After Post report, PBC schools may be barred from pressuring students not to speak

Lake Worth High School freshman Miguel Cardenas says administrators pulled him from class to ask him not to speak at a county school board meeting in January. He spoke anyway. “You don’t let anything stop you, especially fear,” he said later.

Palm Beach County public school officials would not be allowed to discourage students, teachers, parents or other members of the public from speaking at school board meetings under a new policy to be considered Wednesday.

The proposal comes five months after The Palm Beach Post reported that two school district administrators pressured students and a parent to cancel plans to speak out at a board meeting about a controversy at Lake Worth High School.

The Post’s article drew the attention of attorneys for the American Civil Liberties Union, who quietly pressed school district officials to do more to shield students from potential intimidation by administrators.

The new rule, which school board members will take a preliminary vote on Wednesday, prohibits school district employees from contacting people who have signed up to speak at board meetings “for the purpose of dissuading, interfering or discouraging the speaker from addressing the board.”

UPDATE: Board members gave preliminary approval to the new policy Wednesday.

The proposal also declares that the school board “recognizes the right of Palm Beach County School students, as with all members of the public, to speak at board meetings.”

“Students,” it reads, “shall be permitted and welcome to speak at board meetings.”

>>RELATED: Pulled from class: How PBC public schools discourage public dissent

There’s a loophole, though: Officials would still be allowed to quiz students and others about why they signed up to speak at board meetings, so long as the intent is to try to “resolve any district issue, including the subject matter of the speaker’s intended remarks.”

That loophole made it into the proposal over objections from the ACLU, whose attorneys say that it still would allow administrators to intimidate students without explicitly discouraging them from speaking.

“We want to encourage kids to talk and we don’t want them intimidated,” said Andrew Chansen, a Boca Raton attorney who does legal work for the ACLU. “It’s a public forum, and we just want them to be able to express their views, whatever they may be.”

An excerpt from the proposed policy.

ACLU attorneys became involved in the case after The Post published an article in February describing the school district’s treatment of Miguel Cardenas, a 15-year-old freshman at Lake Worth High School.

Cardenas had signed up to speak at a January school board meeting about the school district’s decision to remove an assistant principal, Terence Hart, from the school.

Regional Superintendent Frank Rodriguez

On the day he was scheduled to speak, Cardenas was pulled from his English class and sent into a private meeting with two school district administrators.

The two administrators – Frank Rodriguez, a regional superintendent, and Geoff McKee, an assistant regional superintendent – quizzed Cardenas in the principal’s office about why he had requested to speak.

Cardenas said that they then pressured him not to speak to the school board, telling him that he could trust them to fix the problems on campus and that, if he spoke out, it would only hurt the school.

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

Rodriguez denied pressuring Cardenas to cancel his speaking plans, saying that he merely wanted to learn what Cardenas’ concerns were.

But two parents reported similar interactions with Rodriguez and McKee before the same board meeting, saying that the administrators had pressured either them or their children to cancel their speaking plans as well.

“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,” said Kristina Carmichael, the mother of a Lake Worth High School student.

Records released Tuesday by the school district show that ACLU attorneys began requesting records and policies regarding the public-comment process at school board meetings this spring.

An excerpt from the proposed policy

School board attorneys invited Chansen, in his capacity as an ACLU attorney, to give feedback about potential amendments to the school board’s policies regarding public comments at board meetings. Generally, any member of the public is allowed to speak for three minutes at the regular board meetings each month.

In May, Chansen requested that the school board prohibit school district employees from contacting people who have signed up to speak at board meetings.

“With the kids, we just didn’t want them to contact them at all,” Chansen said Tuesday. “I think a phone call itself is intimidating. They’re going to wonder if that means an F.”

School board attorneys rejected that request. In a statement to The Post, School Board General Counsel JulieAnn Rico said that barring school employees from contact with particularly students would improperly constrain the teachers and administrators.

“The district has to be in a position to contact and communicate with students in the normal course of business,” Rico said. “While we are a public body and certainly recognize the need for public access at public meetings, we are first and foremost here for the students and must not be constrained in our interactions with students, parents and employees in fear of inadvertently violating a policy.”

The new policy faces an initial vote from school board members Wednesday. It would need to be approved a second time to become official.

Under the new rule, district administrators could still have pulled Cardenas from his classroom and questioned him in an attempt to “resolve” his reasons for speaking.

They would not have been allowed to discourage him from speaking. But so long as they never apply explicit pressure, nothing in the policy appears to stop an administrator from grilling a student about his or her speaking plans, Chansen said.

“Our position is that they should not intimidate any speaker and there’s no reason that they should talk to them beforehand,” he said. “They should have better things to do than chill people up there talking. I don’t know what the reason is to call people up, especially kids.”



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