Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Dozens of students and parents turned out for a Summerville High School board meeting Thursday to discuss an alleged student bullying incident, only to be turned away by the district's board.

Most audience members wanted to speak about a parent complaint lodged by Al Dieste, father of freshman Beto Dieste. Dieste says his son has been targeted by bullies who, he claims, have formed a "Hate Beto" club.

The agenda for Thursday's special meeting clearly states the public would be allowed to comment on "closed session" items - those discussed privately by the board - prior to trustees going behind closed doors.

Listed on the closed session agenda was a discussion of "a Parent's Complaint Pursuant to Government Code Section 54957."

Board President Randy Richter, however, told audience members they wouldn't be allowed to speak on bullying because it was a "special meeting."

Several people were upset, not understanding the reason they were denied an opportunity to talk.

Contacted this morning, Richter said he didn't believe he'd stifled audience member's rights or had violated the state's public meeting law, the Brown Act, in stopping comments.

He said he was acting on the advice of the district's legal counsel, Sonora attorney Byron Smith, who was present at the meeting.

Richter said the board would have allowed narrow comments on Dieste's complaint against district employees but not a general discussion of bullying, which he believed is what audience members wanted.

Richter didn't clearly explain that distinction to the audience at Thursday's meeting.

He said this morning he couldn't have described the complaint for meeting attendees or give more specific direction on which comments would be permitted, citing the board's obligation to keep the discussion confidential.

Sonora resident Natalie Beebe - a friend of the Diestes - urged the board to take bullying seriously after discussion was shut down.

"Don't brush it away," she said. "Talk about it. Let the public come talk about it."

Asked where he would have stopped public comment about Beto's treatment by the administration, Richter said he couldn't speculate.

"I am not trying to shut down any kind of public comment," Richter said, adding that the board "looked forward" to hearing from the community and had heard comments about the Diestes at earlier meetings.

Dieste, who filed the complaint against the entire Summerville High School administration, including Superintendent John Keiter and Principal David Johnstone, claims his son has been subject to "extremely severe" bullying, which drove Beto to the brink of suicide March 11.

Dieste claims Summerville High staff failed to resolve his earlier complaints about Beto's situation in a timely manner.

He sent out an email to friends, family and many members of the community on March 15, asking them to attend Thursday's meeting and speak in support of Beto.

Trustees are in the process of adopting a new policy on bullying in accordance with California's Safe Place to Learn Act, Keiter said.