Santa Rosa City Schools board is latest local government showered with hate speech at regular meeting

Most concerning to district officials is potential exposure of students to such language, including antisemitic and racist comments Wednesday from at least a dozen online speakers.|

Another day, another wave of hate.

A little more than 24 hours after a Tuesday meeting of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors was Zoom-bombed by people making antisemitic and racist comments, the same thing happened at Wednesday night’s meeting of the Santa Rosa City Schools Board of Trustees.

The second attack may have been even more disruptive, with at least a dozen commenters upending a discussion of key school board issues, including a conversation about a recent violent incident and shelter-in-place at Herbert Slater Middle School.

“It’s very disconcerting,” Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Anna Trunnell said in an interview Thursday. “We are human beings. Many individuals on our board or in the audience have worked a full day. We want them to be focused on the business of the district. To have people deter us from that can be harmful. It takes up more of our time to get us redirected.”

Most concerning to district officials is potential exposure of students to such language. Trunnell believed several were in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting, a program that included presentation of Student of the Month awards. It’s possible other young people had access to the live video feed at home.

“I’ve had it on in the kitchen when I’m cooking,” said April Liggett, a mother of two who was at the recent meeting. “I would never think I needed to wear headphones. I guess I’m naive in that way.”

The entire meeting Wednesday was unnerving to Liggett, who was there — as were many parents — to learn more about what the district is doing to ensure teachers and students are safe at Slater Middle School, where her daughter attends. Several Slater teachers, parents and students spoke, most of them painting a picture of an unstable environment for staff and students.

Then the racist, antisemitic and anti-trans tirades began flooding in from online.

“When the Zoom commenters started up, that was horrific on a different scale,” Liggett said. “It was shocking. All of a sudden, if there had been any sort of divide between teachers and parents and the school board, we were united. We were all saying, ‘Shut them down.’ Which isn’t a terrible thing, I guess.”

Santa Rosa City Schools sent a message to families, acknowledging what transpired at the meeting and laying out the district’s policies of public access and tolerance.

“We want to emphasize that we will not tolerate hate speech during School Board meetings,” read the letter, which was signed by Trunnell and board president Stephanie Manieri. “We are committed to fostering an environment where all voices are heard, and every member of our community feels valued and respected.”

The letter included several principles of open dialogue, including “zero tolerance for hate speech.”

The Sonoma County Office of Education issued a separate news release condemning the incident. The statement was signed by Superintendent of Schools Amie Carter and Board of Education President Herman G. Hernandez.

“Public meetings by school boards and other governmental agencies are essential to modern democracy, and they should not be held hostage by racists, homophobes, or misogynists,” the message read, in part. “Nor should school boards’ careful deliberation of matters that affect students’ academic outcomes, sense of belonging, and well-being be derailed by the actions of a handful of anonymous trolls.”

While it couldn’t immediately be confirmed that the two online attacks on successive days were coordinated by the same people, they shared certain hallmarks.

Some of the Santa Rosa City Schools commenters openly challenged Manieri to shut them down, challenging the trustees on First Amendment grounds. Others pretended to be lending their opinions on matters before the board, only to pivot to hate speech.

The shock and frustration in the audience was palpable, according to witnesses.

“It has a deep ripple effect on a community that is trying to repair and move forward,” Trunnell told The Press Democrat. “It’s hurtful that in a world where we’re trying to support every child in our system, support every family, that there would be anyone who speaks in a way that makes them feel marginalized or unsafe.”

Following Tuesday’s infiltration of the Board of Supervisors meeting, Supervisor James Gore said that while the incident was upsetting, he was more concerned for smaller jurisdictions that might not have the resources to combat hatemongers.

“I knew what I was getting into when I took this position. And I make a decent salary as a county supervisor,” Gore said that day. “What about school board members or fire district members, who are practically volunteers?”

The next evening, his fears were realized at the Santa Rosa City Schools meeting.

Gore isn’t far from the mark on the compensation of school trustees. Manieri, the board president, receives a monthly stipend of $510.51.

“I don’t think any elected official or public servant goes in thinking this is something they’ll face on a regular basis,” Manieri said. “It’s not something anyone imagines.”

As the Zoom bombs began to drop, Manieri and her board clerk swiftly cut off the involved speakers. Other trustees could be seen shaking their heads in frustration.

Now the school district is wrestling with the same issues the county is weighing: how best to preserve free speech and open access to meetings, while limiting off-topic, offensive comments meant only to disrupt the proceedings.

“Within the confines of our board work, and the work of the district, we’re really trying to be careful about when we decide to cut someone off,” Trunnell said.

The district had already been having those conversations internally, according to Trunnell. Manieri said she has discussed the subject with Santa Rosa Junior College trustees.

“We are wanting to do what we have to do to keep our community safe from these people,” Manieri said. “Because it’s creating an unsafe environment for our people during meetings. If we need to take temporary actions to limit virtual participation, that might be something we have to consider. We’re definitely looking closely at what other governmental bodies are doing.”

One of those bodies has already taken action.

Friday, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors announced that at its next regular meeting, on Tuesday, only people attending in person will be allowed to speak. Anyone can listen in via Legistar, Zoom or their phones. But the board will not be taking comment via Zoom.

“I and my board colleagues are committed to free speech and open public dialogue, but that does not include racist, antisemitic and personal attacks that only spread harm,” board Chair Chris Coursey said in a news release. “We stand against such behavior, and will not allow our public meetings to be hijacked with the clear intent to disseminate hateful, racist or blatantly offensive speech.”

The supervisors will accept public comment on Zoom at the special meeting scheduled to follow their regular session. The special meeting will address potential changes to the county’s Agriculture Access Verification Program, which governs workers’ access to farm properties during emergencies such as wildfires. Any comments unrelated to that topic will be cut off.

Meanwhile, Santa Rosa City Schools has posted the full video recording of Wednesday’s meeting, as it typically does. This one begins with a warning to viewers: “The public comment portion of this video contains offensive hate speech and vulgar language which may be offensive to some viewers and inappropriate for children.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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