Thursday, June 8, 2023

Explainer: Why one man is claiming his First Amendment rights were violated at a school board meeting

On June 8, Chris Sutton was removed from a New Hanover County Board of Education meeting after he declined to face the board during a public comment. (Port City Daily/New Hanover County Schools)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– Outside the June 8 New Hanover County Board of Education meeting, tensions heightened as two opposing groups shoved each other to reach the door and increase their chances of entry into the public meeting. Attendance was limited to just 50 people due to ongoing Covid restrictions, yet 54 speakers had signed up for public comment.

Political issues divided protesters who came that night. It was contentious and heated, with the sheriff’s office sending out extra deputies to survey the scene, and district administrators planning behind locked doors how they would mitigate a crowd that was growing increasingly aggressive.

Despite the hostility, no one was arrested and no one was injured. Only one person was escorted off the property by law enforcement –– but his issue had nothing to do with what most protesters came out for.

At over 6-and-half-feet tall, Chris Sutton did not need to shove toward the building. He towered over the group of speakers who lined up for their spot in public comment. He signed his name onto the call to the audience sheet the day it was released. And he prepared a speech he hoped would catch the attention of the board members in a meeting that was bound to be full of distractions.

At approximately 10 p.m., Sutton approached the podium to fulfill his plans. He readjusted the microphone, turned his back to the dais and began to speak, facing the audience.

Moments prior, chairperson Stefanie Adams had accused fellow board member Judy Justice of lying about an issue Sutton cared deeply for. He started his speech by touching on just that.

“It was kind of ironic that we just had a board member call another board member a liar and then tell us to be respectful of each other,” Sutton said.

“Excuse me, Mr. Sutton,” Adams chimed in.

Realizing his two-minute time clock for his public comment was still running, Sutton continued: “No, ma’am. There’s no rules for decorum for how I stand at this,” he said. “So the deal is, I want to speak to y’all and tell y’all as to how this actually just occurred, OK? So back in March ––”

Adams interrupted: “You are violating the rules of this board meeting. I’m going to have to ask you to leave. I’m going to have to ask you to leave. You’re violating the rules.”

A deputy appeared from across the room and laid his hand on Sutton’s back: “You are violating the rules of decorum. Please, step outside of that door — now,” he ordered, as another deputy strolled up from the back of the room to assist. A third came to reset the mic that Sutton had twisted.

Once outside, Sutton recalled, the deputy who had escorted him ordered him to leave the property immediately. He said he stood in the road and spoke to people he knew before eventually heading home, leaving the few belongings he brought with him — a couple of papers, a battery pack charger, a cable — at his seat in the board of education center.

Sutton contests his First Amendment rights were violated that night. He said he has reason to believe Adams knew what he would speak on would be a dig at her, but still did not expect her to eject him from the meeting. Gaveled, perhaps? Sutton thought it may happen. But escorted away? Didn’t cross his mind.

Adams knows Sutton, and Sutton knows Adams. When Sutton cast his ballot in 2018, he bubbled in the circle next to Adams’ name. They’ve addressed each other multiple times in the past through email. Largely their interactions have revolved around what Sutton was there to speak on: an alleged conflict of interest he and others believe is preventing the board from receiving objective legal advice.

Adams denies there is a conflict of interest involving the board attorney. She also denies that Sutton was removed from the meeting due to his views or the content of his speech. Instead, she states law enforcement escorted him away because he refused to comply with addressing the board directly.

Sutton claims he was addressing the board, but he turned his back to symbolize how they “turned their backs” on victims of sexual abuse.

“I don’t hold it against [the deputy] for what he did,” Sutton said on a phone call with Port City Daily. “Now, was it right? Should it have ever happened? No. I hold it more against the attorney that was 20 feet away, that allowed for my rights to be violated.”

What’s his issue?

Sutton has spoken during NHCS’ call to the audience multiple times over the past two years. June 8 was the first time he was ever kicked out.

He said he has always followed local politics, but his interest in the school board piqued after a friend from Laney High School came out to him as a victim of former teacher Michael Earl Kelly, who was convicted for sexually abusing students. “It was a tough pill to swallow,” Sutton said in an interview, “that while I was there at school, my friend was being molested.”

Through his friend, Sutton learned of more victims –– some who suggested they’d gone to the principal at the time about the abuse.

Former Laney High principal, and once deputy superintendent, Rick Holliday is widely accused of letting Kelly get away with sexually abusing minors after allegations emerged during Kelly’s sentencing hearing in the summer of 2019. New Hanover County Schools is currently under investigation by the SBI, but no criminal charges have been taken against Holliday and he denies wrongdoing.

“If you cannot criminally go after someone, you can assassinate his character, where his legacy will be tarnished,” Sutton said. “And, unfortunately, that’s the only semblance of justice that I could give some of these victims.”

In February 2020 Sutton launched an online petition to remove the name of Holliday from the Laney High School football stadium. The movement gained traction, with more than 4,500 signatures, but any action by the school board was delayed.

The board attorney at the time, Wayne Bullard, advised officials to wait at least one year before reconsidering the stadium honor, citing a policy that states NHCS can only name facilities after a former employee a year after that person has retired or resigned.

The reasoning didn’t add up to supporters of the cause, who recognized the policy didn’t address removing a designation but adding one. Sutton said he has reason to believe Bullard thought renaming the facility could be an admission of guilt, which would affect a civil case.

He saw this as a conflict of interest, but Bullard resigned soon after and he let the issue go.

History repeats itself

Following the 2020 local election, the renaming of Laney High School’s stadium resurfaced.

Despite repeated efforts, board member Justice struggled to get action taken on the stadium. She requested it be placed on the agenda for the Mar. 16 meeting, but it was listed vaguely as “naming of school facilities.” Attorney Stagner advised the board to not vote on the issue due to the way the item was advertised on the agenda.

After Stagner stunted progress on renaming the stadium, Sutton began once again raising questions about a potential conflict of interest and threatening to sue the board if they did not address it. (The renaming of the stadium passed at the subsequent regular meeting.)

Stagner took the role serving as board attorney in March 2020. In the following year, her firm Tharrington Smith billed NHCS $241,585 in legal fees and $3,105 for other expenses, such as travel. She attends regular board meetings, and sometimes committee meetings, and is on call to consult the board, but primarily works with the chair and superintendent, Stagner told board members in a presentation this month.

Along with her colleague Stephen Rawson, Stagner is defending New Hanover County Schools in pending lawsuits. NHCS’ insurance company Liberty Mutual appointed Tharrington Smith to the cases, Stagner said.

In one of the lawsuits, Holliday is listed as a defendant.

“There is enough evidence there for people to raise their eyebrows at because there’s different fiduciary duties,” Sutton said in the interview. “This is something that I wanted Stagner to explain to the crowd. Explain to me how I’m wrong. You are the person with all this legal background and education. Please, explain to the community why I am wrong.”

Stagner has never addressed the alleged conflict of interest publicly. Reached by phone Wednesday, Stagner told Port City Daily she was not going to comment on it.

‘Stop lying, Ms. Justice’

Since March, Sutton has attempted to get the school board to recognize and discuss the alleged conflict of interest in a public setting, citing NHCS policy 2122.

The policy allows members of the public to ask that board members place items on the agenda for discussion when there is not an “administrative remedy.” However, the policy does not specify a time for when the chair must include the requested item. Because of that, Sutton has relied on board member Justice.

In her attempts to schedule a discussion on the accusations of a conflict of interest, Justice has been reminded of an upcoming legal services update. When the update came, the board listened to Stagner’s presentation, and Justice followed up with multiple questions about her representation on the lawsuits.

“That was not included in this because that’s separate work,” Stagner said when asked how much Tharrington Smith is compensated for the defense work. “That’s a different matter, so to speak.”

Adams tried to redirect the conversation to other questions or comments about the legal presentation, but Justice attempted to initiate a discussion about terminating the legal services agreement with Tharrington Smith.

At that point, Stagner advised the board to amend the agenda if it desired to add a discussion about the legal services contract, and Justice said she had attempted to do so several times, and that Adams told her it would be on the agenda. As chair, Adams is in charge of setting the agenda.

“Please, stop lying. Stop lying, Ms. Justice,” Adams said, gaveling as the audience booed. “You are out of order. I said there would be a legal services update at the June meeting. That is the truth. Stop lying.”

Other board members disagreed with Justice’s attempt to discuss termination. Board member Stephanie Kraybill cautioned members from discussing the employment without giving the public sufficient notice. 

Nelson Beaulieu joined in: “This has not come up until March of this year. Her employment, her representation of every single company, as far as I know, remains unchanged. I think to do this to our attorney is shameful. Frankly I’m disgusted.”

Board member Stephanie Walker backed Justice, saying she agreed the two board members asked for the discussion to be on the agenda. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with us discussing things,” she said.

Who was lying?

In an email, Adams told Port City Daily she stood by her statement that Justice was lying.

Justice still wants an apology.

Minutes into a virtual June 14 meeting, Justice motioned to amend the agenda for Adams to “formally apologize” to her. As she went into her reasonings –– which included defamation –– Adams cut Justice off to inform her board members could not amend a special meeting agenda, per the board attorney.

Emails exchanged between Adams and Justice show Justice did request a conflict of interest be placed on the agenda, but Adams only confirmed they would hear a legal services review.

On Mar. 30, Justice asked for an agenda item regarding the “repeated questions of conflict of interest.”

A Mar. 30 email from Judy Justice to Stefanie Adams

Adams wrote back to Justice Apr. 3, stating the board would speak about the perceived conflict of interest in closed session and would listen to a legal services update in public in June. When the April meeting came, Justice motioned to openly discuss conflict of interest, and Stagner said there were actually no plans to talk about the law firm –– which is a contractor and not an NHCS employee –– in closed session.

An Apr. 3 email from Stefanie Adams to Judy Justice

‘A major demonstration is in the making’

The day after his removal from the meeting, Sutton emailed Adams and more than 30 other people in the community, asking she provide the written rule stating speakers must face the board during public comment.

“Please include Women Organizing for Wilmington-WoW! and NHCS United for Students in your reply,” Lynn Shoemaker responded.

“Please include the NHC Democratic Party,” party secretary April Farr sent.

“Please assist the school board regarding this matter,” Rev. Dante Murphy wrote to District Attorney Ben David. “A major demonstration is in the making.”

Plans are in the works for public speakers, including a group of veterans, to turn their backs or kneel at the podium at the next school board meeting, according to Sutton.

Sutton also said he is exploring the option to run for board of education, is attempting to censure Adams, and is organizing a town hall for the community to discuss education-related issues.

A review of NHCS public comment policy includes no reference to which direction a speaker should face. Adams has yet to provide any specific rule about facing the board, but did offer a written explanation referring to Sutton’s conduct as argumentative and a disruption.

In her response to inquiries from Port City Daily, she added: “I would like to share how disappointing it is that none of these items actually relate to students or schools. The Board’s job is to set and support the strategic vision of NHCS; we are focused on student success, growth, achievement, and equity. The political theater occurring in our community is a distraction, and takes away from what should be the true focus of this Board and our community…our children, staff, and schools.”

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at or on Twitter @alexsands_

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