Nick Blanchard, a right-wing activist and Waterville resident, speaks against masking at the School Administrative District 54 board meeting Jan. 20, 2022. Credit: Valerie Royzman / BDN

SKOWHEGAN, Maine — School Administrative District 54 in Skowhegan has upped security measures at school board meetings because of enraged parents who have shown up to challenge the universal masking policy.

Officers from the Skowhegan Police Department greeted meeting attendees with weapon-detecting wands as they entered the board meeting at the high school Thursday night.

Maine school boards have come under extreme scrutiny as they’ve made decisions about masking and vaccination throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Because anti-maskers have grown rowdier and spewed threats at board members over the months, school districts fear protests could become physical or aggressive.

In consultation with police, SAD 54 boosted security based on social media posts from Nick Blanchard, a right-wing activist and Waterville resident who sometimes attends school board meetings, Superintendent Jon Moody said Friday.

In one video, Blanchard said he and others would attend the Skowhegan meeting to defend a parent who was served with a trespassing notice in December. Part of a video posted by a YouTube group shows Blanchard using a firearm and wearing what appears to be a bulletproof vest.

At Thursday’s meeting, members of the public — some of them parents who live in communities outside the SAD 54 district, including Waterville and Guilford — sat in the Skowhegan Area High School cafeteria, their cellphones ready to record the public comment portion of the meeting.

Two men unfurled a banner that read “Unmask our kids” in big, red letters.

Vicky Wofford, a parent in the district, showed up to defend her husband, Wayne, who regularly attends school board meetings and argues that masks are damaging to kids. Police recently issued Wayne Wofford a trespassing notice that bans him from school board meetings for a year.

“The only threat [Wofford] made was to have board members arrested for child abuse,” Vicky Wofford said. She urged everyone to “come together and put our children’s health first.”

The Woffords’ son also spoke, saying he wished the board would listen more to those presenting information that show masks are harmful.

“I have trouble breathing, like a bunch of other kids in my class. Why won’t you let us have a choice to not wear masks?” he said.

Blanchard, who leads an anti-mask group, opposed the universal masking policy. Blanchard was also one of thousands who traveled to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021, to attend the “Save America” rally where former President Donald Trump was speaking.

“I would normally thank you guys for letting me speak, but I know you’re only doing this because you have to, really. … Members of this school board and throughout the state of Maine have tried to muzzle our voices just like they have muzzled our children,” he said.

Echoing some of Wayne Wofford’s messages at recent meetings, Blanchard said parents have presented factual evidence and data about the dangers of masking children. They’ve asked the school district for research that proves masking is safe and effective and haven’t received any data, he said.

Chairperson Lynda Quinn pointed to handouts with data available in the back of the cafeteria, though Blanchard interrupted her. “False facts,” he said.

The angry group, some members donning masks and clothing with the phrase “Let’s go Brandon,” left the meeting after the public comment section, about 15 minutes in.

Evidence about the benefits of masking has been available for months, and it’s available on the district website, Moody said.

“There are no secrets,” he said. “The reality is some people disagree with it. That’s a fact of public policy. There are times where boards, like this one, have to make decisions that not everyone agrees with.”

Moody has taken research and data provided by meeting attendees who oppose masking and shared it with the school district’s doctor, he said Friday. He wants it to be clear that the school district is listening.

“I didn’t see the exchange being heated … where we’ve seen issues is people actually disrupting the meeting,” he said, adding that some people have shouted or interrupted board members previously.

The kind of disruption that impedes the board’s ability to conduct business, on several occasions, is what would typically lead to a trespassing notice, he said.

SAD 54 has not had to close entire schools this year, though some classrooms have been sent home. MSAD 54 serves Canaan, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock, Smithfield and Skowhegan.

Moody doesn’t want people who come to meetings and speak in opposition of the board characterized as bad, but he also wants facts, evidence and expertise to be the primary drivers of district decisions, he said Friday.

“I think that happens far too much in society now, and the last thing I want for us as an educational institution is to do anything that sends the message to our kids that all opinions don’t matter or that any group of people is better or lesser than another,” he said.

The board agreed to keep the universal masking policy in place Thursday. Members review the policy each month, based on recommendations from Moody.

Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed the creator of the YouTube video featuring Nick Blanchard. The video was compiled by a YouTube account called MaineAntiMaskKarens, which then posted it on Reddit. Blanchard did not post it. It also misstated Blanchard’s stance on vaccines. He says he is against mask mandates, not vaccines.