A school board in Eastern Carver County, Minnesota, said Wednesday it’s beefing up security at board meetings after a debate over the district’s masking policy on Monday took a violent turn.
The altercation unfolded after one masked man, Jonas Sjoberg, 48, appeared at the podium and praised the board’s decision to require masks after a number of other parents blasted the switch, according to video of the meeting posted online.
“I wanted to share with you that the community that you see in the room might not be representative of the community that we serve,” Sjoberg told the room, which was filled with mostly unmasked community members and parents.
“From the bottom of my heart I wanted to express gratitude to you—being in the position of [making] hard decisions,” he added, suggesting that the mandate was helping kids to continue in-person learning.
After stepping away from the podium, Sjoberg was brusquely confronted by an unidentified, unmasked man who wheeled his chair toward Sjoberg and accused him of lying to the board.
Several minutes later, the two men got into a scuffle, when another meeting attendee claimed that Sjoberg had snapped a photo of the man who had confronted him minutes before. The unmasked man lurched at Sjoberg, grabbing his phone, then pushed him and forcefully pulled at his shirt, the video shows. Two men seated nearby quickly jumped up and pulled them away from each other, as members of the board called for cops to help.
An officer who was assigned to the meeting ultimately escorted one of the men involved in the scuffle from the boardroom. In a statement on Tuesday afternoon, Chaska police said they were investigating the incident.
“The officer requested assistance from officers on patrol,” the statement said. “At this point, no formal charges have been filed.”
Sjoberg told The Daily Beast that his 10-year-old daughter attends a local private school but that his intention at the meeting was to “spread some positivity” amid an onslaught of people who were “aggressively anti-mask.”
“In school boards all over the state in Minnesota, people are going and just completely hammering the school boards, and just being rude and mean, and just sharing negativity,” he explained.
He said he felt that the unmasked man was “trying to intimidate me from speaking, but in a way that really emboldened me more—that made me feel more engaged to want to make sure to speak for the people who would be afraid of speaking in that scenario.”
The school district was not immediately able to confirm the identity of the unmasked man, who Sjoberg said departed on his own. Sjoberg said he expressed to the board in an email after the incident that he didn’t believe the man should be permitted to attend future meetings.
In a letter sent Tuesday to parents, School Board Chair Jeff Ross and Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams defended masks in schools as part of an effort “designed with a focus on keeping students in school, minimizing quarantines, and avoiding any distance learning model with an emphasis on keeping our staff, teachers and students safe,” based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as health department officials.
“The behavior and conduct on display in our boardroom this week was unacceptable,” they wrote. “It is healthy for us to disagree and to seek out more information. It is not okay, and not acceptable, to resort to violence or accuse decision-makers of being Nazis. It will not be tolerated, and on behalf of the Board we want to personally apologize to anyone in the room, or watching at home, that it happened at all.”
The school board officials also warned that protocols put in place to remove those who refuse to follow the rules would be enforced to ensure a “safe space” at future meetings.
“As a result of safety concerns, police presence will be increased at our meetings,” they wrote.
When asked what could be expected from the increased police presence in the wake of the altercation, ECCS Communications Director Celine Haga told The Daily Beast in an email that a review of protocols was underway.
“We are working with the Chaska Police Department to review our protocols for future meetings,” Haga wrote.
According to the Tuesday statement from the Chaska Police Department, an officer is typically stationed at school board meetings “when requested by the School District.”
“The Chaska Police Department is committed to making public meetings a safe space for all who wish to speak, and we are working with Eastern Carver County Schools to ensure that future meetings remain civil and safe,” the department wrote.
The heated meeting on Monday came after the school board said it would implement updates to its Safe Learning Plan that included extending a mask requirement for pre-K to 6th grade students through the end of October after the number of cases went “well above” its established benchmark.
The update also added requirements beginning on Wednesday, Sept. 29, for all students in grades 7-12 to wear face coverings, regardless of vaccination status, through at least Oct. 15.
In a statement announcing the change, Sayles-Adams acknowledged that the decision would likely be “difficult for some in our community.”
“As much as each of us wishes it were so, the pandemic is not over,” she said. “Until that time, we must do everything we can to keep each other safe and healthy, and keep our students learning in-person.”
According to a district COVID-19 dashboard that’s updated weekly, the policy change was sparked by rising cases that included a total of 89 COVID-19 cases among students and staff in the district’s Sept. 23 report. The data also shows that 363 students and 15 staff are in active quarantine.
The Minnesota Department of Health has been carefully monitoring a spike in COVID-19 cases in schools and hundreds of new cases have forced districts to adjust their plans for returning to the classroom, including mask mandates and in some cases distance learning.