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NHC school board to reconsider banning education activist from meetings

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NHCS
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Center Left: Angie Kahney, Sandy Eyles, Judy Justice (back), and Stefanie Adams, along with several law enforcement officers at the conclusion of the September 2022 town hall.

Last year, activist Sandy Eyles was served with a ‘trespass notice,’ effectively banning her from the property during school board and committee meetings, after a verbal altercation with then-board member Stefanie Adams. Now, Eyles is pursuing her last resort to appeal the year-long ban.

On Monday, January 9, the New Hanover County Board of Education will hold a public hearing to consider whether to rescind the 12-month suspension of education activist Sandy Eyles, which followed allegations of disruptive behavior at the September town hall and the November 1 board meeting.

On December 1, Assistant Superintendent Eddie Anderson sent a letter to Eyles, saying that after consideration of all the information and materials, he determined that the November 3 notification of her ‘trespass notice’ sent by Charles Silverstein, the school’s executive director of safety, was “fair, reasonable, and not in violation of any specific law, policy, or rule.”

Anderson said that even though Eyles had “apologized for [her] behavior at the board meetings and appeared genuinely remorseful” when she met with him during a Zoom meeting on November 23, “his decision was based on “[her] disruptive behavior” at two prior board meetings, saying that board policy 5020 outlines what constitutes as ‘disruptive’. He listed, among others, “loud and/or offensive language, swearing, cursing, or displaying of temper; and any other behavior that disrupts [...] a central office or administrative facility, or any other school system property.”

After Anderson’s decision, Eyles then sent an email to board chair Pete Wildeboer declaring her intentions to appeal.

Eyles said that before the November 23 conversation with Anderson, “Not once did [the district] call me to have a conversation. I got this [initial] letter completely out of the blue, blindsiding me that I would be trespassing for the next year.”

She added that Silverstein, who sent the original ‘trespass notice’ “failed to investigate the full facts of the situation before he made his decision. [...] They went straight for the maximum penalty and punitive action that they could take under board policy with absolutely no discussion.”

What to expect on Monday

First up, district staff will have 15 minutes to state their case as to why her meeting attendance ban is necessary. The board will then get to ask questions of staff. After that, Eyles will be afforded the same opportunity.

According to Crystal Buie, the board clerk, the district representatives may include Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust, Anderson, and Silverstein. She also mentioned that attorney Jason Weber will be present to advise the board.

There will also be time structured for rebuttals from both parties.

The board then could go into a closed session to “consult with legal counsel and preserve the attorney-client privilege,” and then will emerge to have a public deliberation and make a decision.

Eyles plans to represent herself during the hearing.

Evidence

Both sides said there will be no witnesses called and no new evidence submitted. The hearing is not a legal proceeding, and the legal rules of evidence that would apply in a courtroom are not applicable.

However, Eyles has said she takes issue with the way in which she was allowed to submit evidence, saying she wasn’t aware of how the evidence gathering worked.

According to Crystal Buie, the board clerk, the administrative record was closed when Eyles appealed to the district. That record includes the following documents: Eyles’ original ban letter sent from Silverstein on November 3, 2022; her appeal letters to Anderson and Wildeboer; and the two videos that show Eyles’ behavior at the September town hall and the November 1 board meeting.

However, Buie did mention that by majority vote the board could allow additional evidence to prevent “a threat of substantial unfairness.”

According to Eyles’ first letter to Anderson to appeal the trespass notice, Eyles said that she’s been the target of “threatening” behavior on the part of former board member Stefanie Adams.

When WHQR contacted Adams, she said the same about Eyles.

September 20 Town Hall video

After the adjournment of the September town hall, the video feed kept rolling, showing attendees and board members conversing with one another.

Around the 2:29 timestamp, the tape shows Adams approaching Eyles. They then have a conversation that quickly appears to turn tense. Adams tries to walk away. Eyles follows and can be heard raising her voice.

Eyles then calls over fellow education activist Angie Kahney. They both appear to argue with Adams. Adams then walks away for a second time.

This is when law enforcement approaches, and Eyles starts filming Adams. Adams said to Eyles and Kahney, "Ladies, under the definition of 'bully' it has your pictures, not mine."

Then former board member Judy Justice comes over.

Adams then walks back to the group of Justice, Eyles, and Kahney. Eyles then walks away.

There are now five law enforcement officers present and Eyles starts to leave as Chief Communications Officer Josh Smith says they are closing the building. Eyles, now off camera, says toward the end of the interaction, “Resign, you've checked out anyhow. Resign now!”

Eyles said of the exchange, “And she [Adams] made a beeline for me and came for me, it was very aggressive in her approach, and at one point got down [in] my face, with her finger in my face, berating me calling me a liar, calling me a bully.”

So why did Adams decide to approach Eyles in the first place?

It had to do with something that happened the week prior to the town hall — in the comments section of a Port City Daily article posted on Facebook about the controversy over this year’s school calendar, according to both Adams and Eyles.

To summarize, Eyles took issue with Adams who said she wouldn’t change her mind about her previous decision to approve this year’s school calendar. This contention erupted after some teachers claimed the calendar wasn’t the one they endorsed in prior committee meetings.

Eyles pointed out that Adams runs an educational leadership business, and her decision was not in line with being a leader, who is “someone [who will] go back and fix a mistake.”

For Adams, this crossed a line.

“She had referred to my small business, and my LLC is a completely separate entity from my work on the board. And if someone libels or slanders my business without having ever been served or retained me as a service provider, that can be constituted legally as slander, and she was getting very close to doing that on more than one occasion,” Adams said.

Eyles didn’t see it that way and said Adams was interfering with her freedom of speech.

At the September town hall meeting, Adams decided to approach Eyles about this issue.

“I was like, okay, this is a good time to have a productive conversation. And I said to her, ‘Sandy, are there any questions that I can answer to you about my job or experience?’ And she looked at me and she said, ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Because there are some things out there that you're saying that are untrue about what I do. And it's my livelihood,’ and I didn't really get a chance to say anything. She immediately began talking over me,” Adams said.

Adams then confirm she called Eyles a “bully” during the exchange.

“I did lean forward, and I said, ‘You're a bully. All of the things that you claim to stand against, you are doing.’ Well, that completely sent her over the edge. And I did not do it in a mean way. I said it in a matter-of-fact way,” Adams said.

Eyles continues to say she saw it as harassment.

Adams contends that she did “try to have a productive conversation,” but said she “should have known better, [...] but I'm tired of the people that behave badly not being called on the carpet.”

November 1 Meeting video

At the end of the November board meeting, at timestamp 4:43, Eyles is not seen on camera but is heard yelling from the audience for about a minute.

WHQR reported on some of this scene back in early November, where Eyles said to Adams, “You don’t get to slander me. [...] You lied and called me a bully and it’s not right. You’re a liar and good riddance, get off the board. Go ahead and laugh — you suck at your job.”

This exchange was the result of Adams using one of her last comments as a board member to essentially say some advocates have prevented certain teachers from speaking during the ‘Call to the Audience’ about the abuse they’ve experienced by students.

Eyles said she saw this as an attack on her.

“I think everyone in the room knew it was directed at me, but she also directed it to every advocate who has been speaking on the issue of seclusion and restraint,” Eyles said.

Adams agreed that she was not just directing this statement to Eyles.

“And when I say, ‘advocate’, it doesn't just mean, Sandy. There are multiple advocate groups from both sides of the aisle who have come and advocated in some ways that are not appropriate for governance,” Adams said.

But Adams did say that she had “multiple teachers reach out to me after that comment and were so grateful that I said something because there were a lot of speakers that have felt very frustrated by some of the tactics that some of the advocates have used to get what they want, without being the ones in the classroom.”

Eyles disagrees and said that she has remained respectful in her emails to board members on advocating on behalf of students and staff.

“I cared so much about the safety of children, and I just spent two years trying to get New Hanover County Schools to adopt proactive practices that will protect teachers and will protect students,” Eyles said.

But upon introspection, Eyles said she wished she didn’t react to Adams’ final public comments as a board member.

“Looking back, I wish that I had let Ms. Adams’ words stand on their own as a reflection of her values as a leader and her character. [...]. And I should have let her word stand as that, and I should not have responded to her,” Eyles said.

What’s to come

Adams claims that she wasn’t the one who submitted the paperwork for Eyles’ ban.

But Adams contends that Eyles should have known her past behavior wouldn’t be tolerated with the board’s policy on decorum for audience members during public meetings. And Adams maintains that there should be consequences for misbehavior.

“As someone that served on the board for four years to watch the behaviors continue to erode and become more and more outlandish and disrespectful, at what point do we stop and say, ‘The work of the district has to get done. This cannot be allowed, this behavior is not acceptable in a public meeting,'" Adams said.

But Adams said she acknowledged that for Eyles, “at the end of the day, all she wants is to be heard. [...] However, this has been ongoing, her behavior is that of a bully. And I'm allowed to have that feeling because a lot of other people have had all kinds of feelings about me.”

As for the pending hearing for Eyles, she said she doesn’t think it’s going to be “fair.”

And she said she still doesn’t understand why she’s been singled out for the ban.

“But community members who have repeatedly stopped the business of the board, halted those meetings, have been escorted out, have stood at the podium and sworn at the board, they've been invited back every month,” Eyles said.

For example, Moms for Liberty activist Natosha Tew has been removed several times for her behavior at board meetings.

Ultimately, Eyles said she wishes they could “resolve this, but they seem like they have not wanted to, so they’ve dug their heels in, so I decided to go forward with a public hearing, because I do think this sets a precedent, and I think it’s important.”

District spokesperson Russell Clark hasn’t yet confirmed if the district has gone through a case similar to that of Eyles, but they did at one point ban UNCW professor, writer, and education activist Clyde Edgerton.

WHQR has reached out to the district for comment about the hearing.

Clark said, “New Hanover County Schools will not comment on Ms. Eyles's appeal hearing.”

But Clark did add, “NHCS officially informed Ms. Eyles that the Board of Education received her request for appeal on 12/19/2022. On 1/4/2023, Ms. Eyles received a letter informing her of the date, time, location, and process of how the hearing will work. This meeting will be open to the public, consistent with Policy 2500 and Open Meetings Law (GS. 143-318. et. seq). Additionally, the meeting will be live-streamed.”

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR