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New NHCS policy, parent's public record request, target teacher's in-class materials and speech

The school board bows their heads in prayer during a hearing for the banning of 'Stamped' on August 10, 2023, in Wilmington, North Carolina. Photo by Allison Joyce
Allison Joyce/Allison Joyce for WUNC/WHQR
Allison Joyce
The school board bows their heads in prayer during a hearing for the banning of “Stamped” August 10, 2023 in Wilmington, North Carolina. Photo by Allison Joyce

Not long after Katie Gates, a parent of a former Ashley High School student, won her appeal to have the bookStamped effectively removed from the district’s high school curriculum, she put in a public records request asking for more information on the district’s teachers. At the same time, the Board of Education is moving forward with a policy to put additional scrutiny on what materials teachers use and what they say in the classroom.

On September 19, Gates filed a public records request, asking for every high school English teacher’s syllabi for the fall 2023 semester. She requested the following courses: AP Language and Composition, AP Literature, and English I-IV (both honors and standard).

She also focused on specific teachers, asking for syllabi for middle school teachers from Murray and Myrtle Grove middle schools. WHQR reached out to those teachers for comments, but none responded.

When WHQR reached out to Gates for comment as to what her more recent concerns were, she said, “No comment, just doing due diligence.”

As for the New Hanover County Board of Education members, most of them didn’t respond when asked if the public could anticipate more hearings on the removal of specific curriculum materials or books.

However, Board Member Stephanie Walker said of the public records request, “It looks like harassment of teachers to me.”

Professional conduct policy: restricted 'concepts'

Walker said the same about a proposed policy update, unveiled on the same day as Gates’s request. Policy 7205 is one that guides ‘Standards of Professional Conduct’ for teachers and staff.

Introduced by the Policy Committee Chair Josie Barnhart, the proposed policy seeks to “ensure dignity and nondiscrimination” by targeting a number of concepts deemed inappropriate. The policy bans any employee from teaching them or “compelling students, teachers, administrators, or other school employees to affirm or profess belief” in them.

Some of the banned concepts are ideas that clearly fly in the face of constitutional protections, like suggesting one race or sex is inherently superior to another, or that anyone should be denied equal protection under the law.

But others are quite similar to arguments made by writers who view U.S. history through the lens of race. For example, one concept — “The United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex” — could certainly be a paraphrase for the contentious argument made in Nikole Hannah-Jones’ introduction to theNew York Times’ 1619 Project, where she wrote, “one of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”

Here’s the list of concepts:

  1. One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex 
  2. An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive
  3. An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex
  4. An individual's moral character is necessarily determined by his or her race or sex
  5. An individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex
  6. Any individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress
  7. A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist
  8. The United States was created by members of a particular race or sex for the purpose of oppressing members of another race or sex
  9. The United States government should be violently overthrown
  10. Particular character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privileges, or beliefs should be ascribed to a race or sex or to an individual because of the individual's race or sex;
  11. The rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups
  12. All Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
  13. Governments should deny to any person within the government's jurisdiction the equal protection of the law. 

During the meeting, there was some discussion as to where some of this policy had originated. WHQR reached out to the district to clarify that issue. According to spokesperson Russell Clark, “the district has reached out to the attorney and will have further discussions with the board.”

As reported by Port City Daily, the language comes verbatim from House Bill 187, filed in February. Two of the co-sponsors were Republican Representatives Carson Smith, from Pender County, and Frank Iler, from Brunswick County. The bill passed the House in March, but has been in Senate committee since then.

This proposed policy further states, “The willful breach of the standards in this Policy shall subject a teacher or licensed employee to license suspension or revocation.”

Teachers' reaction

In reaction to this proposed policy, AP Ashley English teacher Kelli Kidwell said, “I'm troubled because the language is so vague. There are so many multiple ways to interpret it. It's like a mini-headed Hydra; there are so many ways that they can come at people. And so I just don't see how this could stand with the First Amendment. It doesn't seem logical.”

Kidwell taught the AP Language and Composition teacher that Gates' child took and became the target of Gates' accusations during the public hearing on whether to ban the book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You — which was part of Kidwell's curriculum.

Kidwell said other teachers who have seen the proposal are not happy with it.

“I think that most teachers are angry right now. It's insulting and disrespectful. We are professionals. We have a college degree, and we do our job to the best of our ability over and over again each day despite obstacles,” Kidwell said.

At the Stamped hearing on September 1, school board members, split mainly between party lines, could not agree on facts about Kidwell’s AP scores or how the book,Stamped, came to be in the library and in her classroom. The board also struggled with more subjective issues.

For example, during the hearing, Gates claimed Kidwell was trying to make White students feel bad by reading the book, Stamped. Kidwell said she didn’t say that, nor was her aim to make students feel guilty about their race. She added that people are responsible for their own feelings.

These proposed policy stipulations could result in similar subjective debates by the district's administration and board. For example, a teacher discussing racism could be construed as trying to tell their students that, “an individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive.”

Policy committee members Bradford and Barnhart agreed to pass the policy along to the full school board for a first reading.

The Right's increasing interest in what and how teachers teach

When Gates first took issue with Stamped in early December 2022, she sent an email to Kidwell, informing her she had “notic[ed] the School Board and Lt. Governor Mark Robinson’s assistant who will be reporting this to the F.A.C.T.S commission.”

At the Stamped hearing, Board Member Stephanie Walker asked her about this email to Robinson. She said, “I absolutely submitted this to him. I had to report this.”

When Robinson unveiled his "Indoctrination in NC Public Education" report in August 2021, with North Carolina State Superintendent Catherine Truitt and North Carolina Senator Michael Lee standing behind him, he said his report was only the “beginning of taking a serious look at what’s going on inside our public schools.”

Vice-Chair Pat Bradford, along with Board Chair Pete Wildeboer and Members Barnhart and Melissa Mason, have previously focused on claims of “biased teaching” in the district’s schools.

For example, at the board’s April Town Hall, Bradford told a parent who was upset about his third grader learning about racism, to “report this type of teaching so that staff and the board could investigate it.”

Not all constituents felt the same way, however. Another speaker, addressing the board during the Call to the Audience period, said, "Hey y'all, I just want to go on record and say as a mixed race person in America I definitely experienced racism in third grade so like whatever that's real whether you want to believe it or not.”

Below: Policy 7205

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