Monday, April 15, 2024

‘Placed there to implode EDI’: Chair asked to resign from equity committee

Melissa Mason being sworn in as board of education member in 2022. (Port City Daily/Brenna Flanagan)

[Update: The New Hanover County Schools board of education voted 4-2, Hugh McManus and Stephanie Kraybill dissenting (Stephanie Walker absent), to dissolve the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Committee at Tuesday night’s meeting. While discussion of the committee was not on the agenda, any member could add it by majority vote. Melissa Mason motioned for its abandonment.]

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — In a conversation that shocked no one, members of New Hanover County’s equity, diversity and inclusion vocalized their resistance to dissolving the committee ahead of a potential board vote on Tuesday.

READ MORE: Leader of NHCS equity, diversity and inclusion committee recommends dissolution

Their request comes on the heels of the board of education’s agenda review meeting last week. Board member Melissa Mason said she would like to discuss disbanding the district’s equity, diversity and inclusion committee at its next regular meeting, Dec. 5.

The EDI committee — made up of district staff and community members — was not consulted before Mason suggested the disbandment. When Malcom Johnson, the district’s chief equity officer, asked the board what he should tell the committee at its meeting — held Monday — Mason said she would discuss a plan of action with him before. 

At the meeting, Mason opened up the floor to feedback on the committee’s progress. Fellow committee member and board member Hugh McManus took the opportunity to express his exasperation with Mason’s actions as chair of the EDI committee. 

“What truly bothers me is that you were placed as the chairman of EDI after the election by Mr. Wildeboer; you were placed there to implode EDI and you knew that from the beginning,” McManus said. 

One of the pillars of Mason’s 2022 election platform was the elimination of EDI in district practices and curricula, referring to it as “woke indoctrination.” Though a year into her term, Mason has not led a strong push against EDI until now. 

In fact, most of the conversation around equity and its definition has been spearheaded by Mason’s Republican colleague Josie Barnhart. 

Since June, the board has been trying to pin down how the district should promote equity, generally set apart from equality, in that it accounts for imbalances in resources and abilities. The board had a roundabout work session on the topic, questioning the purpose of the equity committee and EDI chief officer position. 

A major conundrum, brought forth by Barnhart, has been whether district staff are implementing the right equitable strategies, particularly around student behavior, despite data showing disparities in the district. 

Barnhart has also been open about her opinion regarding the committee and district position, held by Johnson. Barnhart thinks it should be eliminated, though has fallen short of motioning for the disbandment.

McManus said he felt misled by Mason’s action in the wake of a meeting he had with her and board member Stephanie Walker. According to McManus, Mason asked if the two would support her for NHCS board chair. The preservation of the EDI committee is important to McManus, and though he said Mason told her fellow conservative board members she would vote against EDI, she also indicated to him she would consider keeping the committee.

McManus then called for Mason to do the right thing by resigning from her chair position on the EDI committee, a thought echoed by committee member and LGBTQ+ inclusive pastor Gayle Tabor. 

Mason claimed the committee had “no forward momentum”; Tabor suggested the lack of substantial progress Mason cited was her own doing. 

“Everytime we have asked for data, it is blocked, it is foot-dragging, it is you might as well be pulling all your teeth,” Tabor said during the meeting. “I don’t think you can sit there as a chair of a committee and say the data doesn’t support you when you have been lacking in the ability to give data to this group. You’re unwilling to do the job in which you were given. Then, perhaps, you shouldn’t have the job.”

Much of the committee’s conversation focused on the work still needing to be done. 

“We’re failing our Black students,” committee member and educator Kemeka Sidbury said. “We’re failing them because we’re getting sidetracked by somebody trying to ban a book instead of making sure that we have an EDI committee.” 

New Hanover County Schools is the only North Carolina school district under federal sanction for its disproportionate rate of suspensions of Black students. In May, it was revealed Black students are suspended six times more than their white peers, and Black disabled students are suspended four-and-a-half times more. 

Federal sanctions kick in when any demographic disproportionately reaches 3:1; as a result, districts must direct 15% of federal funding toward addressing the problem.

NHCS data showed that 56% of offenses resulting in suspension are what the federal Office of Civil Rights refers to as subjective discipline, including disrespect, defiance, inappropriate behavior and disruption. These violations are often influenced by different factors like culture differences, upbringing, and trauma responses.

Shawn Lamb, the academic inclusion liaison for the county’s special education PTA, noted NHCS was 13 percentage points below the state average for least-restrictive environment. An LRE is a measure of the integration of exceptional education students in academics and activities provided to the entire school. Ideally, these students are separated from their peers as little as possible using methods like co-teaching and assistive technology.

“This work improves our students’ lives,” Lamb said, citing research that shows least-restrictive environments not only benefits exceptional children but the whole student body as well. 

These aren’t the only areas NHCS has struggled. It must fund athletic field improvements stemming from a Title IX violation and parents have reported ​​hurdles in developing their exceptional children’s individualized education plans. It received another blowback after restricting transgender middle schoolers from participating on the sport teams aligning with their gender identity.

Johnson also advocated for the EDI committee and better utilization of it and his position as chief equity officer. He reported he has not received any directive to train staff in EDI practices. Therefore, removing the committee without preparing them would not be practicing due diligence. 

“I’m waiting to be charged and I’m waiting to train because, right now, we’ve created an environment where there’s no accountability for a mishap, no accountability when we hear microaggressions and we have biases that take place within our space. How can we educate our community when we can’t get off the ground here?” he asked.

He also noted the committee’s goals cannot be accomplished without the funding to support it. 

The committee took an informal vote (only board members are voting members on the committee) by standing in support of retaining the committee. Mason was the only person to stay seated. 


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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