A protester has added his anti-mask message to the morning routine at Sunset Hill Elementary School, leading some in the Lawrence community to express concerns for safety.
On Tuesday morning, two reporters from the Times observed morning drop-off at the school. The scene vacillated between busy and chaotic with the occasional honk or shout from passersby, as well as the bickering between the single protester and two counter-protesters, one holding cardboard signs that read “Masks save lives thank you!” and “Science helps us do the right thing.”
Since the start of the school year, students, staff, pedestrians and drivers have been greeted by a protester outside Sunset Hill holding signs with anti-mask messages like the ones displayed this morning that read, “Masks on children is child abuse” and “We will regret it.” The protester has also been a regular demonstrator in front of district offices.
When asked to identify himself and if he had a connection to the school, the protester declined to answer. Observers identified him as Justin Spiehs. The Times confirmed Spiehs is a non-tenured assistant professor of human services in the Family and Human Services Department at Washburn University in Topeka. Spokesperson Patrick Early said he joined the faculty more than five years ago.
“We are aware of some of his activities in protesting decisions around masks in the schools in Douglas County, but we don’t have any comment at this time,” Early said.
During the Douglas County Commission’s Aug. 18 meeting, Spiehs told the commission he holds a doctorate in life span human development from Kansas State University and teaches numerous classes in the subject. A faculty profile for Spiehs lists courses in counseling and addiction treatment. Early said the course listing was current.
During the public comment period on a proposed mask mandate for 2- to 11-year-olds, Spiehs told commission members and public health officials that no internal review board or parent would sign off on a research study that required children to wear masks all day for an extended amount of time. Spiehs scoffed at people who say they “follow the science” and said, “You’re starting at the wrong place.”
“What do you know about attachment?” Spiehs asked three times, referring to the theory related to human relationships. “Everyone here. Look it up. You’ll know why this is child abuse. Look up attachment. We have to have attachment, and masks are destroying it. We’re gonna see … a generation of psychopaths. We’re gonna see … behavioral issues, and the parents, what are they going to do? They’re going to go to people like you and get medicine, … and here we go, around and around and around …”
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Several staff members awaiting students’ arrival on the north side of the school at 901 Schwarz Road Tuesday morning said they had fielded students’ fears about the protester but declined to be interviewed for the story.
Citing safety concerns, parents on social media have shared worries about Spiehs’ regular presence at the school. Two police officers were observed speaking with Spiehs on Tuesday morning.
Lawrence Police Department spokesperson Patrick Compton said in an email, “After speaking with school officials and the protester, officers determined that no law enforcement action was necessary. Officers did document the incident in case there is a need for future review. LKPD will continue to work with school officials to ensure the safety of all involved.”
Spiehs mocked an unidentified counter protester who said she had just undergone lung surgery.
“Don’t care. That’s sad … but we’re not gonna do public policy because of your issues,” Spiehs told her.
When asked if Spiehs was comfortable “with reports he was scaring children,” he called the reports “false.”
“I’m getting my message out. It’s not my fault you guys are such snowflakes,” Spiehs said, arguing he has not yelled at children and referring to the Times reporter as “crazy” and “a snarky, leftie loon.”
Spiehs said his signs were not political.
“I worked as a child therapist for children that were abused. I know the damage that abuse does. I saw it every day as a child therapist. There are people in this community that will vouch for that … Everything I know about human development and attachment tells me that this is child abuse,” Spiehs said.
A check of the Kansas Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board shows that licenses held by a Justin P. Spiehs have all expired. The Times reached out to the BSRB to ask whether Spiehs holds any current licenses, but the board did not respond by publication time.
A different view
Crossing guard Gary Pike, who said he’s worked in front of Sunset Hill for six years, said he’s watched Spiehs since school started.
“He usually doesn’t say much unless somebody does that,” Pike said, referring to a driver who called Spiehs a “moron” as they drove by. “There’ve been parents who walk by and hit his sign, cuss him out and that, and he recognizes them when they come back.”
Pike said police officers have responded to Spiehs’ presence “three or four times” since school started, adding Spiehs doesn’t bother him or make his job any more difficult “than normal.”
But, Pike said, counter-protesters that began appearing last week have made his job “just as difficult if not more” because their presence distracts drivers trying to read numerous signs. Soon, Pike said, the rising morning sun will blind eastbound drivers and present more safety concerns.
“The closer we get into September, October, that sun will be right there, glaring,” Pike said. “I know people will drive right through (the crosswalk). They can’t even see me standing there.”
Julie Boyle, spokesperson for Lawrence Public Schools, said the district “respects the rights of individuals to assemble and express their views through peaceful protest in public spaces” and encouraged students, parents and staff to share any school safety concerns with their school’s principal.
“District and school administrators will continue to monitor these activities near our schools and will involve law enforcement if public safety concerns arise,” Boyle said in an email. “The district understands that individuals in our community have differences of opinion about mask requirements. Lawrence Public Schools follows the guidance of the CDC, Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Kansas State Department of Education, and Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health in requiring masks when inside our buildings. We appreciate the cooperation of staff, students, and school visitors in wearing masks indoors to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the highly contagious delta variant in our school community.”