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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

‘Our schools don’t need to be a place of activism’: NHCS board enacts new ban that raises First Amendment concerns

The New Hanover County Board of Education discusses changes to a policy governing displays in classrooms. (Port City Daily)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Displays in classrooms, school buildings, school grounds and buses are now prohibited in New Hanover County schools unless representing the United States, North Carolina, New Hanover County, the individual school or mascot, and district curricula. 

READ MORE: Race, sex teaching guidelines inserted into proposed NHCS policy, language taken from stalled state bill

The policy change was a surprise to some board members and the public when board member Pat Bradford motioned to add it to the agenda; the measure was not discussed at the board’s agenda review last week. 

According to Bradford, the policy changes are needed because of “discord” across the country, including when pro-Palestinian protestors removed the American flag on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus last week. 

“It’s just simply a deterrent because of what’s going on in the climate right now with so many people being so divisive — and to be honest, so much anti-American sentiment in our country and in our state,” Bradford said. 

Bradford proposed the changes — to affect policy 3200 and policy 7300 — be instituted temporarily, as to allow time to travel through the formal policy-making process at a later date.

Per 2410, the board can adopt a new policy and bypass process “to meet emergency conditions or special events that will take place before a policy can be adopted formally.” 

This affordance is only listed under new policymaking, not revising existing policies, though that was not a problem for the board’s legal counsel, Jonathan Vogel. 

“I think it would have a strong legal basis to do so, so long as it justifies what the emergency condition is or special events that will take place before the policy can be formally adopted,” Vogel said.

Bradford did not cite any local or K-12 incidents constituting an emergency, describing her move as “proactive.” Board member Josie Barnhart mentioned employees and parents have asked about displaying Israeli and Palestinian flags; she joined Bradford in her support of the policy change. 

“Our schools don’t need to be a place of activism,” Barnhart said. 

According to board member Stephanie Kraybill, Superintendent Charles Foust provided the board with a list of displayed materials in classrooms. She told Port City Daily on Wednesday the list included mainly inspirational quotes, sports team or college insignias, or family pictures. 

PCD requested the district provide a copy of the list but it was not obtained by press. 

“Schools are going to become more like prisons — even inmates can have pictures of family and special interests on the wall,” Kraybill said. 

Kraybill, along with board member Stephanie Walker, questioned the free speech implications the policy changes would have.

“We all took oath to the Constitution; to me, that’s the highest law that we have and feel like if you do this, it’s almost like we’re trying to restrict people’s speech,” Walker said. “I personally also have not seen anything that you know has risen to a level of an emergency policy.” 

The Constitution mandates the government cannot infringe on freedom of expression or beliefs — even anti-American ones. However, as Ken Paulson, director of the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University, told PCD Wednesday teachers are still employees and must follow rules set out for them by their employers. 

Additionally, the policy does not discriminate against different viewpoints, for example, only allowing the display of flags that are allies of the United States or banning only the Black Lives Matter flag. 

“It’s not discriminating against ideas; it is proactively saying that these would be the appropriate displays in a classroom,” Paulson said. 

It is important to note the policies only apply to NHCS employees; students are still allowed to express their beliefs within the confines of the dress code and display non-school material as approved by the school principal under policy 5210. It outlines the procedure for displays by outside entities, such as colleges or nonprofits. 

Still, principals or other employees tasked with screening display requests are bound by the First Amendment and must remain content-neutral. 

Ultimately, the policy changes passed 4-3 along ideological lines; Bradford, Barnhart and fellow right-wing members Pete Wildeboer and Melissa Mason voted in favor of the change. Kraybill, Walker and Hugh McManus dissented. The board did not specify when it would take up the policy again for permanent consideration.

Though it passed last night, the district did not provide an answer by press concerning the deadline school employees have been given to comply with the policy change.


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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