NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Fifty impassioned people signed up to speak at the New Hanover County Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, but the board only heard from 18 of those individuals before it lost all control of its meeting to an unruly crowd.
Not even a fourth of the way through the list of public speakers, there were so many outbursts from the audience the board called a break twice, dispersing with deputies and a lawyer to strategize next moves. The board abruptly recessed the meeting around 8:30 p.m., before it could conduct any business. One person was taken away in handcuffs. Chants of “fire the board” ensued.
As the room cleared, verbal disputes continued outside the building and a physical altercation almost broke out between a man and a woman.
“This is not a battle zone,” vice chair Nelson Beaulieu had said earlier in the night, as the atmosphere was just beginning to turn ugly. “This is a board of education meeting.”
In the absence of the board chair, Stefanie Adams, who was on vacation, Beaulieu stepped in her stead with the handy, but at times ineffective gavel.
Letting speakers speak
Tuesday’s meeting wasn’t the first time emotions were heightened at a school board meeting, but it was the first time since pre-pandemic all those feelings were enclosed within the square footage of the board of education center.
Previously, the district was abiding by strict Covid-19 protocols and limiting attendance, with most recent meetings capped at 50 attendees. This meeting allowed 170 people into the building. Guests were directed at the door to put on masks. However, early into the meeting, the majority had ditched their face coverings. Despite a reminder from Beaulieu, people remained maskless. But a failure to comply with pandemic restrictions was the least of the board’s concerns.
For months, tensions have been on the rise over a torrent of issues. Recently, those have included the rights of transgender students, Covid-19 restrictions and, unique to New Hanover County, an abnormal amount of sexual abuse cases by district employees, accompanied by an alleged failure by administrators to reckon with staff in question in a timely or satisfactory manner.
At the last regular meeting in June, since attendance was limited inside, opposing political groups protested outside on the lawn overlooking 13th Street, able to sprawl out into two larger groups. At times the rivals clashed, though mainly at the doorway.
At the forefront Tuesday were issues of equity and race — specifically, how and if to teach those topics in classrooms. Conservatives brought signs reading “ALL KIDS MATTER.”
Early into the meeting, the board faced almost immediate backlash from the congregation. Call to the audience was one of the first items on the agenda.
Beaulieu explained, due to the lengthy list of people who signed up for public comment, each speaker was limited to two minutes rather than the usual three. He also said the maximum amount of time for speakers was one hour, meaning only the 30 first signees would get the chance to speak.
Kraybill did the math and said it would take up to an hour and a half to get through all the comments, and she thought the board was committed to shortening meetings, which almost always span five to six hours. She was jeered as she spoke.
“We’re not going to be able to get very far if people are booing us and who are not even letting us have a chance and are making faces, while we’re sitting here,” Kraybill said.
“Whomp, whomp,” somebody heckled from the audience.
Beaulieu asked people speaking in groups to consolidate their messages to one person and for people to call or email him if they have remaining concerns. That suggestion immediately caused an uproar from the crowd. The attendees voiced frustrations with board members’ lack of responses through those channels.
Board member Judy Justice motioned to extend the call to the audience to accommodate every speaker at the beginning of the meeting, not the end. She received applause.
In recent meetings, speakers with issues unrelated to the agenda have had to wait until the end to approach the podium during a second public comment period. Some people have stayed until midnight to wait their turns to speak, while others snuck onto the earlier list.
Justice’s motion passed 4-2, Kraybill and Beaulieu opposed. Board member Hugh McManus passed the extension hesitantly. Onlookers cautioned “be careful” as he paused during the roll call, then cheered when he said “yes.”
Throughout the first 18 speakers’ comments, there were multiple standing ovations, countless boos and ridicules, endless interruptions and plenty of gaveling.
Eleven people spoke, in some way, against teaching children about systemic racism.
Five speakers advocated for a ban on school suspensions for young children ages 4 to 7. Most in this group wore T-shirts that read “Love our Children” and were part of a press conference earlier in the evening to garner attention for their movement. They argue punitive punishments disproportionately and adversely impact Black children.
One person pleaded for the district to release board materials ahead of meetings, citing concerns of transparency and proposed policies. Another spoke in favor of children wearing masks in schools.
One person spoke largely in response to the chaos in the meeting, blaming the board.
On four separate occasions, members of the public tried to allot time to others. Board members were confused on how to handle each individual case, often turning to the attorney. The evident uncertainty of the board members inflamed the room: People shouted their opinions on how to address each case, often based on whether they agreed with the presumed views of the speaker.
In the first instance, Lindy Ford gave her time to Republican Wilmington City Council candidate Jonathan Uzcategui. From the back of the room, a well-known founder of the lowercase leaders, Tim Joyner, yelled in opposition. The interruption caused Beaulieu to stop Uzcategui’s timer. Ironically, the board spent more than two minutes — the time of one speaker’s entire public comment allotment — trying to determine if Uzcategui had the right to proceed.
“You might be afraid what I have to say,” Uzcategui told the board after Kraybill contested his speaking time and iterated public comment policies.
In a second instance, Marcus Abraham tried to donate his two minutes to Gail Major as she wrapped up her speech on the floor. Beaulieu said they couldn’t allow that because Abraham was not next on the list; this move caused yet another commotion.
The board took its first seven-minute break after those initial two interruptions. During the recess, Beaulieu, Superintendent Charles Foust and attorney Colin Shive huddled behind the dais. Yet, when the board reconvened, not much changed in the management of the meeting. Beaulieu pleaded for people to respect the decorum and “set an example for our kids, please.”
“Yell and scream afterward,” Beaulieu said as the rumbustious crowd spoke over him.
One speaker, Steve Sheffield, asked to delay the start of the clock so he could thank Foust for bringing in a deaf interpreter. But the timer started anyway and Beaulieu reset the clock. When Sheffield began explaining, “Africans sent their African brothers and sisters to other countries,” Joyner objected from the back of the room. The speakers’ clock was reset again for a minute due to the interruption.
The tipping point began when activist Angie Kahney attempted to give Barbara Anderson’s time to Joyner. Anderson was not in the audience.
Beaulieu asked for clarification from the board attorney on whether an absent person could give their time, but the audience attempted to offer its own guidance in a sea of turmoil. Beaulieu banged his mallet, repeating “excuse me” five times.
Shive explained the policy did not specify if an absent person could give their time, but said it was “reasonable” to deny the request. When Beaulieu told Joyner he could not speak in Anderson’s place, Joyner turned around and started yelling into the crowd about the teachings of critical race theory.
His voice was drowned out by overwhelming heckles, the gavel, and people yelling at officers and the board to kick out Joyner.
Over the yelling, Beaulieu announced the board was taking a break. The feeds cut on the livestream to a blue screen just as the audience started rising out of their chairs and confronting one another. People started questioning why Joyner was not removed from the meeting and chanting: “Fire the board! Fire the board! Fire the board!”
As the crowd directed its attention to the back of the room where a debate was erupting between Joyner and the anti-critical race theory crowd, one man toward the front was handcuffed and escorted through the back door.
Outside, Don Mckoy told onlookers he was detained because an officer grabbed his arm and pushed him. In handcuffs, Mckoy explained, “I told him don’t he ever put his fucking hands on me.”
Joyner joined outside and demanded to know why Mckoy was restrained. He suggested Mckoy, a Black man, was “aggressively skinned.”
“I understand how it goes sometimes. We look meaner than we should,” Joyner, also Black, said.
In front of recording phones and a small crowd of people questioning the deputies, officers unlocked the handcuffs of Mckoy. A friend drove him home.
Spokesperson Lt. Jerry Brewer said on a phone call Wednesday morning Mckoy was detained for displaying disorderly conduct and was taken outside. “He calmed down and he was released,” Brewer reported.
The meeting recessed at that point. Walker and Justice were the only two members to stay for interviews with reporters. Meanwhile, fights continued to flare up outside.
“You’re a racist. You’re a bigot. And God is not in you,” Sonya Patrick, of the Black Leadership Caucus, told an attendee who was there to oppose critical race theory. “But I appreciate you coming over here [to talk]. I’ll give you that.”
One man and one woman almost got into a physical altercation outside. Brewer said deputies also reported a dispute at some point between a minor and an adult woman. According to the lieutenant, once deputies stepped outside to address the confrontation, a man took the kid into a car and the woman remained on site.
New Hanover County Schools is not the first district that has had its school board meetings turned into a combat zone. Increased divisive politics are playing out on board of education floors nationwide as the anti-critical race theory movement heats up.
Some of the newfound interest stems from parents paying more attention to local issues in the wake of school-reopening debates. The increase in local governments streaming their meetings online has also made it easier for these families to keep tabs on boards.
Board member Justice theorized after the meeting that social media plays a part.
“We need to be listening to other people so we could try to come to some kind of understanding,” Justice told reporters. “But, yeah, I’ve never quite seen anything like this on this level with so many different voices.”
NHCS is hosting a “work session” Aug. 7 between board members and the community. People will have the chance to sit down at tables and engage in “respectful dialogue,” Kraybill announced early into the meeting.
When board members pick up where they left off next week in the online meeting, the board will also discuss forming a “transparency committee.” Board member Pete Wildeboer motioned to add the item to the agenda Tuesday, but it was never acted on since the meeting recessed early.
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