School board meetings statewide have been extremely tense in recent months, with hundreds of parents and other stakeholders weighing in on topics like school closures, pandemic procedures, critical race theory and the rights of transgender students, to name a few.

With touchy topics on agendas, districts sometimes have hundreds of people signed up to speak; and in many cases, board meetings are turning into shouting matches, according to a report in K-12 Dive.

Debate, discourse and conversations about controversial topics are all normal aspects of school board meetings, school attorneys say, as are conflicts over dress codes, boundary changes and budgets.

But in a new twist, attorneys say they’re seeing efforts to completely disrupt school board proceedings, as well as threatening and insulting behaviors that are out of control.

Legal experts say that some of the theories for why intense participation is on the rise include recent controversial and political issues, as well as new awareness of local education decision-making as a result of access to virtual board meetings during the pandemic.

This raises several questions: How should districts structure their public comment periods? What reasonable rules can be put in place? What are the decorum expectations that should be adhered to?

The recent rise of heated school board meetings should not deter school boards from conducting open meetings that include public comment periods in accordance with state and local public meeting policies, Francisco Negrón, Jr., chief legal officer for the National School Boards Association, told K-12 Dive. “Intense discourse is, in fact, a basic tenet of our democratic system, and school board members often disagree themselves on positions that the school district is going to take. And of course, it’s subject to majority votes,” Negrón said.

There are some things that school boards can do to keep the discourse civil:

Handle the heat. When public comments become heated, school board members should avoid engaging in a debate with the speaker. If they do start arguing with a speaker, the board member could be violating public meeting laws that restrict members from discussing topics not on the advertised meeting agenda.

Decide on decorum. Boards should set clear expectations for decorum during public comment periods and open meetings. Some actions include time limits for public comments with a visual clock that counts down a participant’s remaining time to speak; deadlines for speaker signups; allowing the board to vote to recess the meeting if emotions escalate or the audience becomes too unruly; and revoking privileges if a speaker violates decorum by using vulgarity or profanity, reveals personally identifiable student information, or breaks other public comment rules set out in policy.

Stating these expectations before the public comment period and consistently following the protocols can set the stage for respectful listening and speaking.

Model professional behavior. School board members should also model the behavior they want to see from commentors. In short, remain calm, communicate clearly, be respectful and avoid charged language.

Offer more ways to connect. Public comment periods during board meetings should be just one way stakeholders can communicate with board members. The public should also be able to request individual meetings with representatives, make phone calls and send emails. But alternative methods of communication and board meeting policies should never restrict the public’s free speech rights.