Greg Childress joined NC Policy Watch in December 2018 after nearly 30 years of reporting and editorial writing at The Herald-Sun in Durham. His most recent reporting assignment was covering K-12 education in Chapel Hill and Durham and Orange Counties. [email protected] Follow Greg @gchild6645

Disturbing school board meeting shows widening racial divide in Alamance County

[“Go Backstage” is an occasional series explaining to readers the process of reporting and writing stories. The purpose of the series is to help readers understand the nuances of journalism and to add transparency to the process.

I got to know Patsy Simpson over the telephone in early March while interviewing her for a story about race relations in Alamance County.

She was generous with her time and spoke freely about how race impacts students of color in the Alamance- Burlington School System. Ms. Simpson introduced me to her foster daughter Destiny who also talked freely and at great length about her experiences as a student at Southern Alamance High School.

This week, Ms. Simpson was at the center of a controversy over an article in the Southern Alamance High School yearbook that provided a summary of the Black Lives Matter movement. The  yearbook also included summary articles about other factual events such as the presidential election that occurred during the 2020-21 school year.

The Black Lives Matter article outraged some parents. Some of them attended Monday’s school board meeting to express concern.

Ms. Simpson, the lone Black school board member, got into an heated exchange with someone in the audience. In March, she spoke about feeling the weight of being the board’s only Black member.

Here’s my take on the unfortunate school board meeting. – Greg Childress]

It was difficult to watch the video of Alamance-Burlington school board member Patsy Simpson reminding a speaker that Black lives matter and that part of “getting along” means acknowledging who she is as a person.

Patsy Simpson

You can hear the hurt, the pain and weariness in Simpson’s voice as she explained those simple truths to a speaker who’d come before the board to complain about a yearbook article that highlighted and summarized the activities of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Don’t talk to me about setting an example when you talked about Black lives don’t matter,” Simpson said in a heated exchange with an audience member. “Don’t talk to me about that when you’re talking about why I feel the way I do.”

I spoke to Simpson for several hours in March and April for “PW special report – The battle for Alamance part 3: A school system in which racial divisions and inequities persist. The story explored how race impacts the education and social and emotional well-being of children in the county.

The story is part of an ongoing Policy Watch series examining race relations in the troubled county.

During our talks, Simpson made two things clear: First, she cares deeply about all children in the Alamance-Burlington School System. And secondly, she understands her unique role as the school board’s lone Black member.

“It feels like a really heavy weight on my shoulders,” Simpson said of being the only Black board member. “Some people, particularly white residents, think that I’m always advocating for Black students, and they’re absolutely right, because I can see the disparities and I can see the issues that have not been addressed in these schools.”

Racial tension boiled over in Alamance County last year after citizens gathered in downtown Graham to protest the presence of a Confederate monument in front of the courthouse.

The protests, which led to the arrests and jailing of several participants, were sparked by the killing of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man who died under the knee of former police officer Derek Chauvin. Last month, the disgraced officer was found guilty of all the charges he faced over Floyd’s death.

Critics of the yearbook article titled “From Hashtag to Movement: How a movement helped people speak up against discrimination” were outraged that such an article appeared in Southern Alamance’s yearbook.

It must have been a hard pill to swallow for some residents, especially those who remember the 1960s and beyond when the school sported a Confederates mascot and football players proudly trotted onto the field waving a Confederate battle flag. Read more

Sen. Thom Tillis: The 1619 Project and critical race theory have no place in nation’s classrooms


Thom Tillis

The New York Time Magazine’s “1619 Project” and critical race theory have no place in America’s classrooms, says U.S. Senator Thom Tillis.

The Republican senator from North Carolina made his remarks in a May 21 letter to Durham activist Paul Scott. Scott had written him to complain about Tillis’s support of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s letter asking U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to abandon curriculum that McConnell believes tells a revisionist history of America’s founding.

Tillis explained that he believes school curricula are “best set with as little input from Washington bureaucrats” as possible.

“This is why I have significant concerns with the Department of Education’s recent effort to reorient the bipartisan American History and Civics Education programs away from their intended purposes toward a politicized and divisive agenda,” Tillis wrote. “These proposed changes include implementing new federal grant priority for projects using The New York Time Magazine’s 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory (CRT).”

The senator added: “Americans do not want their tax dollars diverted from promoting the principles that unite our nation toward promoting radical ideologies meant to divide us.”

Critical Race Theory is an academic discipline that examines how racism has shaped the nation’s legal and social systems.

Paul Scott

Scott expressed anger and disappointment at Tillis for signing McConnell’s letter.

“As a lifelong resident of North Carolina, I am outraged over your signing of the letter penned by Senator Mitch McConnell to Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona, which included an objection to the 1619 Project,” Scott wrote.

Scott shared Tillis’s letter with Policy Watch this week as the leadership at UNC-Chapel Hill sought to untangle itself from the controversy it weaved in pursuit of Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of “The 1619 Project,” for a tenured professorship in the university’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

Nikole Hannah-Jones

Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize winner and MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant” recipient, was offered the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism, a tenured professorship. But after objections from conservative groups and members of the school’s board of trustees, she was instead offered a fixed five-year appointment.

As Policy Watch reported this week, “The 1619 Project” is a long-form journalism undertaking that, as the Pulitzer Center put it, “challenges us to reframe U.S. history by marking the year when the first enslaved Africans arrived on Virginia soil as our nation’s foundational date.” Hannah-Jones, who is Black, conceived of the project and was among multiple staff writers, photographers and editors who put it together.

The UNC Board of Trustees’ decision to pull back Hannah-Jones’s tenure offer set off a firestorm of controversy. Her supporters vigorously voiced their objection.

Scott said in his letter to Tillis that the senator’s support of McConnell’s position is a “sign of blatant disrespect” for African Americans.

“Regardless of the stated intention, your actions and those of the other signees are reminiscent of the Nazi Berlin book burning of May 1933,” Scott said.

HB 324: Further restricting how racial history is taught in NC

The controversy surrounding Hannah-Jones’s UNC professorship comes as Republican lawmakers across the country push legislation to restrict how America’s racial history is taught and discussed in classrooms.

In North Carolina, the Republican-led state House has approved House Bill 324 that restricts what educators can teach students about race and history. The Senate hasn’t taken up the measure, which Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, would likely veto if approved in that chamber.

HB 324 would prohibit teachers from promoting concepts that suggest America is racist or that people are inherently racist or sexist. It would also prohibit teaching that whites or anyone else is responsible for the sins of their forefathers.

Republican legislatures across the country are pushing bills like HB 324 to keep unflattering parts of America’s history from being taught in public schools.

On Thursday, the Durham Board of Education took up a resolution that urges lawmakers to vote down the controversial state bill. “If necessary, the Board urges Governor [Roy] Cooper to veto HB324,” the resolution states.

The school board posted the resolution on the district’s website to give citizens a chance to review the document before the board approves it next month.

The Durham City Council will also consider adopting a resolution that opposes HB 324.

Granville County parent is fighting against mask mandate in schools

A Granville County parent who refuses to make her children wear masks in school on religious grounds believes new, less restrictive face covering guidelines strengthen the family’s  argument against a school mask mandate.

Granville County Public Schools (GCPS) has denied Danielle Hayes’ sons — a fourth grader and a high school freshman – in-person instruction because of their refusals to wear masks.

“All of the teachers in Granville County who have been asked to be vaccinated have been, so why are we still continuing to do this to population that is at lowest risk to everyone else,” Hayes said. “Why will adults have the freedom to gather and to unmask when our children do not?”

Hayes and sons on a family outing.

Hayes’ sons have continued to learn remotely even as some GCPS students returned to classrooms for in-person instruction.

“My kids have not stepped foot inside of a school or sat inside a classroom with their peers for 425 days [as of May 14],” Hayes lamented.

Explaining the family’s religious objection to masks, Hayes said that covering one’s face is “akin to something that Muslims do.”

“We’re made in God’s image, right?” she said. “Unless you, yourself have a disorder, a medical reason or are particularly immuno-compromised, if you’re a healthy individual, you don’t need to cover your face.”

The family’s position is not supported by religious scripture, Hayes acknowledged.

“That’s just our personal interpretation,” Hayes said. “God has entrusted me with these children. He’s blessed me with them, and it’s also our responsibility to make the best decision possible for them.”

Hayes has unsuccessfully petitioned the Granville County Board of Education for mask exemptions for her sons on at least two occasions.

“I feel like any person who has common sense would feel that way,” Hayes said when asked if the new guidance helps her case. “All of the science we’ve been following for the last year has shown us that children are at lower risk of COVID, and they seem to transmit it at a lower rate.”

But what about parents who feel differently and want to protect their children from contracting the virus by requiring students to wear masks? How about teachers?

“When in the history of humanity, have we ever said that people are sick until proven healthy?” Hayes said. “That’s basically what happen this year, they said all of you are sick unless we prove otherwise.”

New guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shared last week advises that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in most cases.

Gov. Roy Cooper also adopted less restrictive face mask rules to bring North Carolina in line with the new CDC guidance.

Cooper removed the indoor mask mandate for most settings and lifted all mass gathering limits and social distancing requirements.

“We can take this step today because the science shows our focus on getting people vaccinated is working,” Cooper said. “But to keep moving forward – and to make sure that we keep saving lives – more people need to get vaccinated.”

The CDC and the governor, however, advised school districts to continue to require students to wear masks and to social distance for the remainder of the school year.

GCPS will continue to follow the guidance set by the governor and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services in the Strong Schools NC Public Health Toolkit, said School board Chairman David Richardson.

“The Toolkit does not provide an exemption from the face covering requirement based on religious or philosophical objections,” Richardson said. “We are able to accommodate families with religious and philosophical objections to face coverings by providing remote instruction for those families until the pandemic-related safety rules are lifted.”

Face coverings have become a huge source of controversy during the pandemic despite assurances by federal and state health officials that donning a mask helps to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Many Americans don’t have problem wearing a mask to slow the spread of the virus. Others vehemently oppose wearing mask. The  contend mask mandates erode individual freedoms.

Oftentimes, the divide over mask wearing falls along political lines, with Democrats supporting the safety measure and Republicans passionately opposed. An Elon University Poll last summer found 91% of Democrats in favor of the state’s mask mandate compared to 57% or Republicans.

Hayes is a conservative, but said the family isn’t making a political statement by not wearing masks. Her religious concerns and the belief that government overreacted to the pandemic are driving the decision, she said.

“Maybe not initially, we didn’t know what it was, and everybody was terrified, but as we learned more during the summer [2020], I feel like the government’s response at every level could have been different,” Hayes said.

Hayes said the family hasn’t been vaccinated against the coronavirus, but is not opposed to taking the vaccine.

“Right now, while the vaccine is under emergency use authorization, we’ve chosen not to vaccinate,” Hayes said. “I’m not saying never, but everyone who gets vaccinated is participating in the clinical trial. We’re going to have to wait and see.”

House approved bill restricting classroom discussions about race moves to Senate

State Rep. Kandie Smith

A controversial bill restricting what North Carolina school children can be taught about America’s racial history was approved by the Republican-led House on Wednesday and is headed to the Senate where it is also likely to receive a favorable hearing.

House Bill 324 is like dozens of bills around the country being pushed by Republican legislatures trying to ensure unflattering parts of the nation’s history are not taught in public schools.

Critical Race Theory, an academic discipline that examines how racism has shaped the nation’s legal and social systems, is also a target of such bills.

In North Carolina, HB 324 would prohibit teachers from promoting concepts that suggest America is racist or that people are inherently racist or sexist. It would also prohibit teaching that whites or anyone else is responsible for the sins of their forefathers.

Critics of the bill believe it’s a response to new social studies standards adopted by the State Board of Education that require diverse views are included when history is taught.

“When I look at a bill like this, I have to question myself, why are we having this bill before us,” said Rep. John Autry, a Mecklenburg County Democrat. “I believe it’s a reaction against the new and more inclusive social studies standards the State Board of Education passed.”

Autry said teachers must be trusted to engage students in tough conversations about America’s racial past, which includes slavery, Jim Crow laws and the cruelty heaped upon Native American.

“We’re conflating racial analysis with racism as a way of protecting the sensibility of us white folks,” Autry said.

He said no one is being taught that they are inherently racist in the state’s public schools.

“It’s simply a straw man,” he said.

Rep. James Gailliard, a Democrat from Nash County, called HB 324 an “anti-business” bill, explaining that the bill prohibits schools from employing diversity trainers and consultants.

“These are common practices in business today because businesses recognize that without a conversation around diversity, equity and inclusion that we can’t expand our workforce, it contributes to the bottom line and it helps companies identify their blind spots,” Gailliard said.

HB 324 is also an anti-education bill, he said, because it avoids tough conversations about systemic injustices, the residual impacts of those injustices, the benefits of diversity and the recognition that all people have value.

“This is where we strip our children of the understanding that there are heroes and villains in the world, where we strip our children of the reality that you can turn injustice into justice,” Gailliard said.

Rep. Ashton Wheeler Clemmons, a Guilford County Democrat and educator, said she is bothered to her “core” by HB 324.

The bill would prevent teachers from being truthful when discussing historical or political issues with students, Clemmons said.

She cited an incident during the George W. Bush presidency where a student asked her why there were no women or Black presidents.

“I am worried that bill [HB 324] would prevent me as that teacher in that moment from honestly answering that question,” Wheeler said. “Honestly, a lot of our history makes that true. The facts of our history have led to where we are. Until 1920, only white men could vote. Women could vote in 1920 but then people of color; not until 1965.”

Rep. Kandie Smith, a Pitt County Democrat, said conversations about race are challenging and uncomfortable but necessary.

“This bill spends a lot of time talking about what you can’t do,” Smith said. “There’s an entire list of don’ts in this bill but there is no mention of what we should do.”

She likened the introduction of HB 324 to a “book burning.”

“A small group of enraged individuals are looking to ban an entire concept of thought because it makes them uncomfortable,” Smith said. “The acquisition of knowledge is not a danger to our children but the banning of these ideas for the sake of maintaining the status quo, let’s be clear, that will continue to endanger the lives of Black and Brown children across the state and across this country.”

Rep. Charles Graham, a Robeson County Democrat and member of the Lumbee tribe, said many of his House colleagues were taught that American Indians were savages.

HB 324 would continue to circumvent history and send the wrong message to teachers, Graham said.

“I don’t know what inspired anyone to want to bring this to this body today, but let me say this, it’s wrong and as far as I’m concerned, it’s mean-spirited,” he said. “We need to be teaching about Black culture and what it has meant to this county, about our Native American culture and what it’s meant to this country, our Hispanic culture and what it means to this country.”

No Republicans rose to speak in support of the bill, but it has been endorsed by the House leadership and State Superintendent Catherine Truitt, who said earlier this week that HB 324 encourages students to think freely and to respect differences of opinions.

“Classrooms should be an environment where all points of view are honored,” Truitt said. “There is no room for divisive rhetoric that condones preferential treatment of any one group over another.”

Truitt’s support of the bill comes at a time when the state board has made racial equity the center piece of its five-year strategic plan. It’s unclear whether her endorsement of HB 324 will strain the collegial relationship she’s worked to have with the board.

This year, Republican legislatures across the nation have introduced bills that would restrict educators’ ability to teach about systemic racism, sexism, bias and similar topics.

In Tennessee, the House of Representatives debated a last week that would ban classroom discussions about systemic racism. The state would withhold funding to schools that taught about systemic racism and white privilege under the bill.

The Tennessee House approved the bill along party lines with Republicans voting in favor of it while Democrats opposed it. The Senate, however, declined to accept the legislation.

In Ohio, the legislature is considering a bill that would prohibit “teaching or advocating divisive concepts on race, color, nationality or sex, the Ohio Capital Journal reported.

Republican-led legislatures in Oklahoma, Texas, Idaho and other states have introduced similar bills.

Umpires told a high school softball player in Durham to remove beads from her braids or leave the game

Nicole wearing jersey No. 6.

Umpires asked a softball player for Durham’s Hillside High School to remove the beads attached to the end of her braids or leave the game.

With the help of teammates, Nicole Pyles, a sophomore, cut off the beads and eventually her braids to remain in the April 19 game against rival Jordan High School.

“Without being disrespectful, I asked the umpire, ‘You officiated games where I was wearing these braids and beads, so what is the issue?’” Nicole said in a statement. “My braids were not covering my number. I felt like the world was staring at me. Why me? Why anybody for that fact? It was embarrassing and disrespectful.”

Click here to see a video of Nicole discussing the incident. 

Under the National Federation of State High School Associations’ (NFHS) Rule 3-2-5, which covers uniforms and player equipment for students participating in softball, “Plastic visors, bandannas and hair-beads are prohibited.”

The NC High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) is a member of the NFHS, which is the organization that helps provide uniform playing rules for high school athletics across the nation.

The umpire’s decision to ask Nicole to remove her braids or leave the game has raises questions about the cultural fairness of such rules.

The Durham City Council became the first in the state to pass an ordinance in January banning hair discrimination within the workplace when it approved the “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act” or CROWN Act.  The ordinance does not cover students in educational settings.

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ) called for DPS and the NCHSAA to adopt policies to eradicate all forms of discrimination in schools and athletic events.

The organization noted that the General Assembly is weighing a statewide CROWN Act (Senate Bill 165), which it wants expanded to include protections in academic settings.

Nicole and her parents also asked DPS and the NCHSAA to adopt new policies to prohibit Black hair discrimination in schools.

“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else, especially someone who looks like me,” Nicole said.

The family has requested formal apologies from the Jordan High coaching staff;  the umpires working the game and Mark Dreibelbis, supervisor of officials for the NCHSAA.

“The humiliation my child experienced could have, and should have, been avoided,” said Julius Pyles, said Nicole’s father. “A level of professionalism should have resolved this situation so that no child, regardless of color, while under adult supervision, would experience discrimination because of their hairstyle.”

Durham Public Schools said Rule 3-2-5 is “culturally biased” in a statement sent to Policy Watch.

“Durham Public Schools is actively investigating the circumstances at the April 19 Hillside-Jordan softball game in which a game official required a student-athlete to remove beads in her hair,” the statement said. “The player cut her hair to comply. Durham Public Schools recognizes that the National Federation of State High School Associations has a specific rule (rule 3-2-5) against hair-beads, however DPS believes this rule is culturally biased. DPS is continuing to investigate the enforcement of this rule in this circumstance.”

NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker said coaches are responsible for ensuring athletes abide by playing rules.

“We empathize with the student athlete and her experience,” Tucker said. “It is truly unfortunate, as we believe this situation should never have occurred. The NCHSAA expectation is that coaches will know the playing rules and ensure that their players are also aware of them prior to participating in any athletic contest.”

Tucker added: “This is not a new rule and when the violation was noticed by an umpire, the proper determination of illegal equipment was verified as supported by NFHS Rule,” Tucker said. “Further, according to NFHS Softball Rule 3-5-1, prior to the start of a contest, it is the responsibility of each coach to verify to the plate umpire that all his or her players are legally equipped, and that players and equipment are in compliance with all NFHS rules.”