Tuesday, February 27, 2024

NHCS addresses critical race theory, picks up where it left off after unruly meeting

Protesters brought “All Kids Matter” signs to the July 13 meeting. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands Williams)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– Tuesday evening, the New Hanover County Board of Education picked up where it left off a week earlier. This time its audience couldn’t overpower or belittle the board members. Officials shielded themselves behind computer screens.

Long story short: At its July 13 meeting, the board lost control of its meeting and recessed early before hearing all 50 speakers signed up for public comment. The crowd was rowdy throughout the evening, adopting a mob mentality and barking out opinions on who should or should not speak.

After an hour of public comments, slowed down by countless interruptions, a member of the lowercase leaders broke into a vocal protest from the back of the room. A group of people there to oppose critical race theory booed, yelled nonsense and one even sang the Star-Spangled Banner to drown out his message. 

During the chaos, vice chair Nelson Beaulieu huddled with officers, the superintendent and its attorney before returning from a “break” and announcing the recess –– to a virtual meeting a week later.

Despite recently expanding its capacity at the last meeting from 50 to 170 people, the board reverted to early pandemic ways. Just hours earlier, the members were together in person for a 40-minute closed session at its building on South 13th Street. By 5:30 p.m. they were home, joined together via Zoom. Chair Stefanie Adams and board member Stephanie Walker stayed behind and conducted business from the dais with administrators before them.

The meeting kicked off with technical difficulties; the sound did not work as Adams read a statement.

She later repeated it once the sound was corrected, beginning with thanks to the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office for its service at the last meeting. She then addressed the events of that evening, warning the board would have any future nuisances removed per North Carolina General Statute 143-318.17. (Adams was absent at the prior meeting, and Beaulieu was serving as chair in her place.)

The law states anyone who willfully interrupts, disturbs or disrupts an official meeting can be asked to leave. If they refuse, they are guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.

“We will not allow disruptions to prevent the board from conducting business,” Adams said. “Moving forward, behaviors demonstrated on July 13 will not be tolerated.”

Thirty people who signed up for public comment at the last meeting and never got the chance to speak due to the recess were offered the opportunity to record a two-minute comment for the board to listen to.

Nearly half of the speakers did not end up taping their messages.

A couple spoke about the poor management of the last meeting and criticized the decision to resume over Zoom.

“How do you expect people to have hope and faith in you all? You can’t even look them in the eyes while they explained their concerns or issues with New Hanover County school system,” said speaker Marcus Abraham. He then referred to the past meeting as a “shitshow.”

Adams directed staff to turn off Abraham’s recording, calling the profanity “out of order.”

Several others spoke about lifting the mask mandate for students, and at least one person was in favor of enforced face coverings. NHCS asserts it is still adhering to the state health guidance. Unlike a few other school districts, which have already declared masks as optional for the upcoming school year, NHCS does not plan to override the governor’s orders.

(Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to address masks during a press conference Wednesday at 2 p.m.)

The majority of speakers were, in some way, opposed to teaching children about race. Once again, no overarching request to the board prevailed. Concerns spanned from the district’s equity, diversity and inclusion efforts to elementary schoolers allegedly learning critical race theory. One person believed teachers were telling children all white people are racist.

“What do we tell our children who have one parent that is white and another one that is of color,” said speaker Chad Hill. “‘Look, Sally, your mom is white, she is inherently racist –– don’t listen to her –– and crazy.’”

Middle school social studies teacher Kaleigh Pare said she was “appalled, but honestly not surprised” about the uproar over critical race theory. She argued she couldn’t do her job without addressing race and explaining disparities students may notice in everyday life.

“The reality is that America is built on a system intentionally designed to keep Black folks down so that the white working class won’t realize they’re also being robbed by the wealthy,” Pare said.

Following the public comment, the board tackled the jampacked agenda it didn’t get to last time, which included an overview of updated statewide social studies standards. During the presentation, the board addressed critical race theory for only the second time in recent months. The first time Adams read a statement in which she denied critical race theory was taught in the county’s public schools.

Deputy Superintendent Dr. LaChawn Smith presented the changes, recently approved by North Carolina’s State Board of Education, led by a Democratic majority. In split votes along party lines, the state board passed the content standards in February and “unpacking documents” in July, which are resources for teachers that would influence their instruction if referred to. The standards stirred controversy while they were debated in Raleigh.

“We weren’t completely sure that [the standards] were going to be approved by the State Board of Education in time, but they were,” Smith said. “And so we’ve done our due diligence in preparing to implement these in our classroom.”

Significant changes include high schoolers now learning about personal finance in civics and economics, and a commitment to inquiry-based learning.

The updated standards also place more focus on “underrepresented voices,” specifically explaining how history has impacted women, people of color and indigenous populations.

At the end of the presentation, board member Hugh McManus said he didn’t mind being the one to “ask the question.”

“How are we addressing the CRT-related materials in the standards for study as an individual system?” McManus said. “Because I think it is there, at least the wording.”

Superintendent Charles Foust chimed in. He said critical race theory is defined inaccurately by “the media,” and the district is not “indoctrinating” anyone.

“Is there reference of slavery in history? Yes. Is there reference of injustices in the history books? Yes,” Foust said. “Are we teaching critical race theory as it’s written at the collegiate level? . . . No.”

Foust explained topics are wrongfully grouped under the term “critical race theory.” He said any parents who are concerned about particular teachings should report the course and lesson plan so the district can investigate.

“Individuals are making, what we call, those blanket statements,” Foust said. “It leads us down a rabbit hole of trying to find where it is that they’re saying, and we have no idea what they’re talking about.”

Referring to emails from the public, Wildeboer asked if words such as “gender identity,” “racism,” “systemic racism,” “privilege,” “marginalized” and “social justice” were written into the curriculum. “Are they there or are they not?” Wildeboer asked.

All those are words defined in a glossary given to educators for their reference, to understand ambiguous words that sometimes have different meanings.

“Those things do appear in the glossary, but those are not the terms that appear within the standards,” Smith said.

Earlier in the meeting Wildeboer brought forth the idea of forming a bipartisan “transparency committee” to see if there is any truth to the critical race theory accusations. He said the committee could look into why Brunswick County Schools passed a revised employee policy banning critical race theory.

He also suggested allowing people to bring concerns to that committee could help shorten the regular board meetings and build community trust.

McManus questioned if a committee simply added “another layer” to the board, and Stephanie Kraybill was strongly opposed. She said people with accusations of inappropriate teachings should share those with the superintendent.

Beaulieu said the seven board members standing united in denying the allegations of critical race theory would likely silence the outrage and would go “a lot further than a committee.”

“If we want to be transparent, let’s say the truth,” Beaulieu said. “The truth is that this district does not teach the things that are being alleged. That every single member of this board, every single member, all seven of us have said that we want equity-based education. All of us have said that.”

Chair Adams suggested Wildeboer bring forth a clearer and more concrete plan for a committee in August.

“Board members feel very passionately about some of the things that have been said,” Adams said. “I think that for now this conversation should probably be tempered for the night.”

Send tips to alexandria@localdailymedia.com

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 alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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