NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– Hundreds of charged protesters crowded the entry to the New Hanover County Board of Education meeting Tuesday evening. Most were aware the school administration was only permitting 50 people inside the building at a time due to Covid-19 precautions. Still, they arrived in large numbers an hour early in hopes of squeezing through the door before their rivals.
Around 5:30 p.m., protesters elbowed toward the front of the building as a sheriff’s deputy ordered the group to back up. By the time the meeting started, the room filled, although it was unclear who had been brought in. The members of opposing political groups –– including the New Hanover County GOP, the lowercase leaders and education activists –– were locked outside, sometimes debating peacefully and other times ridiculing, cursing and throwing middle fingers in each other’s directions.
“General bullshit is spewed out without any foundation,” said one 78-year-old man, who declined to share his name but identified himself as a Puerto Rican who recieved no handouts in America. “The only foundation is bullshit –– and gimme, gimme gimme.”
Wilmington police cars circled the scene and New Hanover County Sheriff’s deputies surveyed from the parking lot and peered through glass doors from inside the building. Three extra deputies, in addition to the two regulars who attend, were assigned to the meeting to mitigate the anticipated crowds.
Tuesday evening’s events were the boiling-over of months-long political tensions. One of the most prominent issues on display, though not on the school-board agenda, was over critical race theory, which has garnered nationwide debate and now encroaches local discussions.
A transgender rights issue was on the agenda in the form of the district’s extracurricular activities policy. It was not slated for a vote, but some board members pushed to move forward with one. In a split decision, the board updated policy to allow middle-school students to try out and potentially join the sports team that matches their gender identity.
Before tensions grew at the doorway, mostly young advocates on the steps shouted “Black Lives Matter,” while an assembly of conservatives circled in the walkway and attempted to drown out their voices with “All Lives Matter” chants. The group near the steps formed a human chain, reciting “we keep us safe.”
At times the other group sang the “The Star-Spangled Banner,” recited the Pledge of Allegiance and yelled “Jesus” as they raised their hands in worship. Leaders spoke into a megaphone, decked out with an “InfoWars” sticker, about why they believe it’s wrong to teach children about racism.
Their slogan, branded on shirts and recited in chants, was “Teach Character. Not Color.”
Critical race theory
Critical race theory was not on the board of education’s agenda Tuesday night, though some protesters believed it was.
In May, the issue caught the attention of the New Hanover County GOP after school administrators signed a $17,000 initial contract in February with Sophic Solutions, a “change management consulting firm” the superintendent had previous dealings with. The consultants are conducting interviews with members of the public school system’s community to guide the district in “embodying the values of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging,” according to a statement released by the school district and reiterated at the meeting by board chair Stefanie Adams.
Ahead of public comment, Adams scorned community members who were spreading “misinformation.” Organizers distributed pamphlets to residents ahead of the meeting, warning about the teachings of critical race theory in the public school system. The fliers called out specific board members, including Adams, as well as one elementary school teacher.
“I challenge you to ask yourself: ‘What am I fighting for? Is it our kids or is it political ideology? Are you supporting student growth or are you fearful of losing something?’” Adams said.
She promised the audience New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) is not teaching critical race theory and follows state standards for curricula. The chair then went on to meticulously explain the rules for the public-comment period.
Outside the doors, the sheriff’s office and a NHCS staff member formed a line to allow the 56 speakers in, one at a time.
“If you don’t listen, I’m not going to be able to get speakers in order,” the staff member directed the crowd.
“Are you going to restrain us and put us in isolation?” one protester called out, referring to a school-district discipline tactic also causing contention.
“Oh my god,” another person reacted.
Libby Dunn, who recently announced her 2022 run for the NHC Board of Commissioners, was one of the first to line up. As she took her spot, a person nearby scolded her for speaking when she does not have a child in the school system. Another person responded Dunn still votes.
On Dunn’s Facebook campaign page, she lists Black Lives Matter, Marxism and critical race theory as three of five issues she most opposes. Her pros? “Unity in Diversity – Equality not Equity.”
“Martin Luther King had it right,” Dunn said in an interview. “Skin color doesn’t matter.”
Dunn said New Hanover County doesn’t call critical race theory by its name –– they call it “diversity, equity and inclusion.” NHCS operates an equity, diversity, and inclusion committee that addresses issues such as hiring teachers of color and training staff on implicit biases.
“If it isn’t being taught, we don’t want it to be taught,” another protester, Robert Weible, said. “I think it’s bogus.”
More than two issues
The tensions behind the rallies Tuesday were deeper than just critical race theory and transgender rights. There are several other issues causing distaste in community members. Tuesday, the school board approved a contract for school resource officers.
It was one of the agenda items that enticed the lowercase leaders to rally at the school board meeting. The organization is known for leading Black Lives Matter protests through the summer of 2020, which led to several public arrests among its members in the last year. Organizers said the group does not support increases to any police budget.
“More of a police presence escalates situations instead of de-escalates. We’re prime examples,” said Timothy Joyner, president of the organization.
A NHCS spokesperson said the contract approved Tuesday for elementary school SROs is no different than the one passed in August 2020. The $380,000 contract with the NHC Sheriff’s Office agrees to 11 SROs to the schools. The officers are directed to split their time between schools based on priority, according to the agreement. Some of the highest priority schools for SROs are Freeman and Gregory elementaries –– schools with the largest Black populations –– while the SROs lowest priority list includes Wrightsville Beach and Parsley elementaries.
Concern is also spreading in the community over the use of punitive punishments to discipline students, especially those of color. Some individuals were in attendance to support an ongoing effort to end the use of suspensions among elementary schoolers. Mesh Waddell, a Black mother of a NHCS student, said, while her daughter in the school system stays out of trouble, she does see other kids in her neighborhood struggling from the detriments of suspensions.
“Sometimes even though it’s not my problem, it’s all of our problems,” Waddell said.
Transgender issue passes
On her transgender daughter’s 14th birthday, Katie Jenifer drove herself and her two children more than two-and-a-half hours to speak at the NHCS meeting in support of transgender athletes. A documentarian who is capturing the family’s story came along.
The Jenifer family previously spoke before a House judiciary committee against an almost identical issue: House Bill 358, or the Save Women’s Sports Act. The bill was drafted to prevent transgender youth from participating in high school and college sports statewide.
Jenifer said her daughter cheered and played softball in middle school in Carrboro, a “queer-friendly” community. “It’s a childhood experience that should be open to everybody,” she said.
Previously, when the family lived in Fayetteville, Jenifer fought to enroll her daughter in sports through the parks and recreation department, she said. At the time, her daughter was 8.
“If anybody can explain how that’s an advantage or a disadvantage, I’d like to hear it,” Jenifer said.
Just before midnight, and after hearing Jenifer speak beside her daughter at the podium along with numerous other participants, the school board acted on the issue. Policy No. 3620 passed 5-2.
The revised policy added language to state a student may participate on the sports team in middle school that matches their gender identity.
Tuning into the meeting over Zoom, Vice Chair Nelson Beaulieu led the effort to bypass the first reading of the policy and approve it as drafted. Beaulieu stressed a desire to give administrators and the community a “firm answer” on whether transgender students could pursue sports.
“I understand there’s a lot of passion on both sides of this issue,” Beaulieu said. “We were elected to make the tough decisions. This is one of them.”
The board of education typically holds a first reading, then waits until a future meeting before the policy is put up for a vote during “second reading.” Technically, Tuesday was the second time the policy was presented for first reading. In April, the language was sent back to the policy committee, slightly revised and then returned for another first reading.
The update included new wording to caution students who play the sport matching their gender identity in middle school that they are not guaranteed participation in high school athletics. The North Carolina High School Athletic Association oversees its own process to grant approval to transgender students who wish to play sports on a team different from their birth sex. It involves a comprehensive system of interviews and a board of professionals who are essentially tasked with determining whether the individual is genuine about their gender identity.
Board member Pete Wildeboer, who was appointed to his seat by the county GOP following Bill Rivenbark’s resignation in November, voiced concern with the policy over a month ago. He spoke out again Tuesday, suggesting the district follow a similar process in middle school as the statewide athletic association requires in high school.
Wildeboer argued the board should also wait for guidance from the federal government rather than follow the suggestion of New Hanover County Schools Title IX Director Jarelle Lewis.
“I think it would be much smarter to wait, and think about it, and for those who pray, pray about it,” Wildeboer said.
Board member Stephanie Kraybill sported a rainbow mask but still cautioned against waiving the second reading, stressing the board should abide by its process of adopting policies. She said there was no rush to pass the policy.
“Everybody out there is waiting for a vote that was never supposed to happen,” Kraybill said. “I’m just a little perturbed with my fellow board members who were telling people that we were going to be voting on something tonight, and giving false information and false hope and telling people, ‘I’ll take care of it.’”
Despite the resistance from their fellow board members, Stephanie Walker and Judy Justice pushed to follow through on a vote. It passed with both their and Adams’ support. Kraybill cast a dissenting vote alongside Hugh McManus and Wildeboer regarding waiving the first reading, though Kraybill did vote yes on the subsequent vote to pass the policy.
Beaulieu logged off the meeting immediately after the vote.
After seven-and-a-half hours of conducting business and listening to speakers, the board had touched on one major issue, plus the school resource officer contract. An hour and a half of the meeting was dedicated to listening to public comment. Those who hadn’t trickled out of the meeting by midnight celebrated outside.
There are still no plans for the board to address critical race theory.
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