POLAND — At Monday night’s meeting of the Regional School Unit 16 board of directors, a number of speakers lashed out at officials for requiring students to wear masks to limit the spread of COVID-19 in classrooms in Poland, Minot and Mechanic Falls.

But it was the last resident to talk, an hour and a half into the meeting, who carried the discussion into realms that nobody running for a school board seat could have anticipated.

Jennifer Bessette of Minot, who has three children in the district’s schools, said requiring students to wear masks is akin to the tactics of sexual predators who abuse children.

She called the district “a breeding ground for teachers, administrators, board members to human traffick these kids in our public schools.”

Speaking to directors, Bessette said, “You are either protecting our children or human trafficking them. Who are you, a trafficker or a predator?”

As board Chairwoman Mary Martin sought to quiet her and move the meeting along, Bessette proceeded over her objections to read a Bible verse that proclaimed “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

“You are responsible for all your decisions,” Bessette warned board members as she walked away to the applause of a few of supporters in the library at Poland Regional High School.

She said Wednesday that she meant that “at the end, everyone will be held responsible before God” for “horrible choices” like the one to require masks that she thinks are “muzzling these kids.”

Her extreme opposition to the board’s masking order is becoming ever more common across the entire nation as parents and provocateurs push an agenda that flies in the face of the recommendations of nearly the entire medical and public health establishment worldwide.

“As these acts of malice, violence and threats against public school officials have increased, the classification of these heinous actions could be the equivalent to a form of domestic terrorism and hate crimes,” the National School Boards Association said recently.

The group said it believes “this is a critical time for a proactive approach to deal with this difficult issue.”

It’s become a topic so touchy, and possibly dangerous, that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland this week ordered the FBI to begin working closely with educators to address what he called a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence” against teachers, administrators and school board members.

“While spirited debate about policy matters is protected under our Constitution, that protection does not extend to threats of violence or efforts to intimidate individuals based on their views,” Garland said in Monday’s memorandum.

At a U.S. Senate hearing Tuesday, Republican U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri told a deputy attorney general that Garland’s move is “a deliberate attempt to chill parents from showing up at school board meetings.”

Bessette said the RSU 16 board was “trying to silence parents” at its session and clearly didn’t care what they said in opposition to the district’s policies.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential Republican presidential candidate, tweeted that “using the FBI to pursue concerned parents and silence them through intimidation” is wrong. He said Florida won’t allow federal agents “to squelch dissent.”

Garland’s memo followed a Sept. 29 letter to President Joe Biden from the National School Boards Association asking for more help from the federal government “to deal with the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation occurring across the nation.”

“Local school board members want to hear from their communities on important issues and that must be at the forefront of good school board governance and promotion of free speech,” the group representing more than 90,000 school board members told the president.

“However,” it added, “there also must be safeguards in place to protect public schools and dedicated education leaders as they do their jobs.”

The association said it thinks “immediate assistance is required to protect our students, school board members and educators who are susceptible to acts of violence” in the wake of attacks related to mask mandates and false propaganda related to the critical race theory, which is not taught in America’s public schools. It is a complex and theoretical issue debated in law and graduate schools.

HEARING BOTH SIDES

At the RSU 16 meeting, speakers focused most of their ire on the mask mandate, but some also endorsed it and others discussed other issues facing the district.

Daniella Mason, a fourth grade teacher in Poland, said children are doing well with the mask mandate.

“I live and breathe these COVID expectations,” she said, and trusts “the professionals” at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend the best steps to keep everyone safe.

“I trust them wholeheartedly,” she said, and praised the school board for “trying to do what’s best for our children.”

Mark Childs, wearing a cowboy hat and whose daughter attends Regional School Unit 16, urged the school board meeting Tuesday in Poland Regional High School library to tell federal public health officials to “kiss off” rather than follow COVID-19 recommendations. Screenshot from video

Mark Childs, whose daughter attends an RSU 16 school, said he was thrilled when the academic year began without a masking requirement — but that quickly changed in the face of rising COVID threats.

“Then, after three days in school, my daughter’s got to put a rag over her face again,” he said.

Childs told board members that “we better grow up. This is the real world.”

“Supply and demand is being taken from us right now,” he said. “You know what happens after that? Invasion. Take our children. This is no joke anymore.”

Childs begged the board to “tell the CDC to kiss off” and to stop taking federal aid that’s tied to following public health recommendations.

District officials said, though, they plan to take the aid offered, strings attached or not.

It’s paid for four new buses, ventilation improvements at district schools, more teachers, new technology and other purchases that have helped ensure that RSU 16 students get a solid education in a difficult time, administrators said.

Superintendent Kenneth Healey said federal money has created opportunities that otherwise would not have existed.

Martin, the board chairwoman, said the bottom line for the board is that the time allotted during the meeting to hear from the public may need to be reined in.

“When it interferes with what we need to do” and becomes disruptive and time-consuming, she said, it cuts into the board’s ability to do the job for which it was elected.

Martin said officials need to develop “some time limits which are strict and may not make everybody happy.”

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