Menu Bar

Home           Calendar           Topics          Just Charlestown          About Us

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Chariho dodges a major MAGA bullet

RI Supreme Court ousts illegitimate school committee appointee

By Will Collette 

Here's Johnson being illegally sworn in by MAGA state
Senator Elaine Morgan (R-Charlestown, et al.) who has had
her own legal issues
News spread quickly on July 18 that the RI Supreme Court, in a 4-1 decision, ruled that the Richmond Town Council violated the town charter when it appointed ultraright-wing culture warrior Clay Johnson to fill a vacancy on the Chariho School Committee.  

The Court pointed to the very specific instructions in the town charter directing the Council to appoint the next highest vote getter to fill the vacancy. That person is Democrat Jessica Purcell.

The Republican town council majority had argued that they could ignore their own town charter because the Chariho Act doesn’t contain that requirement, only stating that town councils of the Chariho member towns pick successors. Richmond voters should take note of what the majority of their town council members did in their name. 

New Chariho School Committee member
Jessica Purcell (D-Richmond)
Ms. Purcell had argued to the court that the process of choosing a person to fill a vacancy is not an either-or proposition. The Chariho Act says generally that town councils decide and the Richmond Town Charter specifies how its council is to make that decision. 

The court essentially agreed, noting that even if it came down to an either-or decision, they give more credence to laws that are specific (like the Charter) rather than the general (Chariho Act) in matters such as filling a vacancy. If you read the decision, you will see numerous examples in case law to back that up. 

According to the excellent report on this decision by The Public’s Radio South County Bureau chief Alex Nunes, it cost the town of Richmond $21,792.50 to learn that lesson.  

Of course, Richmond lost. Like MAGA politicians across the country have learned, you can’t simply pick and choose which laws to follow and which to ignore, and then expect the courts to go along. However, we still haven’t felt the full effects of all the crazy MAGA judges Donald Trump appointed. 

Joe Larisa, another loser in this case, though I'm
sure he's collecting from the town of Richmond
It didn’t help the Richmond MAGA majority to hire attorney Joe Larisa, Charlestown’s famed Indian fighter. This is yet another case that Larisa simply couldn’t win through bluster and bombast. 

Larisa was the darling of the Charlestown Citizens Alliance (CCA) for his unbridled zeal in attacking anything the Narragansett Indian Tribe tried to do to better itself. But to the greater benefit of the people of Rhode Island, Larisa is a loser in most of his grand legal escapades.

For now, the Chariho School Committee has managed a narrow escape from the convulsive culture wars that have exploded in school districts around the country over book banning, “don’t say gay,” ignoring history and censoring curriculum.

With Clay Johnson out and Jessica Purcell in, the majority of the Chariho School Committee is comprised of people who are not crazy. 

Whether we can maintain sanity at Chariho remains to be seen until after the 2024 election.

If we do undergo a MAGA takeover, what comes next might be what ProPublica reported in this article:  

How School Board Meetings Became Flashpoints for Anger and Chaos Across the Country

In the first wide-ranging analysis of school board unrest, ProPublica found nearly 60 incidents that led to arrests or criminal charges. Almost all were in suburban districts, and nearly every participant was white. 


Time and again over the last two years, parents and protesters have derailed school board meetings across the country. Once considered tame, even boring, the meetings have become polarized battlegrounds over COVID-19 safety measures, LGBTQ+ student rights, “obscene” library books and attempts to teach children about systemic racism in America. 

On dozens of occasions, the tensions at the meetings have escalated into not just shouting matches and threats but also arrests and criminal charges. 

ProPublica identified nearly 90 incidents in 30 states going back to the spring of 2021. (That’s when the majority of boards resumed gathering in-person after predominantly holding meetings virtually.) Our examination — the first wide-ranging analysis of school board unrest — found that at least 59 people were arrested or charged over an 18-month period, from May 2021 to November 2022. Prosecutors dismissed the vast majority of the cases, most of them involving charges of trespassing, resisting an officer or disrupting a public meeting. Almost all of the incidents were in suburban districts, and nearly every participant was white. 

In the course of our analysis, we examined hundreds of hours of footage — school board meeting feeds, social media posts and police bodycam videos — that revealed how the meetings became a forum for simmering anger over pandemic restrictions and, soon after, widespread fury over the belief that school boards are infringing on parental rights. In many cases, the heated discourse that started in the meetings spawned sweeping debates that ultimately restricted what could be taught in classrooms and reshaped the school boards themselves. 

The videos reveal several patterns. Often, a parade of speakers riled up the crowd during the public comment. [To watch the numerous videos assembled by ProPublica, go to their original article HERE.]  

At a February 2022 school board meeting in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a woman named Laura Lester (first video) drew applause when she stepped to the podium and delivered the first three sentences of her prepared remarks: “Two weeks of ‘flatten the curve’ has turned into two years of a nightmare,” she said. “The mandate needs to end tonight. And when it does end I will not clap, I will not cheer, I will not celebrate for a freedom that should never have been taken away.” Lester did not respond to requests for comment. 

A few minutes later, as two women described their plan to wage a legal battle against the school district’s “unconstitutional” practices, a man assisting the women rushed at the school board members carrying a box (it contained supposed documentation of the women’s claims). School security officers tackled him and held him down in an adjacent hallway as he repeatedly bellowed: “You work for me!” 

At a school board meeting the year before in Wayne Township, New Jersey, the crowd got even more worked up when the school board president tried to silence a speaker, Pamela Macek (second video), who was protesting a library book that “promotes obscene material and porn” by reading passages from it. (In a story published last month, Macek told ProPublica that she wasn’t trying to get the book banned but wanted it restricted to counselors’ offices and wanted parents to have to approve a student checking it out.) 

The board president attempted to hold a vote to end the meeting early. One attendee ran to the front of the room to confront her, pointing his finger at her and yelling: “End the meeting and it’s going to happen in front of your fucking house.” 

Months earlier in Penfield, New York, parents challenged the board to take a stand against public health officials and the governor, with one bemoaning the fact that surrounding districts had dropped their mask mandates amid decreasing infection rates. “You all are in very powerful positions up here,” the parent, Lauren Luft (third video), told the board. “But you don’t own my child, OK?” 

Luft went on to complain about “scary” diversity, equity and inclusion efforts and insinuate that the board was pushing a transgender agenda on students. “You need to understand that these are God’s children,” Luft said, her voice rising and quivering as the small crowd cheered her on. “You are indoctrinating them to hate their bodies the way that they were born, the way that they were made!” 

Luft did not respond to requests for comment. 

After three more speakers voiced complaints similar to Luft’s, an attendee loudly complained from her seat that a board member was laughing. “Be respectful. You’re an elected representative,” another attendee yelled at a different board member. “You represent us. This isn’t about you, bud.” 

“You’re not going to stand up here and do anything to me, asshole!” the board member yelled back. He stood up and beckoned the parent toward him, saying, “Come on.” 

The parent and another man jumped onto the stage. (First video below.) The board member’s colleagues pulled him away from the parent as the video feed of the meeting cut off. 

The mounting pressure at some meetings led to a board member cursing an attendee, a parent physically attacking another parent, and a group of protesters taking over the meeting. 

In Chaska, Minnesota, Jonas Sjoberg had just stepped away from the podium, having used his allotted time to thank school board members for enacting a masking policy, when another parent, Thomas Kahlbaugh, got in Sjoberg’s face, telling him, “What you just did was lie to the board” about the level of community support for masking. 

Minutes later, Kahlbaugh’s wife tapped Sjoberg’s shoulder, upset that he’d taken a photo of her husband. Kahlbaugh then grabbed Sjoberg’s phone (second video) and pulled him out of his seat by his shirt as bystanders yelled for police. 

Reflecting on the incident, Sjoberg said that what happened at the meeting revealed how, as a community, “we rile each other up” and people are confined to “our own little bubbles.” As a result, he said, “we meet in the public square and we can’t communicate, we yell at each other, we scream and shout, and we bicker and fight. Is that really what we want?” 

Kahlbaugh was later sentenced to a year of probation for disorderly conduct and was ordered not to contact Sjoberg and to undergo an anger management assessment. An assault charge against him was dismissed. In response to ProPublica’s questions about the incident, Kahlbaugh said the assessment found that he did not need to attend anger management treatment. He also accused a prosecutor of overcharging him in an effort to make him take a plea deal. “My kids will never step foot again in another Minnesota Public School,” he wrote. “These schools have been lost to the corruption of government taking endless taxpayer dollars while continuing to fail our kids.” 

In a similarly disruptive incident earlier that year in Salt Lake City, Utah, things got so out of hand that prosecutors filed criminal charges against nearly a dozen attendees. 

When the public comment period ended, three attendees approached the microphone and refused to leave, screaming at the board members as members of the crowd began chanting to end the mask mandate (third video). School board members hastily voted to end the chaotic meeting. As they started gathering their things to leave, one of the people at the front of the room encouraged other attendees to join him, shouting: “OK, here we go. Since they’re going to leave, we’re going to take control.” He offered his own motion to end the mask mandate. A group of attendees rushed forward, raising an arm to signal their support. 

Eleven people were later charged with disrupting a meeting. Most of the cases were dismissed. Two people pleaded no contest and paid a fine.

 Though confrontations at board meetings escalated for different reasons, many ended with attendees being removed by police or security officers. 

Many incidents involved attendees protesting mask mandates or COVID-19 protocols.

Other protestors were opposed to the availability of books covering LGBTQ+ issues.

In some cases, attendees were arrested after confrontations with police. 

In several places, members of the public filed lawsuits against the school district, alleging that their civil rights were violated. 

Some of the arrests and interactions with authorities were by design — conceived and filmed for maximum visibility. 

In Brevard County, Florida, a protester livestreamed his intense clash with deputies as he was denied entry to a 2021 school board meeting because he wasn’t wearing a mask. “Move! You cannot touch me, you dumbass,” the protestor, Nicholas Carrington, yelled in the deputy’s face. A separate recording of the confrontation by a fellow protestor continued for more than eight minutes before both protestors were arrested. 

In June, Carrington was ordered to pay $331 in legal fees for disrupting an educational institution. His other charges — trespassing, resisting a public officer and disorderly intoxication — were dropped, as was a trespassing charge against the other protestor. (She was found not guilty of her other charge.) In response to ProPublica’s questions about the incident, Carrington described himself as the victim of a “retaliatory arrest” at a time when school district officials “were only letting people in who agreed with their narrative and were married to wearing the masks and being subservient.” 

In the suburbs of Rochester, New York, parents livestreamed two separate run-ins with authorities at school board meetings. A parent involved in one of the livestreams was among the plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed against more than a dozen school districts and superintendents accusing the schools of “educational malpractice,” in part for having more stringent COVID-19 protocols in place than the state required. That lawsuit was dismissed. 

One parent, who was arrested during her livestream, went on to file a federal lawsuit against the school district and sheriff’s office last year, alleging wrongful arrest and civil rights violations and seeking more than $17 million in damages. The lawsuit is ongoing. 

In another lawsuit, stemming from an incident in Round Rock, Texas, two school board meeting attendees claimed their arrests were retaliation for their criticisms of the school superintendent during the public comment period. In the lawsuit, the men refer to school security guards as “hired goons”; claim they “suffered false arrest” and “effective assault” by the school district police; and allege that the incident “concluded with Plaintiffs in the county jail, after an arrest worthy of an Al Qaida operative.” That lawsuit is also ongoing. 

While in some districts the school board unrest led to court battles, in other places it resulted in political ones. 

In Indiana, a man arrested for disrupting a Penn-Harris-Madison school board meeting subsequently ran for a seat on the board. (Prosecutors had declined to charge him.) His bid was unsuccessful. In Webster, New York, the man who had played a central role in one of the livestreams also made an unsuccessful bid for a school board seat. 

Despite those losses, there were seismic political shifts on a number of school boards, aided in part by the passions stirred in the chaotic meetings. Across the country, slates of conservative candidates were able to gain momentum by appealing to some of the parents who’d packed the meetings. 

Many of the candidates were endorsed by national groups including the 1776 Super PAC, which supports candidates who back a “patriotic” curriculum, and Moms for Liberty, a Florida-based nonprofit that has made book-banning its rallying cry. The candidates often promised parents more control over what topics could be taught in the classroom, what books could be checked out of the library and what rights LGBTQ+ students could be granted. And the candidates’ successes — in places like Berkeley County, South CarolinaWayne Township, New Jersey, and Sarasota County, Florida — politically and ideologically transformed those school boards. 

ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for Dispatches, a newsletter that spotlights wrongdoing around the country, to receive our stories in your inbox every week.

Join us for an upcoming live virtual event, “How Protests at School Board Meetings Are Changing Public Education.”

View the Full Series

From our series Chaos at the School Board

Nicole Carr is a reporter at ProPublica.

Lucas Waldron is a graphics editor at ProPublica.

Additional design and development by Anna Donlan.

Mollie Simon contributed research.