Law enforcement was called to the Cloquet School Board meeting at Garfield School on Monday, Nov. 22, following a profanity-laced tirade by a parent over the district’s universal mask mandate.
The accusation-filled rant came during the public comment portion of the board meeting, where Paul Leno, the father of a grade-school student, made false allegations that members of the board are receiving secret payments for maintaining the mask mandate. Leno's daughter was with him at the meeting.
“Is it a money thing? Are you guys getting a kickback from it?” Leno asked the board.
Leno questioned the rationale for having a mask policy in place at school while similar requirements aren’t mandated elsewhere, citing a recent school function that took place at a McDonald's restaurant.
“I would like to know why my daughter has to be masked up for seven and a half hours a day?” Leno asked. “Why?”
In response to the questions and accusations leveled at the board, Chairman Ted Lammi made attempts to explain how the public comment section of the meeting works and asked Leno if he was done with his three minutes of speaking time. Leno said he knew how the process works, before using profane language.
"I know how it works, sir, I really do. But I think it’s bulls--t. Pardon my language," Leno said.
Leno continued to speak about the mask mandate and claimed members of the board are secretly in agreement with him, but are "too shy" to share their actual thoughts on the matter. He went on to suggest that the mandate is a control mechanism.
“Back in the Egyptian days, that’s how they broke people,” Leno said. “That’s how they played mind tricks on people.”
After repeatedly posing the same question about why the mandate is in place, Leno once again expressed his frustration.
“I’m done, because I’ll end up in jail. I’m that mad,” Leno said.
Board member Ken Scarbrough tried to explain his stance on the issue, but Leno interrupted him repeatedly and used profanity.
Superintendent Michael Cary offered Leno an opportunity to discuss the issue further over the phone outside of the meeting, but Leno interrupted him, as well.
Lammi made multiple attempts to get the meeting back on track using the gavel and by asking Leno to sit down. When those attempts failed, he joined Cary in asking for the board to take a recess. At that time, Scarbrough stepped into the hallway to call the police department.
Before two officers arrived, Leno left the meeting with his daughter. He said he would be back for the next meeting after "doing some more digging."
The recess concluded shortly after Leno’s departure and police officers remained until the meeting was over.
Cary later recommended the presence of law enforcement at meetings for the foreseeable future. He also addressed the false accusation of kickbacks for the district issuing a mask mandate.
"We do receive a number of pots of federal funding to respond to the pandemic. None of it is tied to requiring masking. None of it," Cary said. "We would receive the same money whether we had masks, said no masks, or said masks optional. We would qualify for the exact same amount of money.
"So, wherever this notion is coming from that districts or individuals within districts are being paid to make kids wear masks is absolutely ridiculous and completely false," he added.
The false idea of kickbacks has been a common theme in other districts outside of Cloquet as well, according to Cary.
"I talk to all the other superintendents in the region regularly. Almost every single board has had somebody from the public come and claim that they’re being paid for masking. It’s not happening anywhere, and unfortunately, it doesn’t matter what you tell people," Cary said. "They’ll believe what they read on the internet over what their honest local officials tell them."
To combat the issue of misinformation being spread at school board meetings, Cloquet will begin holding the public comment portion at the end of its working sessions as suggested by the Minnesota School Board Association. The MSBA also suggests that meetings only be recorded and broadcast during the actual board meeting and not during the working session.
The new policy will go into effect at the next meeting scheduled for Dec. 13, which will include a working session at 5:30 p.m. and a Truth in Taxation meeting at 6 p.m. Public comment will be held after the Truth in Taxation meeting adjourns. The regular board meeting will begin when public comment concludes.
Discussion about possibly lifting the district's universal mask mandate was tabled for the next meeting as officials continue to monitor COVID-19 case rates.