School Board protects public forum, changes threat policy

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Members of the Knox County School Board on Wednesday narrowly struck down a bid to shorten the amount of time that citizens are given to register if they want to speak during the Public Forum portion of the government body’s meetings.

The proposal would have required forum participants to register 24 hours in advance of the meeting, eliminating the practice of allowing citizens to signup the day of a meeting. It came only a few months after the Board decided to reduce forum time limits from five to three minutes. 

During Wednesday’s forum, one woman told the Board that limiting the opportunity for people to speak would weaken the ability of parents and other citizens to make their voices heard during policy debates.

“Anytime that our ability to come and speak and Public Forum is limited, I have an issue with that,” said Erin Keck. “I think that this board talks a lot about wanting to hear from the public. But anytime we’ve had the option to actually put those words into action, you fail.”

She added: “Limiting our ability to come and speak is not in the best interest of any of us as parents, teachers or community members.”

Executive Assistant Terri Coatney explained how the change could help meeting operations run more smoothly.

“As far as signing up, it becomes sort of an issue for the board and Vice Chair Ms. Satterfield… when people sign up the day before, I have the opportunity to get all their information registered and we know what topics they’re speaking to. It’s very orderly that way. When people come to sign up at the meeting… it creates a little bit of an issue for the Vice Chair… But I think those are just a few of the reasons why this recommendation was just brought forth for you all to consider too,” Coatney said.

According to the board’s attorney, there is no Tennessee state law or regulation that governs how local school boards should handle citizen forums. 

“State law is that this board doesn’t even have to have Public Forum,” said Knox County Deputy Law Director Gary Dupler. “But traditionally… this board has been very open to the public and welcoming to the public. So, if this board decides to have a public forum policy, which it has for many, many years, then that policy has to be administered correctly and open to free speech, as we’re talking about. But again, this is not about content restriction, but rather regulation of time and place.”

School Safety

A policy dealing with school safety issues changed the Knox County system’s definition of what constitutes a bomb threat as well as the penalty for making one. 

“A threat must insinuate harm and a reasonable person must interpret the communication as a threat of harm. A threat includes, but is not limited to intent to alarm, annoy, offend, or frighten via verbal threats, non-verbal threats, written threats, electronic threats, internet-related threats, threats on social networking websites, sending an image, the use of pictures or drawings to convey a threat, threats made over the telephone, and threats made via text-messaging,” the proposal read. 

The portion of the policy remained unchanged which states any student who is aware of the threat of an explosive device at school and fails to alert a school employee will be subject to discipline or expulsion. 

The Board unanimously passed the measure on its second reading without any discussion during Wednesday’s meeting. 

School Library Regulations

The board also unanimously approved the first reading of an amendment to school library policy which would require schools to provide and maintain an up-to-date list of library materials to be published online. 

According to the new amendment, “If Knox County Schools determines that material contained in the school’s library collection is not appropriate for the age and maturity levels of the students who may access the materials, or is not suitable for, or consistent with, the educational mission of the school, then the school shall remove the material from the library collection.”

Board members didn’t discuss the matter prior to the vote. 

Other items approved during the meeting included over $100,000 in playground upgrades for Bonny Kate Elementary, Fort Sanders Educational Development Center, and Halls Elementary School.

A plethora of contracts dealing with day-to-day maintenance items like air-conditioning and electrical work along with a deal with Pack-Man Productions (a video production company owned by former WVLT Anchor Mark Packer) to handle filming of school sports events also received a green light. 

Megan Sadler can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on July 14, 2022.