Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Protestors ask Pender Board of Education why it waited months to investigate racial slurs

Pender High boys’ basketball coach Ray Hankins tells the Pender Board of Education,  “Everybody sittin’ here knows why those words were used. And you also know who wrote them.” (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

HAMPSTEAD — Ray Hankins, the basketball coach who last week went public with documents showing the alleged use of racial slurs by two Pender High School colleagues, stood before county school leaders Tuesday evening, urging them to protect students from racism.

“Dr. Martin Luther King died for us to be able to have a seat at the table, so when things happen, we can take a stand,” Hankins told members of the Pender Board of Education and Superintendent Steven Hill in the Topsail High auditorium.

“I’m not a fool, and neither are you. Each and every one of you knows why those words were used … Everybody sittin’ here knows why those words were used. And you also know who wrote them,” Hankins said.

RELATED: Pender NAACP offers details of alleged racist acts by Pender High employees

Hankins spoke in reference to one of the documents posted on June 8 to his Facebook page — a piece of paper with the word ‘n—–‘ written in a column next to the names of two individuals, both of whom have their last names blacked out.

According to Dante Murphy, president of the Pender County NAACP, Hankins told him that piece of paper “came out of a room where there was a meeting that only teachers and principals were in.”

He said there was no dispute that a Pender High teacher wrote those notes.

Pender Board of Education Chairman Don Hall, center, listens to a protestor Tuesday evening while PCS Superintendent Steven Hill, pictured in the foreground, looks on. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Hankins’ Facebook post included a screenshot of an email dated October 11, 2019. Although a portion of the sender’s email address was blacked out, it came from the Pender County Schools email server.

According to Murphy, Hankins told him the email was sent by a Pender High teacher to document a conversation with another teacher, identified in the email as Mrs. McGowen. The email’s author states that McGowen admitted to using the n-word to a student in her classroom.

On Monday, Murphy called for the resignation of PCS Superintendent Steven Hill, citing a “lack of urgency in responding to evidence that white teachers openly used racial slurs,” along with a “culture of intimidation and fear by administrators” against those speaking out against racism in the school district.

When Murphy spoke to the board, he claimed the allegations were first voiced more than nine months ago; however, after the meeting, he clarified that the allegations came forward at roughly the same time Hankins’ first received the email, which was dated October 11.

Early Wednesday morning, Port City Daily asked Dr. Hill, members of the board, and Pender High Principal Caroline Godwin when each first learned of Hankins’ allegations, and what responsive actions were taken at the time.

At 3 p.m. on Wednesday, PCS spokesperson Alex Riley issued a response: “All matters involving these allegations have been turned over to the investigators retained by the school system.”

Speaking to WECT after the meeting, Board Chairman Don Hall said the board first learned of the allegations last week, when Hankins’ allegation became public. According to Hall, the board has not discussed removing Dr. Hill from his position as superintendent.

“We operate on facts, not off of Facebook,” he told WECT. “So once our investigation’s done, if there’s action that needs to be taken, there will be appropriate action. If there’s not, there won’t.”

Since the revelation last week, Hall has announced two independent investigations: one led by a Raleigh law firm called Blue LLP, hired by the board, and the other by the federal Office for Civil Rights.

Frustrations mount: Crowd limit, deputy films protestors, board enters closed session without vote

Pender County Sheriff Alan Cutler talks with Dante Murphy, president of the Pender County NAACP, while Ray Hankins (left) and his father watch. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Hankins’ speech came after protestors gathered in a hallway outside the auditorium, waiting for more than an hour as Sheriff Alan Cutler arrived to sort out the board’s initial requirement that only 10 people would be allowed in the auditorium at a time, citing the governor’s phase two Covid-19 regulations for indoor mass gatherings.

When those who had signed up to speak during the public comments session prepared to enter the auditorium shortly before 6 p.m., a PCS official informed them of the state’s requirement. Only one speaker would be allowed inside the room at a time, he said.

The announcement caused confusion and frustration among many of the protestors, who were also told the auditorium had a total seating capacity of 600 — more than enough room, some argued, for the speakers to enter together and sit at least six feet away from each other. Several protestors were called to enter individually, including Murphy, but they refused until they could enter as a group.

Frustration surfaced earlier in the protest, however, when Dr. Clyde Edgerton, a UNCW professor, complained that a Pender Sheriff’s deputy was filming him using a cell phone while Edgerton spoke to the group.

Later, when asked why he was filming the protestors, the deputy said it was because he worked in the Sheriff’s public relations office. 

“I film everything,” the deputy said. “[The protestors] were filming me too. No comment.”

Asked to confirm that he worked in the Sheriff’s public relations office, he replied that he “worked community relations,” but would not provide his name.

When Sheriff Cutler arrived 10 minutes later, Chairman Hall called for a 10-minute recess. Cutler entered the auditorium and met with board members in a room behind the auditorium’s front stage. (At this point, the video of the meeting published later online cuts to a graphic that reads, “Currently in a closed session.”)

In the hallway, Murphy told the crowd he believed the board had entered a closed session illegally, without a vote to do so; the video confirms that no vote was taken before board members dispersed. According to state law, a public body must identify the exemption which allows for them to enter a closed session and make a public vote to do so.

The board met in closed session with Sheriff Cutler for 42 minutes. Cutler then spoke with several protestors outside the school building, including Murphy and Hankins, informing them of the board’s decision to allow the remaining 12 speakers to enter the auditorium together, seated at least six feet apart. 

Protestors: A culture of intimidation and racism

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Above (use the arrows to swipe): UNCW Professor Clyde Edgerton points to a Pender County deputy, pictured wearing a mask in the second picture, who was seen filming protestors before the open comment session. (Port City Daily photos/Mark Darrough)

When Dr. Edgerton stood before the board, he discussed a culture of intimidation that existed within the county and school system, one that discourages parents and students from voicing complaints. 

He pointed to the same deputy, then standing at by a wall behind him, who was seen filming Edgerton and other protestors nearly two hours earlier. 

“This happened to me tonight with the gentleman on the left … When I questioned him, the answer was, ‘Well, you filmed me,’” he said. 

“[For] an arm of the government saying to a free citizen, ‘You filmed me’ — Are you serious? This is what people die for, to protect citizens’ rights, to move and speak without the arm of the law filming them on his personal phone.”

Later, Johnny Stringfield took to the podium, telling the board that racism had existed for a long time in the county.

When he was a student at Pender High years before, he said, black students would receive harsher punishments than their white peers for similar acts of misbehavior. He noted that when he was a senior student, he helped file student records in the principal’s office. 

“There was one instance where a black kid came to school — he was a bit intoxicated — well they sent home for 10 days,” he said. “But there was another instance when the white kids came to school and they set the bathroom on fire. And they got in-school suspension.”

He said his son, now a student at Pender High, wrote a report on the Black Lives Matter movement that has swept the country in recent weeks. The same teacher who was mentioned in the email uncovered by Hankins last week — an English teacher named Karen McGowen — gave his son a failing grade on the paper, according to Stringfield.

McGowen told his son that she believed the report was plagiarized, Stringfield said; but when the same report was given to other teachers for their own review, “the teachers gave him an overwhelming score.” 

This, he said, revealed a pattern of racist behavior exhibited by McGowen towards black students.

“Racism has been going on, but it’s up to us to change it,” he told the board members. “It’s a new day and time now. And you can see it. People are rising up; they’re not going to take it no more.”

This article was updated with Pender County Schools’ response at 3:08 p.m., Wednesday, June 17.

View pictures of the protest and board meeting below:

Protestors line the hallway outside of the Topsail High auditorium before the Pender Board of Education meeting Tuesday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Dr. Clyde Edgerton, a UNCW creative writing professor, speaks to the crowd of protestors Tuesday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A Pender County Schools official tells the crowd of protestors that only 10 people will be allowed in the auditorium at a time. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Will Tate speaks to protestors gathered at Topsail High on Tuesday night . (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
A protestor carries a sign that reads, “Use your teacher voice to speak out against injustice.” (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Pender County Sheriff Alan Cutler, right, arrives at Topsail High to settle a dispute between protestors and board members about the maximum number of people allowed in the auditorium. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Wendell Newkirk, who last December became the first black mayor in Atkinson — and the first in a Pender County town — outside Topsail High on Tuesday evening. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
From left to right, UNCW professor Clyde Edgerton, Pender NAACP President Dante Murphy, former Pender commissioner Jimmy Tate, and Atkinson Mayor Wendell Newkirk outside Topsail High on Tuesday evening. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Protestors wait as Pender County Sheriff Alan Cutler meets with board members. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Miles Gibson, a student at Cape Fear Academy in Wilmington, attends the protest Tuesday evening. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Ray Hankins, left, and his father Javon Hankins wait as Pender County Sheriff Alan Cutler meets with board members. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Pender Schools Superintendent Steven Hill looks at a calendar before Pender NAACP President Dante Murphy takes the podium. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Ray Hankins, sitting front middle, before he spoke to board members Tuesday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Pender County NAACP President Dante Murphy speaks to board members Tuesday night. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Send tips and comments to the reporter at Mark@Localdailymedia.com or (970) 413-3815

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