NEW HANOVER COUNTY — New Hanover County Schools is maintaining tightened security at its board meetings to mitigate impassioned and sometimes hostile crowds there to oppose a torrent of politically divisive issues, from mask mandates to critical race theory.
Traditionally, school board meetings are a time to recognize student achievements or hear updates from senior staff on topics ranging from pre-K programs to graduation rates. Yet, in recent months, it’s common for attendees to pass by a lineup of sheriff’s officers or walk through a sea of protest signs when entering the board of education center on 13th Street. More often than not, the school board chair has struck the gavel at audience members for removing their masks in protest or shouting objections mid-business.
To date, no arrests have been made on the grounds due to the recent protests. The government meetings put law enforcement in an awkward predicament: trying to balance the board’s wishes to maintain order, while also not infringing upon anyone’s First Amendment rights in a public space.
“I think all we can do is continue to partner with law enforcement to control the crowds in a way that allows the governmental processes to continue,” board chair Stefanie Adams said on a phone call Tuesday, “but at the same token, still allowing people to have their free speech and their ability to congregate.”
The experience is not unique to New Hanover County. Across the country, school boards have served as divisive battlefronts in recent months. In Buncombe County, protesters attempted to overthrow the school board this past summer and pretended to elect new members to the seats. At an Iredell-Statesville School, a woman slammed a Bible into a door and two men hit it wearing rings, which shattered the glass mid-meeting. Earlier this week, Orange County’s board was visited by the far-right extremist group Proud Boys; in the same session, it passed a resolution against “incidents of hostile and racist behavior.”
Mask mandates remain at the forefront of these rallies. Of the 115 school districts in North Carolina, only seven are choosing parental choice over enforced masks at this point in the pandemic. Just weeks into the new school year, Gov. Roy Cooper signed a new law requiring local school boards to reconsider their mask policy monthly, which forces boards to place the item on the agenda and discuss potential modifications.
That’s tough for the board, Adams said, because it means re-engaging in the same controversial conversation every meeting, despite the action item likely resulting in the same outcome. She called it a “non-issue” right now since a countywide mask mandate initiated by the health and human services board trumps any of the district’s decisions.
Since August, the discussions amongst the New Hanover County board of education when readopting the mandate have largely revolved around what kind of masks are most effective — not whether they should be enforced.
In a Sept. 17 letter, the N.C. School Board Association, an organization that lends legal and administrative assistance to boards of education statewide, asked the legislature to modify the new law by defining certain Covid-19 metrics that trigger a re-examination of the policy, rather than requiring a monthly vote when little has changed since the last discussion. Adams said she would prefer to decide when a revote is appropriate based on Covid-19 data and communications with health officials.
“It’s definitely made it a little difficult because of the emotions behind that specific subject,” Adams said.
In the plea to lawmakers, Bruce Mildwurf, governmental relations director for the NCSBA, wrote that a change to the provision is necessary to alleviate tensions for the local school boards’ sake.
“There are increasing numbers of disruptions and cases of verbal abuse by protestors,” Mildwurf wrote. “Boards chairs have been forced to recess or adjourn meetings. There were accusations of one attendee bringing a weapon to a school board meeting. Property has been damaged. School board members and staff have received threats.”
The FBI is investigating the uptick in violent threats against school staff and board members. This past month in Stanly County, the school board chair resigned because he said his life was threatened. However, even the announcement of the probe has parties divided, with Republicans claiming it is an intimidation tactic while Democrats argue it is much needed.
“I respect and understand why people … are so dedicated to the issues they are committed to right now, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to express that, and violence is never going to be the answer,” Adams said. “We are elected to do a job, and that’s what we’re focusing on. We’ve definitely faced more heightened emotions than we ever had. In the three years that I’ve been on the board, I’ve never encountered anything like this.”
The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office increases the number of officers at meetings when unruly turnouts are expected. In the past, only a couple of deputies were assigned to a school board meeting, depending on attendance size.
At least eight were patrolling at the regular board of education meeting the night of Oct. 5. Spokesperson Lt. Jerry Brewer said the office uses “training and experience” to determine in advance the number of on-duty officers to deploy.
“Generally speaking, government meetings are not usually that big of a deal,” Brewer said. “People are getting passionate about certain reasons, and that’s what the issue is now.”
At the direction of chair Adams, the officers declined entry to anyone who refused to put on a face covering during the October meeting. One man was physically escorted away from the building after he attempted to enter maskless. He then rallied a group near the officers and began giving speeches on the building’s steps. The man wore a chaplain’s badge, mistaken by some as a symbol for a law enforcement agency.
The group attempted to storm the building, but upon reaching the doorway were blocked by officers. The man who was initially removed was directed to go home or otherwise face a charge for inciting a riot.
“He could have easily been arrested, but a lot of times it’s easier if you can just defuse the situation,” Brewer said.
Once the man with the chaplain’s badge departed, the crowd continued to challenge officers, asking what else they’d submit themselves to enforcing at the direction of elected officials. Some pleaded that they — the “conservatives” — were the ones on their side, the ones who “backed the blue.”
“We hope that they are on our side and don’t pose to be a threat or an issue,” Brewer said after the fact.
As the crowd grew loud with chants, Adams called a break in the ongoing meeting to direct the chief deputy to remove the group from the premises. However, when directed to move to the grass, the protesters refused to comply and officers did not push further.
“My job as chair is to make sure that the business of the district gets done,” Adams said. “And so that’s what we’re going to continue to do . . . We want to make sure we keep our focus on our students and our schools and our staff.”
In July, board members recessed a meeting with a busy agenda out of precaution because the audience grew unmanageable during the public comment period. Adams was absent. It was the first time the board had allowed an audience of more than 100 people since before the pandemic. One person was detained for alleged disorderly conduct but released soon after.
After that meeting, the school system announced a clear bag policy for its August meeting but never followed through on the protocol. Adams said they simply never circled back on it, but she trusts the officers to recognize when a threat is looming.
It is a felony to knowingly possess a weapon on educational property, which includes the board of education building. Brewer said no weapons have been confiscated thus far.
There have been multiple near-physical disputes outside the center while business was ongoing inside, and there are no security cameras out front to review later for evidence. A 9-minute cell video on YouTube, titled “This is Wilmington,” captures a white man, who identified himself as Mike Fox, addressing well-known activist Tim Joyner, a Black man, outside the board center in September. Fox compares being forced to wear a mask to slavery, which provokes Joyner to give him a middle finger and flip his hat off. Fox lunges toward Joyner but is held back by another man as he yells out: “I can easily go fucking ballistic, dude.”
Fox pivots as an officer walks out of the building and demands: “I want him arrested. Do your fucking job.” Witnesses expressed frustration with deputies for failing to address the situation in time, despite them patrolling on the other side of the glass front door. In the video, one officer later tells Joyner he can file an information exchange since he did not see the incident, but Joyner declines.
New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office would not comment further on its security at board meetings. A NHCS spokesperson confirmed the district is installing cameras outside but did not provide a date for when the devices would arrive.
“My hope is that this is going to temper, and that people are going to calm themselves and be able to see that the board is focused on students,” Adams said, “and that’s what we want our entire community to be able to be focused on.”