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NHCS education activist Sandy Eyles is banned from meetings until end of June

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NHCS
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WHQR
Board members at the Eyles' hearing. From left to right: Stephanie Kraybill, Hugh McManus, Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust, Pete Wildeboer, Pat Bradford, Stephanie Walker, Melissa Mason, and Josie Barnhart.

On Monday, the New Hanover County school board decided to ban education activist Sandy Eyles from meetings and committees until June 30, 2023. Eyles voiced disappointment with the decision, but it's also a shorter ban than district staff originally wanted to impose.

Related: NHC school board to consider banning education activist from meetings

Monday’s public hearing was an appeal, as Eyles was supposed to serve out this ban until November. It was not a legally binding civil or criminal hearing — but the board's ultimate decision, a ban from school board property during meetings, can be enforced by the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office.

Eyles received her original “trespass notice” after she got into two verbal altercations with former board member Stefanie Adams in September and November of last year.

Board member Hugh McManus said of the board’s final decision: “Hopefully this has sent as fair a message as we could collectively agree on that we're not going to tolerate it. [...] And we've set a precedent intended or not, I believe, probably, legally that what we can and will do.”

The decision was far from unanimous — the board approved the motion to truncate the ban to the end of June by a 4 to 3 vote, with members Stephanie Walker, Melissa Mason, and Pat Bradford dissenting.

Walker and Mason were supportive of ending Eyles’s ban sooner than June 30, with Mason voicing concern that this could be an infringement of Eyles' First Amendment rights. Bradford leaned the other way, wanting her to be banned for the full year.

Eyles said of the decision: “I am thankful for the reduced period, but I still have concerns about the process that was heavily biased against me.”

The arguments, board questions

The hearing began with board attorney Jason Weber asking each of the members before they heard the case, “Can you consider this matter fairly and impartially based on the evidence presented in the hearing?”

They all said, “Yes.”

Assistant Superintendent Eddie Anderson presented on behalf of district staff. He first showed the September 20 town hall meeting video where the first contentious interaction happened between Adams and Eyles. Then he proceeded to show the November board meeting video, which also shows Eyles yelling at Adams.

Anderson said the basis for the hearing is whether Eyles’ violated board policy 5020. He reiterated that her actions did interfere with board operation through, “using loud or offensive language, cursing or displaying a temper” that “disrupt[ed] a school facility.”

Anderson also said Eyles did not comply with law enforcement when they asked her to “stop yelling.” He also added that Adams didn’t act in an aggressive manner when approaching Eyles at the September meeting.

Eyles said she disagrees with this assessment.

When Anderson concluded his presentation, member Josie Barnhart asked if there was anything different he would have done, to which he responded, “No.”

Member Stephanie Kraybill asked Anderson if Eyles’ behavior was more or less egregious in comparison to what he’s witnessed at past meetings. He responded that he had only been tasked to compare Eyles’ behavior to what’s acceptable in board policy.

Walker stated to Anderson that she couldn’t hear what Adams was saying to Eyles in one of the videos and asked whether he investigated that. He reiterated that he was only to look into the actions of Eyles.

Eyles' case

After the district made its case, it was time for Eyles’ presentation. Kraybill was the only ‘no’ vote to accept printed copies of her oral presentation materials.

Eyles asked the board to either entirely rescind her trespass notice or to agree to reinstate her on a probationary period.

Eyles said she saw an imbalance of power between her and Adams, in favor of the then-board member — and stood by the claims that she was the victim of bullying and harassment.

Eyles did say she regretted her behavior, but said it was in self-defense in response to Adams’ comments, and added that she was dismayed that Chuck Silverstein, the executive director of safety, who sent her the trespass notice, never contacted her to speak about it.

Questions of faith

She ended her presentation by stating that she was a Christian woman asking for forgiveness. She then appealed emotionally to Wildeboer and member Pat Bradford who, according to Eyles (and past public appearances), are outspoken about their Christian faith.

Eyles then recounted an anecdote of Jesus’s forgiveness when he said, “Go and sin no more.” Eyles then said, “Who is going to cast the first stone?”

Eyles said that if the board ruled in her favor, as in ending her ban or putting her on a probationary period they would be establishing a “culture of redemption and forgiveness” rather than one of “retaliation.”

Bradford said she was upset by Eyles’s comment about her faith.

“You followed her [Adams] to the dais. You put our faith on trial here. How familiar are you with First Corinthians 13:4?”

Eyles said, “Not, familiar.”

Bradford said, “It talks about operating in love and peace and joy [...] which I did not see displayed.”

Prior to her election, Bradford herself had a history of making highly-charged comments, including calling the district's curriculum 'evil,' and repeatedly equating Covid-19 safety measures of both the school district and the county health board with the actions of Nazi Germany.

Kraybill made it a point of order to Bradford, “I don’t believe we’re debating religion here.”

Bradford responded, “She [Eyles] attacked my faith.” Eyles interrupted, “No, it’s my faith.”

Bradford kept questioning Eyles, “Did you operate in love?” Kraybill said, “I don’t think that question is in line.”

Filing against a board member

Kraybill then moved on to focus on Eyles’ behavior, saying Eyles should have filed a formal complaint with the superintendent against Adams if she was concerned. Eyles said that Foust would have sided with Adams since she was technically his boss.

District spokesperson Russell Clark said if a community member wants to file a complaint against a board member then they “would reach out to the board chair or file an Ethix360 complaint.”

Barnhart agreed that this hearing was for Eyles’ violation of board policy — and that she was attempting to transfer blame to Adams.

Rebuttals

After these oral presentations, both Anderson and Eyles had time to rebut any prior information or claims.

Anderson maintained that law enforcement and the district felt there was a safety threat from Eyles. He even admitted his own discomfort with her behavior.

“Eyles’ response to Adams made me feel uncomfortable, the members and the audience members uncomfortable," he said.

But Walker pointed out that Adams came back to discuss further with Eyles after she had previously walked away twice. She stated further, “I don’t see law enforcement stopping Eyles.”

Bradford agreed with Anderson. She said she felt, “disturbed and threatened when I saw the video,” and that six law enforcement officers surrounded Eyles when she was having the confrontation with Adams.

Bradford further had a question about the board’s ‘dais,’ which is where they sit at meetings. Anderson said that if members want to interact with the public, they can walk into the audience section, but community members are not supposed to approach the dais.

Following this, it was again Eyles’ turn. She reiterated that Adams had “quiet [verbal] attacks,” and the video only captured her secondary response to Adams. But she said, “This will not happen again,” but that board policies were “improperly applied” only to her, and that Adams was exempt from these same policies.

Toward the close of Eyles’ rebuttal, Bradford asked if she had contacted other board members about this appeal. Kraybill also asked this — but the board attorney tried to redirect the members to focus on the “evidence in the record.”

Board deliberation

The board went into closed session to consult with Weber. When they emerged, the members began to discuss the reasons behind their impending vote.

However, Kraybill didn’t want to let go of the discussion over ethics, trying to find out if any board members had prior discussions with Eyles about her ban.

“This person should not be a part of this discussion. If they talked to her after the trespass notice — and were advised by our attorney to not speak to administration or Ms. Eyles, and if they did, it would compromise the decision,” Kraybill said.

Weber jumped in to say that the onus is on each board member, referencing his ethics initial question, to recuse themselves.

Eyles said to WHQR that she did not consult with any board member about her ban after it was clear her appeal would be heard by them.

After Weber redirected the board, Bradford said that watching the November meeting at home, she “felt physically threatened” and that the board needed to “feel safe doing this job.”

Walker disagreed: “I cannot ignore Adams’ behavior. No one can say what it’s been like sitting up here, except those of us who have been up here for two years. This behavior is not acceptable, but it’s been two months already. We have said we do not condone this behavior, and she said she won’t do this again. I’ve felt threatened, and it’s been much worse than that.”

Mason said, for her, it was about the First Amendment, and that this ban was a violation of Eyles’ rights.

Mason then went on to say that Weber had asked the members to consider whether Eyles was presenting a “true physical, bodily threat.” Mason agreed with Walker, ‘Why would Adams return to Eyles [referring to the September town hall] if she felt physically threatened?’

Wildeboer jumped in to remind Mason that their lawyer’s advice should not be shared in public.

Barnhart again reiterated that the board should base their decision solely on examining evidence. To her, Eyles clearly violated board policy, and by her [Eyles’] own admission her behavior was not acceptable. Ultimately saying it’s normal for individuals to have a reaction, but they then have to be responsible for their behavior.

Kraybill said she agreed with Eyles when she said this decision is “setting a precedent.” But said an individual does not have a right to “yell, and the First Amendment does not protect us from the consequences.”

And Kraybill, too, said she “felt threatened on the 20th. Law enforcement does not come unless we call them. The mere fact they all migrated without us asking them to come over says something.”

Kraybill pointed out that after the September meeting, Eyles “repeated the behavior six weeks later. I was scared, but she followed Adams to the dais. I’m having a real hard with [her] argument.”

Bradford said that they can “forgive and give grace,” and that the first time is one thing, but it happened a second time.

After this deliberation, Barnhart introduced a motion to uphold the district’s decision. Walker quickly tried to amend that motion to ‘time served,’ Mason seconded.

Kraybill said that Eyles hadn’t felt the consequences of her actions just yet; then introduced another amendment to have her ban until the end of the school year to give “credence to our staff.” She later made the official date, June 30, 2023.

Once this conversation ensued, the audience can be heard making comments. Barnhart said to not “acknowledge the commentary.”

Confusing amendments to the final motion

What ensued was confusion over what the board was actually voting on. At one point they had to adjourn for five minutes so that Weber could sort out what was on the table.

Tannis Nelson is a professional registered parliamentarian, and president of the North Carolina Association of Parliamentarians in accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, which is the adopted parliamentary authority of the board.

Nelson said that many small boards find amendments very confusing and time-consuming, so they can easily become tangled in a web of uncertainty.

“Although they have every right to make amendments, many small boards simply make a main motion, debate with members announcing whether they speak in favor of adopting the main motion, or they speak against and then they vote. If the motion fails other motions are made and voted on until one is adopted. It’s important procedural rules assist, not hinder a board’s deliberations and decisions. Keeping it as simple as possible is usually best,” Nelson said.

After the 4-3 vote, Barnhart told Eyles what she can expect moving forward. For example, Eyles can rely on her husband to make her public statements, referencing the one he made in her stead during the December ‘Call to the Audience.’ She also mentioned that Eyles can continue to email board members and stream the meetings from home.

When asked, Eyles said she plans on doing just that. And said she was grateful to Walker and Mason for working to reinstate her First Amendment rights, which, according to her, are still being violated.

Before the adjournment, Bradford made a motion to discuss what would happen if Eyles engages in this behavior again. The board ultimately decided that they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it. Bradford withdrew the motion.

When HQR reached out to Clark to ask whether a hearing like Eyles' has happened before, he said, “You are welcome to look through old meeting notices or minutes on the website if this has happened before.”

Also when asked about Monday’s audience attendance numbers, Clark said he didn’t have an estimate. When Eyles finished her remarks, it was generally met with applause. She estimates about 20 people were there supporting her, including education activist Clyde Edgerton, who was also banned at one point.

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