The woman at the podium was 14 seconds into reading a passage from a library book by a nonbinary author — an attempt to prove that the county board of education "promotes obscene material and porn," as she'd described it — when school board president Catherine Kazan cut her off.
"I don't think that's appropriate," Kazan said. "There's young people in the audience."
"Of course it's appropriate!" the woman, Pamela Macek, countered, raising her voice to be heard over the cacophony of cheers from the people seated behind her in the auditorium.
"Ma'am, you can verbalize your complaint without reading the book," Kazan said.
"No, no! Oh no!" Macek bellowed, shaking her head from side to side. "You ain't shutting me up."
She resumed reading from the book, "Gender Queer: A Memoir," eking out about a dozen more words before her mic was cut. But still she kept at it.
"If this continues, we will clear the room," Kazan warned, holding up her palm. Glancing up in search of help, Kazan said, "Officer, please?"
But Macek continued her complaint about books in the high school library. "There are teenagers!" she yelled, loud and clear in the absence of a microphone. "With strap-ons! Giving blow jobs!"
Kazan banged her gavel three times. "Officer! Officer! I could use a little help here. The woman refuses to leave the podium, and she's being disruptive."
Macek, a substitute teacher who later claimed in a lawsuit that her opposition to mask mandates had led to her firing weeks before the meeting (she received a $22,500 settlement for emotional distress), was part of a chorus of attendees angered by what they perceived as dangers to students in Wayne Township, New Jersey. One of the eight people who'd addressed the board before her at the October 2021 meeting was concerned that the district's COVID-19 precautions were overkill — or "hygiene theater" — as evidenced by the use of plexiglass shields in classrooms. Others had bemoaned the mention of abortion in the state's sex-education curriculum and the "borderline pedophilic books" in the library.
"The idea of blurring lines between genders is child abuse," one of the parents had said, referencing the availability of a book about a transgender child, "When Kayla Was Kyle."
"You emasculate little boys and who's going to don the next police uniform?" the man had asked. "Who's going to don the next military uniform and stand in the face of evil?"
But it was Kazan telling Macek that it was inappropriate to read from "Gender Queer" that got the crowd really worked up. The banging of the gavel did little to quiet Macek or the other attendees.
"Make a motion," Kazan implored the board, after which one of its members, Michael Bubba, moved to close the meeting. Kazan looked at the board members seated to her left and right. No one immediately seconded the motion.
One of the police officers providing security at the meeting started pacing in front of the dais. The crowd became louder and angrier.
Macek was still yelling from the podium when a parent approached her and said, "Give it to me, I'll read the fucking part," briefly taking some papers from her hand before she took them back.
Moments later — just as one of the board members finally responded to Kazan's entreaties, saying, "I second the motion, madam president" — the parent, Mark Faber, made a beeline for Kazan, who sat perched on the dais. Pointing his finger toward her, Faber yelled, "This is our outlet as parents to express our dissatisfaction with what's going on.
"End the meeting and it's going to happen in front of your fucking house."
As three officers directed him back to his seat, Kazan leaned into her microphone. "I take that as a threat," she said.
With the man back in the audience, two board members cast votes in favor of ending the meeting.
"Board members should not be treated like this and have somebody threaten them right in front of the officers, for Christ's sake," Bubba said. "Close this meeting."
But the rest of the board voted no.
"OK, the meeting continues. I'll abstain," Kazan said, to which the crowd cheered.
Kazan would later say that as the meeting continued, she noticed Faber was still sitting in the auditorium. She recalled flagging down one of the school police officers and saying, "Excuse me, why is he still here? He needs to go home. This man just threatened me, threatened the board. And I don't feel comfortable with him remaining here."
Instead, police only briefly took Faber out of the auditorium. He returned to make a public comment a short time later. "I'd like to start off by apologizing to everyone up on the board, to all the people who are here, for losing my temper," Faber said, hands clasped as he leaned over the podium. "It's very uncharacteristic for me to get that frustrated, but I'm sure as many of you can understand, this is a very frustrating time to be a parent."
At the end of the meeting, several board members reassured the parents that they were being respected and heard. Then it was Kazan's turn.
"I was considering saying quite a bit, but now I have to leave this meeting and drive to the Wayne PD and press charges against you, Mr. Faber, for threatening me," she said, pointing her finger into the audience.
She slammed her mic down and ended the meeting. As she gathered her things, she said, "Officer, I'd like an escort to my car." That night, she gave a statement to police, prompting what would be a short-lived investigation.
The confrontation in Wayne is one of dozens of incidents at school board meetings across the country that ProPublica has examined. The blowups reflect the pervasive challenges that school districts and police departments face in figuring out how to handle masses of aggrieved citizens — and what to do when the clashes lead to chaos. Nearly 60 of those cases, which occurred over an 18-month period ending in late 2022, ended with the arrests of attendees. But in Wayne, the school board president claimed that authorities did little to act on what she perceived as a threat.
Faber told ProPublica he does not believe that what he said to Kazan amounted to a threat. "Words are not violence. Violence is violence," he said. "But if you try to silence people from talking because they don't agree with you, that's wrong. You shouldn't stop other people from making their points."
Macek said in an interview that it was never her intent to get books banned; rather, she had hoped to make the point that books like "Gender Queer" should be restricted to counselors' offices and that parents should have to approve a student reading it. In response to ProPublica's questions about the meeting, she wrote, "If a minor child cannot go into a movie theater to watch an R-rated movie without being accompanied by a parent or guardian, then how can they be permitted and even encouraged to view such blatantly sexual material without the supervision of a parent or guardian?"
Parents who cheered for Macek and Faber during the meeting would soon find more allies on the school board. A little more than a year later, the majority of the officials who'd sat on the dais with Kazan would be gone, replaced with candidates favored by frustrated parents who hoped to gain more control over Wayne's schools.
Three days after the incident, Faber visited the police department to check on the case himself. He expressed concern that he and his family could be targeted because his name and the name of his street had been reported in local media. (His address was not published, police noted in an incident report.)
To ease Faber's worries, Officer Robert Franciose directed officers to check on Faber's property during the current and following shifts. Faber told ProPublica that neither he nor his family were actually confronted in the aftermath of the school board meeting.
The day after Faber's visit, a sergeant followed up with Kazan, letting her know the case against Faber was closed. The sergeant wrote in an update to the incident report: "After reviewing the above information, I have concluded that Mr. Faber's statement and actions at the Board of Education meeting did not constitute a terroristic threat. As a result, the probable cause standard was not met and criminal charges will not be filed."
The sergeant told Kazan she could file a complaint in municipal court on her own.
But Kazan remained a target of parents' ire even after the school board meeting. The vitriol just migrated to social media. Shortly after the incident, one man referenced Faber's remarks to Kazan when he posted on Facebook that "by stating that we are going to protest outside a home, Kazan should feel lucky that's all this group wants to do.
"However it's voiced, whether we say fuck, shit, asshole, bitch, whatever, all of which we have all heard and used, all we wants is our parental rights to be respected and upheld," the post continued. "And sometimes people Need to feel alittle uncomfortable in their own skin, maybe sleep with one eye open, because let me tell you, the thought of this going on in our schools makes us parents feel real uncomfortable."
After the sergeant told her that the case had been closed, Kazan emailed Wayne Township's chief of police, attaching a screenshot of the man's comments. She urged the department to reconsider, writing, "I do not feel safe and I will be filing those charges tomorrow. I hope nothing happens to me at a future meeting. Not taking action at this time will only embolden the crowd for the next meeting. I don't even know what else to say about that other than I am truly disappointed. What will it take to arrest someone for intimidating a public official?"
Wayne Police Chief Jack McNiff did not respond to ProPublica's questions about the incident, the investigation or Kazan's email. Kazan said she discussed with her fellow board members the option of pursuing charges and that she felt most of them "wanted to just let it go."
But one board member encouraged her to move forward with charges: Bubba. He and Kazan had butted heads on a number of issues over the past decade. Their politics were often at odds — Kazan describes herself as a social liberal, while Bubba calls himself a moderate Republican. But they both longed for the days of compromise on what was supposed to be a nonpartisan board.
"I thought she should have pursued it," Bubba said. "To me, that was as bad as it could be. We didn't sign up for this."
Kazan said that after she spoke with the board, she called Faber to see if they could settle things themselves. According to Kazan, the discussion ended in a place where she felt she could let her family know that they did not need to worry about her safety. "I was content that the man wasn't looking to blow my brains out. That's all I cared about," Kazan said. "You want to yell at me and curse at me, I can take that. I grew up in New Jersey."
Faber recalls that when Kazan reminded him that she could pursue the charges, he responded, "If that's what you think is the right thing to do, go for it." Ultimately, she decided not to.
Faber said of Kazan, "She called me out publicly and said she was going to the police to press charges in a very angry tone herself. So it wasn't like her reaction to the situation was one of fear. She was just lashing out and threatening me with police charges."
The month after the confrontation, parents who had rallied behind Macek and Faber at the school board meeting scored a victory at the polls.
Three conservative candidates won seats on the nine-member Wayne Township school board. The candidates had been endorsed by the 1776 Project, a super PAC supporting candidates who want to reform public education "by promoting patriotism and pride in American history."
By then, Bubba said, he began thinking it was time to step aside after 10 years on the board. He'd been bothered by the tenor of the school board campaigns, shocked by the Faber incident and alarmed by the community's growing animosity toward the board.
"Nobody wants to compromise. Everybody wants to win," he said. "I don't want to sit there and fight every meeting."
In January 2022, after the new board members were sworn in, the board replaced Kazan as president with another veteran board member.
In that year's school board election, with Bubba retiring, the self-described "parental rights" contingency gained a majority with the election of two parents representing a group called "Children First!" Similar slates of conservative candidates had been put forward nationwide, aiming to change the political and ideological makeup of school boards.
Faber — who describes himself as politically independent — said he was relieved when he saw those 2022 election results. He said that if the board hadn't changed, he believed there would be trans-friendly bathrooms and drag queen story hours at school.
At the March 2023 school board meeting, one of the newest members, Ryan Battershill, proposed taking a second look at the district's mission statement. The statement had been crafted by parents, teachers and counselors in 2020 as a part of a diversity, equity and inclusion initiative soon to be mandated by the state in all public schools. Wayne Schools' statement vowed to provide "culturally responsive, critically engaging curriculum for students of all backgrounds."
Battershill suggested creating an alternate version "that really the community gets behind."
During the board's work session the following month, Kazan was the only member who challenged the need for a new statement. "I can't find a problem with it," she said of the existing document. "I'd really like to know, why are we reconsidering it?"
"There have been a number of times that people have raised the mission statement, especially the values that used to be in there," Battershill said.
Contacted by ProPublica, Battershill declined to explain what changes he was seeking. As of late June, no board member has submitted a plan to move forward with revising the mission statement.
Kazan noted that the district's new diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives "got some people antsy" that the policies could open the door to the schools teaching about race and history in a way that would "make white kids feel bad about themselves."
"Well, that was never the goal," she said. "We have a diverse community, and they need to be reflected."