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Ex-School Board member Justice in Beachland ruckus

STORY BY GEORGE ANDREASSI (Week of April 15, 2021)

Former School Board member Tiffany Justice raised a ruckus at Beachland Elementary last week, seeking special treatment for herself and her fifth-grade son, claiming he has difficulties coping with facemask rules.

Attempting to check on her son, Justice sought an exception from the policy requiring parents to give 24-hour notice to visit their child’s classroom but was rebuffed. She then demanded the policy’s repeal, even though she voted to approve the policy in 2018 when she represented the barrier island on the School Board.

Justice complained no special accommodations were made to allow her son to go mask-free in his classroom.  She also objected to being monitored by the school resource officer during her visit to Beachland last Wednesday – even though she had taken an adversarial stance against the school in person and on a local radio talk show.

Justice aired her grievances against Beachland Elementary School and the school district both before and after her Wednesday school visit during appearances on Newsradio WTTB’s local news broadcast and podcast with Bob Soos last Tuesday and Thursday.

“I was being treated like Enemy No. 1,” Justice said. “The fact they want to silence us means we need to speak up and be louder.”

The trouble started last Monday morning when Beachland Elementary School refused to grant Justice access when she accompanied her fifth-grade son to see how teachers were addressing his difficulties coping with the requirement to wear a facemask in class.

“I was told there is a policy that a teacher must be given a 24-hour notice before a parent is allowed to enter their classroom,” Justice said on the radio. “It does beg the question: What is the purpose of the 24 hours?”

Instead of being driven by professional courtesy and advanced planning, Justice implied the 24-hour rule was an opportunity for school officials to coverup wrongdoing but provided no evidence.

“Are lesson plans being changed? Are there things that are being removed from classrooms?” Justice asked wildly, without providing any basis for her suspicions.

“I’m going to email all School Board members today and I’m going to make them aware of the policy, and I think I’m going to ask them actually to repeal it immediately,” Justice said.

Justice is a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, a right-wing organization that believes “the real monster under the bed in public education is the slow erosion of parental rights.”

Another member of the group, Jennifer Pippin, was the lead plaintiff in an unsuccessful legal challenge against the School Board’s mandatory mask policy.

School Board members Teri Barenborg and Peggy Jones, both veteran educators who worked their way up through the ranks from teacher to principal, said the 24-hour notice policy is designed to help teachers and protect students.

Barenborg and Jones also pointed out Justice participated in the unanimous School Board vote on April 24, 2018 to revise the 24-hour notice policy.

“Back then when she was a board member, I guess, she read it and it was fine,” Barenborg said last Wednesday on the Newsradio WTTB local news show. “Now, she’s a parent and was frustrated and wanted to go in. But we have policies for a reason.

“It minimizes disruptions in the classroom. It’s the most frustrating thing for a teacher to constantly have visitors walking through your classroom because it disrupts everything, the kids turn around, they look to see who is in the room. It stops the instruction.

“The other thing is safety,” Barenborg said. “We have privacy and protection for students. We have some students who have IEPs (Individual Education Programs), we have some students who are in the witness protection plan, and we have some students who have a dangerous situation happening in their family.

“When one parent goes in and visits a classroom, unfortunately, sometimes another parent doesn’t want that parent in that classroom with their child because something might have happened in the neighborhood,” Barenborg said. “If we have to, we’ll remove a child from a class so a parent can come in and visit. That sometimes happens, unfortunately.”

Reversing the 24-hour notice policy would require approval from the teachers union and take time to negotiate, Barenborg said.

But there is no 24-hour waiting period for School Board members, Barenborg said, so she visited Beachland Elementary School after hearing Justice complain on the radio.

“I wanted to make sure her child was being treated correctly, that the school was following the protocols we had put in place,” Barenborg said.

“They’ve got a great fifth grade there and they’re doing some phenomenal things,” Barenborg said. “I walked in and saw teaching and learning and every child on task. I didn’t see a child off task. So, I was impressed with it.”

Jones expressed full support for the 24-hour notice policy and said she would not vote to amend it.

“It is my professional opinion that in the absence of an extreme emergency, you give at least 24 hours’ notice,” Jones said in an email reply to Justice’s email.

“Giving a teacher a day’s notice to make sure a parent is not coming in during a test, assembly, or any other plan that takes them out of their regular schedule, in my opinion, is simply a sign of professional respect,” Jones said. “A notice of 24 hours is appropriate unless the teacher and principal approve of an earlier time.”

Justice, who opposed the mandatory facemask requirement up until leaving the School Board in November 2020, was allowed into her son’s school on Wednesday after giving notice, but then complained about being monitored by the school resource officer, who kept an eye on her while she was there.

The board planned to vote Tuesday to direct Schools Superintendent David Moore to develop a plan regarding when to rescind the mandatory mask policy, depending on the prevalence of COVID-19 in Indian River County and the schools, but there are no immediate plans to do that.

In its most recent report, the school district said eight students and one staff member tested positive for COVID-19 between April 5 and April 9.