Gwinnett Solicitor General Brian Whiteside raised questions Monday about the Gwinnett County Public Schools Police Department’s handling of security at the May 20 county Board of Education meeting.
Whiteside said he’d heard reports that officers with the school district’s police force were not immediately taking reports from attendees at the meeting who claimed they had been harassed or threatened.
The May 20 school board meeting was delayed by 40 minutes because of a standoff between board members — who asserted that the district had a policy put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic that required people where face masks in GCPS facilities — and a large group of parents who refused to wear face masks or, in the absence of wearing a mask, leave the meeting.
There was also an, at times, stand-off in the audience between pro-mask attendees and parents and other community members who opposed face mask mandates.
Whiteside said community members came to him claiming they might have been assaulted at the meeting and that law enforcement who were present at the meeting did not take them seriously.
“I won’t tolerate fear in our community, I won’t tolerate people being intimidated (and) I will not tolerate a police department that won’t take a report because there are federal guidelines that go over that,” Whiteside said.
The press conference was the latest chapter in rising community tensions surrounding Gwinnett County Public Schools and the Gwinnett County Board of Education — tensions that have, at least at times, have had racial undertones.
Supporters of two new members of the school board, Tarece Johnson and Karen Watkins, who are both Black, said they are being targeted because of their race.
“These two ladies have been enduring unspeakable harassment,” state Rep. Donna McLeod said at the press conference on Monday. “Through their campaigns, and as soon as they were elected, and sworn in, the complaining started rolling in.”
Meanwhile, a group of parents — several, but not all, of whom are white — that has largely coalesced around issues such as Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks’ future with the district, re-opening schools, face masks and critical race theory have denied that and complained about statements made in social media posts, by Johnson in particular.
Some of those parents, including Asian parents and at least one Black parent, showed up to Whiteside’s press conference holding signs with statements such as “You’re here for a paycheck! We are here for our children!” and “You will not turn parent advocacy into a personal payout.”
Racial issues has also been touched upon by outside groups amid the rising tensions. On Feb. 2, for example, the United Tea Party of Georgia posted a link on Facebook to a petition in support of keeping Wilbanks as superintendent, with a statement that said, “The new intolerant Gwinnett school board members are pushing their radical racial agenda. Superintendent Wilbanks is standing in the way, so they are trying to push him out.”
Claims of slow response by GCPS police to investigate
As for what happened at the May 20 meeting, one community member, Ann LaFavor, said Monday that she was harassed by a member of the anti-mask group who rushed up toward her in the audience at the meeting.
LaFavor said other people stopped the other woman from touching her, but that the woman was “using verbal language toward me” because LaFavor was taking pictures of people at the meeting.
“A woman ran up on me because I was taking pictures because, yes, I documented proof that people were walking in unmasked,” LaFavor said. “I saw lots of friends that I thought were my friends, but when their group sent a woman up to attack me, only a few of them grabbed that woman.
“Security, SROs, call them. They were there. They stood back, which means Black lives don’t matter in Gwinnett County. Let’s be very clear. My life wasn’t worth the air I was breathing. Nobody cared. No one.”
Whiteside said there is a recording that shows what happened to LaFavor. That video was not shown at the press conference, which was held in a hallway at the Gwinnett Justice And Administration Center.
Whiteside said he’s been told that some reports were eventually made, but that the reports have not yet come to his office.
“But, what’s troubling is when you’re on the scene that you don’t take any action,” Whiteside said. “This is what people talk about with ‘Justice and Just Us.’ In the Black community, there’s a saying that ‘Just Us’ means there’s justice for other people, but not Black people. It’s supposed to be ‘Justice.’”
The school district said it is investigating what happened at last month’s school board meeting, and there are two formal complaints that are under investigation.
District spokesman Bernard Watson said the district’s police department has obtained videos from the meeting. He added that, based on their behavior on May 20, two unidentified individuals will receive criminal trespass warnings if they show up at the school board meeting scheduled for this Thursday.
“(GCPS) Police continue to investigate complaints from last month’s meeting,” Watson said. “That investigation has included numerous hours reviewing video from multiple sources.
“In one of the reported incidents, the citizen called out for police during a verbal confrontation with others. Three officers responded and de-escalated the situation. In the other case, there was a verbal altercation noticed by two officers who responded and de-escalated it. Neither citizen involved asked to press charges that night but did so two weeks later.”
Parents argue their side isn’t being told
Some parents who had been in the anti-mask group attended Whiteside’s press conference on Monday and claimed the full story was not being presented about what happened at the meeting.
One parent, Holly Terei, claimed GCPS Executive Director of Administration and Policy Jorge Gomez said they could attend the meeting without wearing masks, after reviewing what she described as an executive order that she said Gov. Brian Kemp had issued, and that Wilbanks later backed Gomez up.
That raises questions about whether district officials told members of the community they could disregard a district policy that both Democratic and Republican members of the school board cited at the meeting, or if there was an existing order from the governor that precluded that policy from being enforced.
“When we arrived at that board meeting, we were told we had to wear masks and the parents that were there at the time complied,” Terei said. “We had our masks on. A parent came and brought Kemp’s executive order at the time.
“Mr. Jorge Gomez went over the executive order and he agreed that masks could not be mandated for that meeting. We were given permission by the head of operations of GCPS that parents did not have to wear masks. We went into the room and asked Mr. Wilbanks and SROs that were in the room. They agreed. We were not mandated to wear masks, so we have the head of operations, Mr. Wilbanks and the SROs supporting Governor Kemp’s executive order at that time and our right to not wear masks at that meeting.”
It was not immediately clear which executive order Terei was referring to. Kemp did issue an order that barred school district from requiring face masks, but that was not issued until May 28, more than a week after the school board meeting.
The Daily Post has reached out to spokespersons from GCPS and the governor’s office for responses to the claims, and clarification about Kemp’s executive orders.
Terei also questioned some of LaFavor’s claims — although she said she did not see the incident LaFavor claimed happened.
“She was chasing parents with her tablet, taking pictures of parents, posting them all over her social media, saying ‘What are you so afraid of? Why are you running,’” Terei said. “Parents kept asking her to stop taking pictures of them, stop recording them. Her response was ‘If you’re so scared, why are you here?’”
But, LaFavor pushed back as she addressed the media. She called out a person who was standing in behind reporters, near the group that was protesting the press conference, and laughing as she spoke about how the atmosphere at the May 20 school board meeting gave her a “slave experience.”
“I see a woman over there laughing, I’m glad she enjoyed it, but let me explain something to you, my life experience taught me what hate looks like,” LaFavor said. “I’m not saying a protest, I’m not saying a disagreement. I’m telling you that these folks put my life in jeopardy.”