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NHC school board amends controversial campus display policy

NHC school board on July 2, 2024
Rachel Keith
/
WHQR
NHC school board on July 2, 2024

Board members voted to amend policies 3200 and 7300, which govern what teachers can display in their classrooms. Teachers and staff are now allowed to display family photos, student art, and military flags in addition to materials that represent the United States, the state of North Carolina, New Hanover County, the school name and mascot, post-secondary institutions, school-sponsored events, sponsorships, and/or the approved curriculum.

One major change to the policy will now allow teachers to display family photos. The policy previously appeared to prohibit these, leading to pushback from staff and advocates.

Board Chair Pete Wildeboer voted to amend the policy language to remove family photos from acceptable forms of displays last month when the motion was introduced by board member Pat Bradford. But, at Tuesday’s meeting, he changed his tune, saying, “Teachers should have an area where they display their family photos.”

Board member Stephanie Walker said she wanted to go further and strike out the entirety of the verbiage describing what teachers can and can’t display on school grounds and in classrooms. She said she still didn’t understand why this emergency policy needed to be passed.

In May, Bradford said the emergency was the American flag being taken down by pro-Palestinian protesters on UNC Chapel Hill’s campus. Walker said this policy upset many teachers and staff, as evidenced by the comments in the recently released climate survey.

Wildeboer responded that the need for these policies arose from a “flag situation at a high school graduation.” However, he didn’t elaborate on which graduation or what flag he was referring to. Additionally, graduation came well after the initial unveiling of the policy.

Member Hugh McManus told Wildeboer the district didn’t need a blanket policy for that; moreover, he said he saw that as a student discipline issue, an anecdote that didn't need a policy solution.

“This will destroy our teaching staff with this fear; these policies are creating so much negativity, and the ones who have longevity are leaving,” he said.

Bradford agreed with Wildeboer, claiming that at this graduation, a student was attempting to unfurl a flag that “could have created a riot.” She pushed back on the criticisms of the board being partisan, saying that “the four of us [herself, Wildeboer, Barnhart, and Mason] are accused of [playing] politics, but no one talks about the other political side.”

Bradford said these policies were “simple to follow,” and they ensured that “no one ideology was having a field day. Activism has no place in our schools. We are here to teach children how to think, and if you’re not here to do that your career needs to be questioned,” she said.

She then transitioned to mocking staff complaints about the policy in a high-pitched voice, saying, “Can we have a plant on our desk?” — referencing a time when staff questioned the vagueness of the policies that have been amended several times.

Walker pushed back, saying that activism to her was Bradford trying to stop other flags from being represented — and that the American and North Carolina flags were already on display before these policies were implemented.

Wildeboer initially wanted to reinstate international flags as appropriate displays but backtracked when Bradford pushed him to align with her argument that this could cause student disagreements.

She said, “I want to be proactive on this; the world is becoming more dangerous.”

McManus told her that students learn by discussing and challenging others in their beliefs. “We don’t have to agree — that’s what we do in education.” But added, "I hope to God someone sues you.”

Walker asked, “Where does this end? This is a slippery slope if we keep limiting and limiting. That’s not our job.” She added that she didn’t want Central Office to direct schools to take anything down.

WHQR asked Wildeboer if displays of international flags would be appropriate for the district’s two international schools, and he confirmed that would be acceptable under the approved curriculum.

Vice Chair Melissa Mason said earlier in the meeting that a student's picture of a flag for a book report would also be acceptable. She also said that social media doesn’t count as a display — mentioning that shouldn’t have been the reason cited for taking down a district post on Pride Month. Wildeboer said the rules outlining social media should return to the policy committee for deliberation, but the board never took a formal vote.

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