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'We will find you': Tennessee parents protest school mask mandate; people in masks heckled

A man was recorded on video following a person to a car, saying, "You'll never be allowed in public again."

Angry protests erupted in Franklin, Tennessee, after a school district reinstated a mask mandate for elementary school students, with some people yelling at and heckling those wearing masks in the parking lot at a meeting about the measure.

The Williamson County Board of Education approved the mandate Tuesday night in a special session. It will begin Thursday and run until at least Sept. 21, according to the district. People opposed to the mandate gathered outside the meeting, chanting, "We will not comply."

In one video, a man screamed at a person wearing a mask on the way to a car, saying, "We know who you are." The same man said later, "You'll never be allowed in public again."

Another man said, "You can leave freely, but we will find you."

Carol Birdsong, executive director of communications for the school district, said in a statement Wednesday that while parents are passionate about their children's education, "there's no excuse for incivility."

"Our families and staff represent a wide variety of thoughts and beliefs, and it is important in our district that all families and staff have the opportunity to be represented and respected," the statement said.

Children have shown more symptoms with the delta variant of the coronavirus than with previous strains, and they have increasingly been hospitalized in recent weeks. Children's hospitals in states that have high transmission rates have begun to battle bed shortages, NBC News reported Monday.

The Food and Drug Administration has issued emergency use authorizations for Covid-19 vaccines for adults and children over age 12, leaving younger children more vulnerable to infection. The FDA said last month that it hopes to offer authorization for children under 12 by early to midwinter.

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that all children wear masks when they return to school this year.

Community members were were given a minute apiece to speak during a public comment section at the beginning of Tuesday's meeting in Franklin. Comments split between those who pushed for the mandate and others who opposed it.

Some parents, arguing that there is no legal authority for the district to implement masks, said it was a "parents' rights" issue and threatened to sue.

"Parents should be allowed to choose what they want and how their children go to school," said David Grimmett, who identified himself as a lawyer. "At the end of the day, I see these people with the masks. They believe it is best for their children. I believe it is not. I should be given the choice."

Leigh-Allyn Baker, an actor who starred in the Disney Channel's "Good Luck Charlie," was at the meeting and advocated against the mask mandate. She said that her children would not be able to be vaccinated because of medical exceptions but that she still would not have them wear masks.

"Anyway, the real part of the clown show is that you all think that you actually have the authority to mandate this," Baker said. "Because there are these books that I have, and I have them as a gift for you: the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Federalist Papers. Also, the Bible. And these guarantee my freedom and yours and our children's to breathe oxygen."

Multiple medical professionals who are parents of school-age children advocated for the mandate and debunked several comments that masks were ineffective.

Britt Maxwell, who identified himself as a doctor at a local hospital, said he was fearful for his two children, who are too young to be vaccinated.

"I'm afraid for the choice that they can't make, because the facts are clear. Kids are getting sick," he said. "It's happening now. Pediatric ICU and ERs across the country, across the South, are being stretched to capacity in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri. And it will happen here eventually. It's a myth that kids can't pass to other kids, because they can."

Jennifer King, who identified herself as a pediatrician with two children who attend school in the county, implored the district to reimplement the mask mandate.

"As a pediatric ICU physician, we are seeing more younger, previously healthy children admitted with respiratory failure and acute respiratory distress syndrome," King said. "This trend will only worsen if we don't act now."

CORRECTION (Aug. 27, 2021, 10:13 a.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated how long the mask mandate will be in effect. It will be effect until Sept. 21, not Sept. 12.