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Cumberland schools use police to enforce mask mandate

MADISON —Refuse to wear a mask to a Cumberland School Board meeting and you could be dragged out by local law enforcement officials. That’s what happened to one parent who challenged the Cumberland schools mask policy.

A video obtained by Empower Wisconsin shows Tim Guthrie, a resident of the small northwest Wisconsin community, being forcibly removed by two police officers after he told board members he would not wear a mask at a school board meeting. Guthrie was at the March 22 meeting to remind the board what he and a growing number of Cumberland residents believe: The district’s long-standing mask mandate is unconstitutional and stands in conflict with the policy Cumberland schools put in place at the beginning of the school year.

“We didn’t go there looking for trouble. I wanted to speak about how unconstitutional forcing these kids to wear a mask is,” Guthrie told Empower Wisconsin. He was so frustrated with the district’s heavy-handed enforcement of masks in the classroom that he pulled his three children out of the school system to be homeschooled.

The video shows Guthrie seated, unmasked but sitting six feet apart from others. He wasn’t alone. Others at the meeting weren’t wearing masks, either. Sources say they were warned to comply or face the consequences. In the video, Cumberland School District officials and two police officers surround Guthrie. After pleading his case, the two officers grab Guthrie. A female officer takes his arm, and a male officer picks up Guthrie and carries him out of the room.

“It really just blew my mind,” he said. “I thought we were going to have a debate. There is a lot of disagreement on this (mask) issue.” The mask policy was on the meeting’s agenda.

He was initially charged with disorderly conduct, a Class B misdemeanor that carries up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

The episode floored Cumberland School District resident Michael Furseth, too. Furseth was behind the camera. He said he never dreamed a Cumberland citizen would be dragged out of the school board meeting. He was using his phone to record the school board’s discussion on its mask policy. Furseth said the board has constantly contradicted itself since it was decided to return to in-person learning.

The policy that was approved only required children to wear masks in the hallways and when not social distancing in accordance with state and federal guidelines, Cumberland residents say. The actual mask mandate that has been enforced all year is an all-day mask policy.

When a growing number of concerned parents started to question the strict enforcement, they were met with silence from the school board and administration, multiple district residents told Empower Wisconsin.

“We have been shut out of any conversations with the School Board or Administration,” Furseth said.

After some one-on-one discussions where a few parents complained about the overreach of school officials, school board members and the administrator were “instructed to not respond to anyone criticizing COVID-19 safety policies,” Furseth said.

A day before the March 22 school board meeting, long-time Superintendent Barry Rose sent an email to the staff thanking them for their “unwavering professionalism and commitment.” The superintendent also took aim at the criticism.

“Unfortunately there is some unnecessary nonsense floating around out there interrogating the merits of our Covid reopening plan, which I will categorize as simply selfish and extremely ungrateful,” he wrote in the email.

“I can assure you that I will take care of the unfortunate, frivolous accusations that have surfaced recently, so that each of you can continue to do your job and provide the educational services and support services that our students so desperately need,” Rose promised.

When residents showed up at the school board meeting the next day, they were greeted by a half-dozen Barron County Sheriff’s deputies, as well as two Cumberland Police officers.

Furseth and others say enforcement has been applied unevenly. They say residents who did not wear masks at a public meeting on a proposed Cumberland Schools referendum were not hounded by district officials or escorted out by law enforcement agents.

Cumberland, in Barron County, is a small town. With a population of about 2,300 people, everybody knows everybody. The debate and divide over the mask policy has frayed some relationships. But the response of district officials has been an overreach at best, Furseth says.

The Barron County district attorney, after viewing the video of the officers dragging Guthrie out of the school board meeting, dropped the charges against him, Guthrie said. But the mask mandate critic said he lives under the threat that he could be back in court should someone complain. He said he is weighing legal action.

“I’m concerned that if I go into the school again there will be more complaints against me. Anyone can file a complaint,” he said. “I feel like it pressured me to be silent.”

Rose, Cumberland’s superintendent, did not return Empower Wisconsin’s multiple requests for comment, including phone calls and emails.

Watch the video here.

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