Monday, June 24, 2024

NHCS re-litigates what teachers can put on their walls, more amendments proposed

Teachers and principals have been instructed to take down displays that do not represent NHCS, America and curricula, but they’ll be allowed to keep some of those items per new amendments to an emergency policy passed earlier this month. (Port City Daily/file photo)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Teachers and principals have been instructed to take down displays that do not represent NHCS, America and curricula, but they’ll be allowed to keep some of those items per new amendments to an emergency policy passed earlier this month. 

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

Under the new amendments proposed Tuesday, display content regarding any nation, post-secondary institutions, school-sponsored events, sponsorships, family photos and student art would be added to the list of allowable displays. 

At its May 7 meeting, board member Pat Bradford introduced policy changes to limit classroom and school building displays to content on the United States, North Carolina, New Hanover County, the individual school or mascot, and district curricula. 

Bradford suggested the policy bypass the traditional committee process for an immediate vote.

The emergency necessitating the board’s action, 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 earlier this month. There have not been any incidents like such in New Hanover County schools. 

The policy changes passed 4-3, but they were back before the policy committee on Tuesday. One of the supporters for the emergency passage, board member Josie Barnhart, appeared before the committee to argue more leniency in the policy. 

“With the growing unrest that we’re seeing just around the country and different things, it’s concerning and we need to make sure that we maintain schools to have a neutral stance and provide quality education for all,” Barnhart said. 

Over the course of the hour-long conversation Tuesday, board members and NHCS staff posited different kinds of displays that would be allowed under the change, even getting into the weeds on the meaning of display. 

At one point, Superintendent Charles Foust asked how the policy amendments would change what teachers and principals are currently putting on the walls of their classroom, questioning the point of making the changes. 

The committee’s non-voting principal representative Christianne May asked what the intent was behind the policy changes. 

“A family picture on a desk — I don’t think that’s a display,” Bradford said. “I think Ms. Barnhart said it well in terms of, if you’re advocating for a cause and you put that on our desk, that’s probably going to be suspect.”

Bradford went on to say the policy enforcement would be subjective, noting if someone were to display a piece of art with a swastika in it, that would “probably be offensive and would probably not be a great idea.” 

However, May explained the district already has policies prohibiting advocacy and outlining how to approach controversial and complex topics, including policy 3200, policy 7300, the two affected by the proposed policy changes. 

Obtained by Port City Daily, a list of displayed items across the district show none appear to be advocating for a political cause. The fate of some displays, such as student health information, community events or organizations, anti-bullying messages and inspirational quotes are unclear, even with the potential expansion of the policy.

At one point, principal representative May asked about a piece of pottery, which opened a debate into teachers’ actions as an employee versus a private citizen. 

Several court cases have ruled on First Amendment rights of educators, but, notably, the 2006 case Garcetti v. Ceballos, the Supreme Court ruled that public employees do not retain First Amendment protection for speech as part of their official job duties. As board legal counsel Jonathan Vogel explained, a piece of pottery on a teacher’s desk could be considered their expression as a private citizen, not as an employee imparting knowledge or influencing students, and therefore, not considered a display.

Additionally, NHCS policies governing student-initiated and non-school entity displays remain unchanged. 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. The latter policy also outlines the procedure for accepting displays by outside agencies, such as colleges or nonprofits. 

On Tuesday, the policy amendments passed 2-1 — Melissa Mason and Bradford in favor, Stephanie Kraybill dissenting. 

At the May 7 meeting, Kraybill likened the policy changes to making schools “more like prisons” in their restriction of expression. She also raised free speech issues.

The Constitution mandates the government cannot infringe on freedom of expression or beliefs, but teachers are still employees and must follow rules set out for them by their employers. As long as 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 conforms to the First Amendment.

The policy amendments will be voted on at the board’s next meeting on June 4. 

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at

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