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Manatee School Board Ends Mask Requirement, Addresses Racist Comments

 Vice Chairman Rev. James Golden spoke out against racist public comments at Friday's school board meeting.
Vice Chairman Rev. James Golden spoke out against racist public comments at Friday's school board meeting.

After weeks of contentious meetings that included racially charged public comments, the board unanimously voted to end face mask requirements.

The Manatee County School Board unanimously voted Friday morning to end its policy of requiring face coverings in school.

The vote amended Section B of Policy 8450, which mandated that all employees, visitors, and students wear a face mask while on school property to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Because the school year ended Thursday, the change means that masks will not be required at graduations or summer school.

But most of Friday’s meeting had nothing to do with masks. Instead, conversation focused on the way the public and board members interacted.

“It just saddens me that the five people who sit up here, who were duly elected to serve in this capacity, are subjected to the verbal abuse that we were subjected to at the last public hearing that we had on this matter,” Vice Chairman Rev. James Golden said.

In a series of meetings leading up to Friday’s vote, board members faced heated pushback from the public about the enforcement of the mask policy. Some of the public comments at the board’s meeting Tuesday included racial slurs.

“I am not going to be called the N-word in public, by the people in this room, and have the people in this room not say anything about it,” Golden, the only Black board member, said. “I’m not comfortable in this room. It's almost as if I'm an invisible man.”

In one instance, Glen Gibellina, a white Manatee County resident, gave Golden a book about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

“We're all human beings, and at the end of the day, we should focus on unity,” Gibellina said. “You know, 100 years ago, we massacred 300 Blacks at Tulsa. I gave you the book, Golden, so I hope you can read it.”

“I don’t need you lecturing me about the massacre of Blacks,” Golden responded.

“Here we go, like this, my three minutes, I should be able to say what I want without any recourse,” Gibellina said, seemingly agitated. “Zero tolerance on my public comment, on my right to redress District 5’s elected official. That's my right, I expect it.”

Gibellina stepped down from the public comment podium and approached Golden’s desk.

“Sorry about the gesture, friend,” Gibellina scoffed as he removed the book from in front of Golden.

In previous meetings, attendees shouted down board members who mentioned federal guidelines and lingering health concerns as a reason for maintaining face coverings to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Parents accused the school board of child abuse, ignoring God's will, and claimed that requiring face coverings was bad for children's physical and mental health.

Board Chairman Charlie Kennedy ordered several recesses in response.

“The last two meetings were the roughest public meetings I think any of us have ever been or will be a part of,” Kennedy said. “It is unfortunate that people feel the need to address each other this way. It never works with me.”

Kennedy also responded to Golden’s accusations about the board not defending him against racist remarks.

“I thought the signal that I got from you was just ‘let's continue,’” Kennedy said. “And so if I misread your signal to continue the meeting, I apologize for that. It’s just disgusting that people talk to each other in that way.”

“What kind of board is this that allows somebody to sit in a meeting and use an N-word and nobody raises their voices? Not once, but twice,” Golden responded. “So yeah, you misread me, I am never supportive of anybody being disrespectful of anybody for any reason, that's just not necessary.”

Golden said that he pushed through the targeted remarks in service of the students and constituents that were not represented in the meeting room.

The school board will continue to monitor COVID-19 in schools and camps during the summer.

“Because it's still a reportable communicable disease, we'll have the data month after month moving through the summer to know what the changes will result in,” board member Scott Hopes said.

This was Hopes final meeting as a member of the board, as he was formally named permanent Administrator for Manatee County earlier this week.

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Jacob Wentz