NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Public altercations with a former school board member have one New Hanover County activist and parent in hot water with the school district.
Sandy Eyles will go before the New Hanover County School Board on Monday to appeal the district’s decision to ban her from board and committee meetings for one year due to “disruptive behavior.”
Eyles, who partners with local organizations such as NHC Educational Justice, Alliance Against Seclusion and Restraint and Lives in the Balance, has been an outspoken critic of the board during their public forums and on social media. Now, if she attends a school board meeting, she will be trespassing.
The district claims Eyles violated its policy 5020, which states “the superintendent may deny an individual permission to come onto school grounds or enter a school facility for up to one school year if the individual engages in disruptive or dangerous behavior on school grounds.”
It defines disruptive behavior, in part, as that “which interferes with or threatens to interfere with the operation of a classroom, an employee’s office or office area, or areas of a school or facility open to parents or guardians or the general public; using loud and/or offensive language, swearing, cursing, or displaying of temper; and any other behavior that disrupts the orderly operation of a school, a school classroom, central office or administrative facility, or any other school system property.”
Two verbal confrontations took place between Eyles and board member Stefanie Adams last fall. Eyles has criticized Adams during public comment and on social media.
Adams told Port City Daily she had nothing to do with the trespass notice, issued on Nov. 3.
“It is her behavior in a public setting that prompted the letter, not me,” Adams said.
The first incident occurred at the board’s town hall on Sept. 20. After the meeting concluded, Adams approached Eyles — the encounter captured on video, beginning 2 hours and 29 minutes into the recording — who was talking to other people near the dais.
Adams told Port City Daily that at the end of her term, and after a positive town hall meeting, she saw an opportunity to have a respectful conversation with Eyles.
“My question, verbatim, was: ‘Sandy, is there anything that I can answer about my previous work or experience? Do you have any questions about that?’” Adams said.
Adams pointed out remarks Eyles had made about her on social media, specifically one about her work. On Sept. 17, Adams messaged Eyles about a comment she posted to Port City Daily’s Facebook regarding an article on the board’s calendar discussions. The school board considered changing the current school year calendar last fall, but ultimately voted to keep the same one.
The comment read: “Adams said at the regular board meeting that it was irresponsible to go back on their decision. Adams owns a leadership training and this is her view?!?!”
In her Facebook message to Eyles, Adams asked her not to refer to her livelihood — she founded the corporate training company Why Not You? People Development in 2016 — in any more public statements on social media.
“My role as an elected official is separate and unrelated to what I do in my professional career,” Adams wrote. “My business is protected under a different set of laws regarding libel and slander.”
Eyles messaged back asking if she libeled or slandered Adams and if her message’s purpose was to intimidate.
“You tout your business and professional background regularly from the dais,” Eyles wrote. “Maybe instead of trying to silence me and violate my right to free speech, you can take the time to respond to the concerns the community has as a board member.”
Eyles said Adams approaching her at the September meeting caught her off guard, and when Adams leaned in and pointed in her face, she defended herself.
“She was very combative and she started calling me a liar and a bully,” Eyles said.
Adams admitted she did call Eyles a bully: “I stand by it. I 100% believe Ms. Eyles is a bully and I am allowed to feel that way.”
The exchange became more heated and at one point Adams disengaged from the conversation, eventually retreating behind the dais to collect her things. Eyles followed, approaching her from the other side. The move prompted law enforcement to stand between Eyles and the dais before she eventually relented and walked away.
Then, at the board’s Nov. 1 meeting, Adams decided to call out the “ugly turn” school board advocacy has taken in recent years. Adams said she knew some people in the school community feared speaking at school board meetings due to the presence of advocacy groups. Eyles took that to mean her, a claim Adams denies.
“It wasn’t directed at any one person or any one group,” Adams said. “There were people that didn’t come to meetings because of the Proud Boys. There are teachers that are afraid to come forward to talk about their experience with seclusion or suspension issues because of the people from Love Our Children and the Sandy Eyles of the world. People are feeling silenced because some of the voices have gotten so loud and so angry.”
Still, Eyles said she was hurt by the comment and felt singled out. She claims Adams looked at her in the audience while making the statement.
“Her last minutes as a board member, she chose to attack us and disparage our reputation and our character. [That] was so wrong and the true definition of bullying — using your power against people to harm them,” Eyles said.
At the 4 hour and 43 minutes mark, the NHCS video shows, after the meeting ended, Eyles, off-camera, starts shouting at Adams. She claimed the school board member failed to advocate for more staff and funding and called her a liar.
“My emotions took over,” Eyles said. “I wish that I had just let her words stand as a reflection of her leadership, values and her character. What I regret is that I didn’t walk away. But I think after that first attack and then to have her intentionally poke and dig like that, yeah, I took the bait.”
Two days later, she was issued a trespass notice signed by NHCS executive director of school safety, Charles Silverstein. According to the letter, Eyles’ conduct is “unacceptable at NHCS board events and constitutes a serious safety concern for NHCS staff and board members.”
“I was shocked because at no point did anybody from New Hanover County Schools contact me to inform me that there was a concern after either incident,” Eyles said.
Eyles appealed the decision to the assistant superintendent for operations, Eddie Anderson, on Nov. 17. She claimed her actions were not disruptive behavior, but Adams’ actions were. Eyles argued it was Adams who provoked her, called her derogatory names and abused her power as a board member, in turn violating policy 5020 herself.
The appeal argues Eyles should have been notified of a complaint against her, citing the board’s policy on student and parent grievance processes. Eyles points out the incidents did not occur during a meeting, as both were adjourned. Therefore, her responses to Adams’ “aggressive” behavior were not disrupting anything.
Still, after holding a conference with Eyles on Nov. 23, Anderson upheld the trespass notice.
“In my opinion, the materials you provided do not justify this behavior,” Anderson wrote in his decision.
Eyles said her behavior is being mischaracterized and the move is hypocritical.
“We have watched some really horrific stuff,” Eyles said. “We have watched the same people stop these meetings, swear at board members, call board members names, be asked to leave and refuse to leave, delaying the meeting.”
The last two years of board meetings have been tumultuous as protestors swarmed the Board of Education Center to object to mask-wearing, accuse the district of teaching critical race theory (which the district has clarified it does not), indoctrinating children, sexual abuse cases and more. A July 2021 board meeting was recessed early due to uncontrollable crowds and threats of physical violence. One person left in handcuffs.
The far-right extremist group, the Proud Boys, also came to school board meetings in 2021.
NHCS was not able to provide data on the number of trespass orders from the last two years by press.
Eyles told PCD she has been quiet on her notice because she wanted to go through the process the right way. After her appeal denial, she sent a letter to board chair Pete Wildeboer asking for the notice to be rescinded.
“I wanted to see what would happen,” she said. “This whole thing is embarrassing. Nobody wants a weak moment to be publicized.”
The hearing, scheduled for Monday, Jan. 9, at 9 a.m., will be open to the public. Eyles will be representing herself in front of the board, while the district will be represented by Superintendent Charles Foust, Anderson and Silverstein. They will be advised by the district’s legal counsel Jason Weber.
Each party will have 15 minutes for opening presentation and rebuttal. The board will be able to ask questions of both parties and enter into closed session to consult with legal counsel and preserve attorney-client privilege. The board will then return to open session to deliberate and make a decision.
Eyles said she’s intimidated to go before the board, but it’s “something [she] needs to do.”
“I think [this case] points to a systemic problem in our district,” Eyles said. “I think that our district is infamous for retaliation and silencing. And I feel like this kind of encompasses the whole culture of New Hanover County Schools. I do think it is important that the public see what has happened.”
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at firstname.lastname@example.org