NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Tensions boiled over at the New Hanover County Board of Education meeting Tuesday as the board considered reinstating restrictions on transgender sports participation.
After multiple amendments to the proposed action and an impromptu closed session, the board voted 4-3 to ban transgender students from competing on the opposite team of the sex on their birth certificate; the change to policy 3620 goes into effect next school year. Stephanie Kraybill, Stephanie Walker and Hugh McManus dissented.
The vote veered from the amendment the policy committee suggested, which would have restricted middle school transgender students from competing on the sports team of the opposite sex, but allow them to do so if approved by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association. The policy would have been consistent with NHCS’ high school requirements.
Although she sits on the policy committee and voted in favor of the recommendation, Republican Pat Bradford led the way on rejecting the committee’s proposal Tuesday.
Since 2021, transgender middle schoolers have been allowed to choose the team that aligns with their gender identity. The district informed the policy committee in January multiple students were taking advantage of the allowance.
Meeting attendees representing both sides of the argument crowded in the NHCS Board of Education Center to share their thoughts. Among the crowd were masked members of the Proud Boys, a white nationalist and neo-fascist extremist group, whose former national chairman has been indicted for conspiracy on the Jan. 6 capitol attack.
The Proud Boys were lined against the back wall, obstructing some members’ view and standing in close quarters due to the meeting’s packed house.
After public comment ended, one Proud Boy and a member of the audience got into a heated argument (both left before the meeting was over and couldn’t be reached by Port City Daily to verify names). The audience member told the Proud Boy to “get off,” accusing him of sitting on his lap.
The Proud Boy accused the audience member of kicking someone, which the man refuted according to a video taken by Port City Daily. Other people surrounding them also became involved in the quarrel.
Board chair Pete Wildeboer recessed the meeting due to the feuding and walked into the audience in an attempt to calm participants. Deputies from the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office stood between sparring members, but did not speak or hold anyone back.
While the crowd chanted “take them out,” Wildeboer gestured to the Proud Boy, his words inaudible, and the Proud Boy who allegedly sat on an audience member walked out followed by the deputy. The audience member tried to explain his position to other Proud Boys and Wildeboer.
A person with the audience member told Wildeboer the board meeting was out of order because of the Proud Boys and asked him to hold them accountable.
Escorted by a deputy, the audience member left, shook hands with a different Proud Boy member standing nearby, and said, “I respect you.”
PCD asked Wildeboer if he directed anyone to be removed from the meeting; he did not respond by press. A sheriff’s deputy at the meeting said no one had been removed.
At this time, NHCS spokesperson Russell Clark said the district is not issuing anyone a trespass notice, which bans a person from school property. The district can trespass people for “disruptive behavior” including profanity, yelling, displaying temper and more. It recently trespassed an activist and mother who disrupted two meetings last year.
Amendment after amendment
The meeting’s public comment was largely split between proponents speaking for or against the amendment to policy 3620. Jett Tidd, a transgender student, said he used to be scared of getting on the school bus for fear of being bullied.
“It is my fear this is the first step by members of the board who are targeting LGBTQ students to remove policies in place that protect us from harm,” Tidd told the school board.
People for the policy change also had hangups. Many said subjecting middle schoolers to high school review standards was invasive — an opinion shared by those against changing the policy at all.
No one spoke in favor of the high school standards. Though, some argued the policy should be modified to ban transgender students altogether, mainly citing negative consequences — injuries, decreased chance of winning — to cisgender female athletes.
“Allowing transgender women that are biologically male to compete against them places female athletes at a disadvantage, actually discriminating against their opportunity to excel at their sport,” Cathy Poulos said.
Bradford shared that opinion. While she didn’t speak a lot at the policy committee, Bradford said her motive for changing the policy was for “safety.”
Kraybill, who also sits on the policy committee and voted against the amendment, said Bradford was a usurper for going against the committee’s recommendation.
Attempting to postpone the vote, Kraybill amended Bradford’s first motion to restrict the policy even further. She suggested the board delay discussion until it could undergo proper Title IX training.
Kraybill and Walker expressed concern that changing the NHCS policy would get the district in trouble with the federal government’s Title IX parameters, but it isn’t clear if the board would be in violation.
The question of transgender sports participation has been gaining speed across the nation over the last five years. Currently, there isn’t legislation on the matter in North Carolina and school districts are making their own rules.
Eighteen Republican-controlled state legislatures have barred transgender students from competing outside their assigned sex; some of those laws have been followed by injunctions preventing the laws from taking effect until a court decision.
North Carolina state Republicans pushed a similar bill in 2021, but it was set aside after House Speaker Tim Moore said the chamber would not take up the bill.
The United States Department of Education under the Trump administration contended in a key case that the word “sex” be interpreted strictly to mean a person’s assigned sex at birth. But under the Biden administration, the department includes “discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.”
So, NHCS’ new policy would most likely have to be challenged in court to render an answer on Title IX violations.
“All of us know how to read, all of us know how to research, but all of us are not capable at this point to understand a complex federal regulation such as Title IX,” Kraybill said.
Walker seconded the motion to delay the discussion, arguing the board “shouldn’t be making policy decisions on the fly.”
The board attempted to make several amendments or motions before agreeing to go into closed session to discuss the legality of the change. However, when members emerged, they still didn’t have a clear answer.
Josie Barnhart, chair of the policy committee, was the first to restart the conversation.
“The reality is, this is still a gray area,” Barnhart said. “While I will absolutely undergo training, I don’t think it’s necessary to make an informed decision on this topic.”
Walker countered, sharing the attorney advised them it could open the board to lawsuits if they went back on their policy. Chair Wildeboer reprimanded her for sharing information that was supposed to be confidential in closed session.
During the meeting, Walker and Kraybill also argued very few kids in NHCS are using the current policy and they have not heard complaints about their participation.
A 2017 survey by the Human Rights Campaign suggested fewer than 15% of all transgender boys and transgender girls play sports. The Williams Institute estimates 1.4% of 13- to 17-year-olds identify as transgender.
Bradford claimed no one is using the policy in NHCS, which is not true.
“We don’t have anything that this would affect,” she said.
Walker corrected the vice chair.
“They are not things, they are children,” Walker said.
When McManus asked for clarification on when the proposed policy change would take effect, Bradford answered immediately.
“If this passes tonight, those students involved in a sport would have to quit,” he said. “Is that really what we want to do? That’s getting awfully low folks.”
“I’m totally disgusted with what was just recommended,” he added. “It’s one thing to make a decision, it’s another to cut somebody and watch them bleed, that’s not necessary.”
Wildeboer instead made the motion to make the policy effective next school year, the move passed 6-1. Bradford tried to abstain, then the board’s legal counsel told her she couldn’t do that, so she voted against the motion.
Kraybill attempted to “grandfather in” students currently playing on a team, so they could finish out their middle school years without having to quit. That motion failed 3-4 with Walker, McManus and Kraybill in favor.
One member of the board, Melissa Mason, did not take part in the discussion despite releasing a blog post on the topic on her campaign website.
“I will be casting my vote, when it’s time, to prevent public funds and policy that enables children in middle school to participate on the opposite gender team,” Mason wrote. “I will not support state sponsored gender affirming care for the children of New Hanover County.”
However, on Monday, prior to the board meeting, Mason revised her original post to include that if the board cannot muster enough support to ban transgender sports participation altogether, the issue should be returned to the policy committee.
While Kraybill also suggested the same of the board during Tuesday’s meeting, in order to review legality details, the move was ultimately turned down in favor of Bradford’s original motion: to make transgender athletes play on teams that match their assigned sex.
“I’m trying to take it back to the status quo before it was changed in 2021,” Bradford said.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com