All he did was criticize Independence school board. He didn’t deserve to be arrested | Opinion
We question the recent trespassing conviction of Jason Vollmecke, a regular critic of Independence School District Superintendent Dale Herl. Like all American citizens, the district substitute teacher has a constitutional right to address the school board. But one surefire way to silence dissent is to have critics arrested on trumped up trespassing charges.
Last week, Vollmecke, of Independence, was found guilty of trespassing. He plans to appeal the misdemeanor conviction handed down by Municipal Judge Garry Helm. He should. Speaking forcefully or out of turn at a school board meeting shouldn’t result in a criminal record.
After speaking at the podium during a school board meeting Jan. 10, Vollmecke was removed by law enforcement and cited. Herl also banned Vollmecke from district property for a year, according to a letter the superintendent sent.
To add insult to injury, Herl removed Vollmecke from involvement with the district’s STEM Academy, according to the letter. Vollmecke’s days as a substitute in the district appear to be over as well, he told us this week.
Last year, Vollemecke unsuccessfully ran for a seat on the Independence school board. He is a regular at its monthly meetings and often questions the body’s lack of openness and transparency with the community.
He could be considered a perpetual thorn in the side of Herl and the board’s members. Expressing oneself to leaders is a cornerstone of our democracy. But in Independence schools under Herl’s leadership, questioning decisions made by him or the school board that unequivocally supports him are too often not tolerated.
Addressing the school board after its meeting has moved on to closed session isn’t an arrestable offense, according to civil rights advocates. No one should fear being arrested for opposing a school board’s decision. Don’t tell that to Herl and his enablers.
In other cities, due to First Amendment protections, we’ve seen similar trespassing charges or convictions outright dismissed, rejected or thrown out. We’re hopeful that Vollmecke, a chiropractor by trade, is spared the legal consequences of a questionable conviction.
Because of the appeal process, Vollmecke is limited in what he can say about the case. But he did tell us being arrested at a school board meeting was frustrating.
“A citizen having to worry about going to jail for trying to address the school board is just ludicrous,” he said. We agree. His arrest was just plain silly and a real abuse of power by Superintendent Herl.
We watched three short clips of Vollmecke’s removal from the meeting, one of which was provided by the district. We looked long and hard for any wrongdoing on Vollmecke’s part. We were hard-pressed to understand he how his behavior warranted an arrest.
District mom’s anti-LGBT rhetoric allowed
Vollmecke wanted to address the board about how its four-day school week starting next school year would impact curriculum. He was three minutes late to the open comment portion of the meeting, but waited to address the board before it moved into closed session. He had informed the secretary he was going to be late. Dennis Green, then the district’s director of public safety, asked Vollmecke to leave but he refused, according to district officials.
Vollmecke was told Herl accused him of displaying violent and aggressive behavior, he said. At the podium, Vollmecke spoke calmly with an Independence Police officer in uniform, according to the video we watched. Despite being asked to leave, Vollmecke is heard saying he would address the board anyway. We’ve seen worse behavior in recent years at other area school board meetings that didn’t conclude with a citation for trespassing.
We vividly recall Herl and school board members sitting idly by as one mom accused the sponsor of gay inclusion club of being a pedophile. That speaker was not arrested or prevented from sprouting off hateful rhetoric aimed at the LGBTQ community.
In a statement, district officials told us Vollmecke was cited for refusing to leave school district premises once the school board meeting had concluded.
“Mr. Vollmecke was given multiple opportunities by the Director of Public Safety to leave the boardroom once the meeting had concluded,” the statement read.
Led by Herl, the Independence School District has a pattern of stifling free expression. With Herl’s approval, the district once charged student journalists more than $320 for public records.
Herl could have pursued several options against Vollmecke, including letting him address any board member willing to listen or advising him to send an email.
Independence stakeholders must be able to express themselves without fear of arrest. Sans threats of violence or profanity, district patrons must have the ability to criticize the school board. Herl and the school board answer to the public. They owe it to their constituents to hear them out — good, bad or indifferent.
One of the core tenets of our democracy is the right to question our leaders without fear of retaliation. Independence school officials should never use the district’s public safety officers or police to quash a critic’s right to free speech.