School board abruptly adjourns meeting after audience disruption; police called

Members of the audience call on the Lawrence school board to explain decisions that were made in accepting the resignation of South Middle School social studies teacher Chris Cobb, who had been accused of making racist remarks in class. A group of parents and residents disrupted the regularly scheduled board meeting, Monday, Dec. 12, 2016.

Monday night’s meeting of the Lawrence school board was abruptly adjourned and police were called after loud, profanity-laden disruptions from the audience made it impossible to continue.

Members of a group calling itself Black Lives Matter-LFK took over the 7 p.m. meeting soon after it started and refused to yield the floor; shouting ensued and tensions continued to escalate, with the group accusing the school district of protecting a teacher who had recently resigned and angrily denouncing the district’s investigation into the matter.

At several points during the meeting, protesters entered the area just in front of the school board members’ seats and pointed, screamed and cursed just feet from the members’ faces. When asked to calm down, protesters refused, saying they, not the board, were in charge of the meeting. Though emotions ran high throughout the meeting, no physical violence occurred.

The school district has been embroiled in controversy after accepting the resignation of South Middle School social studies teacher Chris Cobb, who had been accused of making racist remarks in class. Exactly what Cobb allegedly said has never been revealed by the district, and Cobb has denied any wrongdoing, saying in a statement last week that he was unjustly accused by a source having a “well documented history of falsehoods.” He said he “reluctantly resigned” his position of 17 years with the district.

The Journal-World reported that Cobb and the district entered into a settlement agreement wherein information about the district’s investigation would be withheld in exchange for a promise from the teacher that the district would not be sued. The district released the agreement only after the Journal-World filed a Kansas Open Records request.

Further issues surrounding that case were expected to be a subject of discussion at Monday’s meeting, which ultimately called into question the validity of that investigation.

It wasn’t immediately clear who called the police to the meeting, but at least one school board member, Vanessa Sanburn, asked the police to leave. Eventually, after this request was made, officers left the premises.

After the meeting officially adjourned, the meeting room at district headquarters remained full of people, with protesters continuing to shout at several school board members and calling for the resignation of Superintendent Kyle Hayden, who had left the room.

When asked by a reporter if he regretted the way the Cobb situation was handled, Hayden declined to comment.

When asked what he thought the protesters were accusing the district of, Hayden said, “They don’t believe we are protecting all of our students to the extent that we should be,” but he continued, “Students are at the heart of what we do.”

Hayden said that it wasn’t district officials who had called the police.

He said the district would have to schedule a special board meeting to conduct the board’s regular business and that a separate meeting would also have to be scheduled to further discuss the topic of Monday night’s meeting.

“It’ll need to be in a space that’s large enough to accommodate a bigger crowd,” he said. “My preference would be where you could sit down at tables.”

Despite being adjourned shortly after its commencement at 7 p.m., the meeting continued unofficially well past 10:30 p.m., with three school board members — Jill Fincher, Jessica Beeson and Vanessa Sanburn — remaining to sort through residents’ complaints in the packed meeting room. Caleb Stephens, a member of BLM-LFK, occupied Hayden’s seat during much of this discussion.

During the meeting, the three board members became aware, they said, of some issues relating to the investigation for the first time — including allegations, by attendees, that several parents were not notified by administration when their children were questioned throughout the investigation of Cobb.

Several in the audience, including Natasha Neal, whose daughter attends South, said students were interviewed by David Cunningham, the district’s executive director of human services and legal counsel. That allegation contradicts what Beeson said she and other members were told — that the school’s principal handled student interviews — about the investigative process.

Those three board members also agreed if information had been withheld from them or if false information had been shared with them relating to the investigation, that those responsible would need to be held accountable. It was not determined by the end of the meeting, however, what that accountability would look like.

“If I found out that I was purposefully misled, I would want to fire the one who purposefully misled me,” Sanburn said. Fincher then said she agreed with that statement.

“My head is just filled with information right now. It’s spinning,” Beeson said, later adding that she, Fincher and Sanburn were all “on the same page” about what actions would be taken next. “We want to bring in an outside firm to review what happened, so we can get some clarity on where and how and if we were misled. That, to me, is the first step.”

Beeson said later that a new legal team would be brought aboard by the week of Dec. 19. While several members of the crowd called repeatedly for the board’s immediate vote on removing Superintendent Hayden, Beeson and her two remaining colleagues Monday evening noted that an executive session would first need to be called and public notice given to discuss such a matter.

— Reporter Conrad Swanson contributed to this story.