in Largo. The video was posted on Facebook by Sam Stefano.
In this still image from video, an unidentified woman is detained by police at the Pinellas County School Board building Tuesday in Largo. The video was posted on Facebook by Sam Stefano. [ Times ]

“These are people that have anxiety issues, these are people that have health exemptions," Williams said. "But the problem is, we are all being discriminated against and we are all being mistreated because we are a minority, and they don’t like it.”

Opponents to Pinellas’ masking rule have raised a number of objections, some based on health concerns for their children and others saying face coverings are not necessary, given the low incidence of COVID-19 illness and death in the community. Politics are often invoked. The speakers' words are sometimes strong.

“These masks are water-boarding our children,” parent Shannon Brooks said. Heidi Hilliard Natole said, “you have taken away our God-given rights.”

Many in the group accused School Board members of ignoring their lengthy emails. Cook, during the board discussion that followed the speeches, said the board members do read their emails. And, she added, they read emails from masking supporters, who have not been turning out to the meetings.

This is what our Pinellas County school board is doing. These are “school board police”. PCSO would never do this!!!!...

Posted by Amanda Capes on Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Speakers warned that if the masking rule became a formal policy, it would cause the schools to lose enrollment — especially if students lose some of their distance-learning options in the spring, as is widely feared.

Cook, however, argued that many parents feel comfortable sending their children to in-person school because of the masking rule. Sara O’Toole, the district’s manager of student health services, suggested children might show only mild affects from COVID-19 because of the masking. “It decreases the viral load that you experience,” she said.

The board voted 4-1 to adopt the policy. It has no expiration date. The policy replaces an emergency order requiring masks in schools that has been in effect since classes started in August.

In a concession to those in the anti-mask camp, board members added a provision that they will revisit the policy every three months.

Board member Lisa Cane, who cast the dissenting vote, acknowledged that the masking opponents made some valid points.

She said that school district policy is not consistent with the county ordinance. She said data on the long-term effects of mask-wearing are not available, and masking creates a security risk when masked visitors enter a campus.

“I cannot support this,” she said.

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