Thunderdome and gay pride flags: Text messages reveal thoughts … – Statesville Record & Landmark

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Anita Kurn speaks during the meeting.
When a string of violent acts in and around Statesville High School took place this year, the community asked the Iredell-Statesville School Board for answers.
In public, school board members expressed concern but as the year wore on, at least one board member suggested the school host fights between students on the football field, comparing such an event to the 1985 film “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.”
Those conversations, as well as concerns with “woke agendas” in reference to LGBTQ issues, disagreements with other local political officials, and other discussions were conducted over text messages beginning in December 2022. Those text conversations may have been in violation of North Carolina open meeting laws.
The text messages were revealed following a records request that led school officials to release correspondence between board members.
The text messages show that newly elected members Mike Kubiniec, Anita Kurn, Brian Sloan and Abby Trent participated frequently while Doug Knight and Bill Howell took part occasionally in the text conversation. Superintendent Jeff James, who began the text group as a way to provide information to the board, was part of some discussions, as well. Board member Charles Kelley was not part of the text group.
Fighting and violence in and around Statesville High School was a repeated subject of text conversations after a weapon was found on campus in January. Kubiniec, Knight and others spoke of tougher punishments for students found to have brought weapons to school.
In March, a Statesville high student was killed. Knight expressed his concerns for the students who are expected to learn after a violent act.
“This type of trauma, which can happen at any time, is the main reason kids from these backgrounds score so low on tests. The amount we can help with the myriad of programs we have is (unfortunately) small relative to effort. But those we do save are worth it, ROI be danged,” Knight said.
Kubiniec said he wouldn’t apologize for the board to take “new approaches” to the issue and that repeating what the school board may have done in the past wasn’t enough. Howell said he hoped city and county officials “will take their heads out of the sand” on the issue of violence and gang members who attend the school. Sloan asked his fellow board members to pray for the children and community affected.
The tone was different when fights again broke out later in the month.
“If you would like to tackle a redistricting plan I feel that may be an answer to SHS,” Howell said.
“Interesting idea,” Kubiniec responded.
“Let’s talk about it,” Kurn said.
“Another idea, we could have a sign up sheet for fighting. Put them through some kick box training and have a officiated match,” Sloan said.
“On this note. Bring boxing; judo and self defense courses to PE class,” Kubiniec said.
“Why not just have Thunderdome in the middle of the football field. We can charge admission!” Kurn said.
“Ms. Anita, I’m appalled. You sound like a Republican,” Sloan said.
“Did I oversell it?” Kurn responded before sharing a image from the movie “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.” Kurn added, “In all seriousness. Never teach a child to fight until they first value discipline. That is not a character trait that these kids yet possess.”
“Having the knowledge and skills to defend oneself does bring self confidence and discipline,” Kubiniec said.
While not all board members commented on specifics of the conversation, Kurn said she was serious about the issues of violence.
“I just want to make it very clear that I wasn’t joking,” Kurn said in a phone interview following the release the text messages. “It was sarcasm because fighting in our schools is absolutely not a joking manner. And my response was to exhibit the strong disagreement with having students fight to resolve their issues with one another and to simply amplify the ridiculousness of such a suggestion. And I do believe my fellow board members understood my point because they knew me and my character.”
Kurn said that the school board was working with the city to combat a number of the issues, as well as addressing root causes that begin in elementary school and sent an open letter to the Record & Landmark.
On Jan. 4, Kubiniec raised concerns about a $17 million grant for mental health services in schools if it required certain care for LGBTQ students and questioned what strings would be attached to it by the federal government.
“Great. Re: the grant—let’s see if this grant requires such things like: gender identity/affirming “care”, LGBTQ+123ABC “care”, and other such things. Before we approve, the details must be communicated,” Kubiniec said via text.
James said the grant was written by the school system and did not have that language.
Anita Kurn asked in a text, “How do we prevent this grant from normalizing mental illness in the schools?”
In February, several board members raised their concerns about a former employee returning to speak at Oakwood IB Middle School on LGBTQ issues, and the event was later canceled.
Trent texted the group in March after attending a comic convention-style event at Oakwood IB to promote literacy where she believed a vendor handed out gay pride and transgender flags, according to her message. In the messages, James said the flags were being sold but that it was “shut down” by the school and the flags were removed.
“JJ—seeking recommendation. What is the best way to drive home to the IB schools (and to all schools) that the gay, transgender, and woke agendas being driven by these schools is not acceptable?” Trent said via text.
Howell said in a text that he was glad he wasn’t there and may have lost his temper if so.
When asked about it after the texts were made public, Howell said his concerns were with it happening during the school day. He said there are LGBTQ clubs in at least one high school, but those take place after school. He said he is not a bigot.
When asked about the texts, Kurn said she wasn’t speaking specifically about LGBTQ issues when referring to mental illness. She said she had concerns with students being exposed to topics without further explanation or evaluation.
“What I mean by normalizing is making everyone feel that they have something wrong with them. There’s an approach with medicine that can make people feel they’re, for example, hypochondriacs. You have ads on television and all of a sudden somebody thinks they have this illness.”
While some of the discussions in the chat were more mundane, they involved discussions around subjects that the board would address in their meetings.
Almost as soon as the chat began in December 2022, what had been a way to distribute information among the board pivoted to discussions about how to fund the construction of Weathers Creek High School, as well as the reason for increased costs and other issues related to the school being built. The discussion would come up again in late January, February, March and April.
March would bring concerns about how a charter school bill might affect the school system, with several members saying Rep. Jeff McNeely told them he sponsored it for political reasons but didn’t expect it to pass. Board members would later say in their messages that they felt McNeely had lied to them as the bill moved forward in the N.C. General Assembly.
Board members also took issue with the Iredell County Board of Commissioners, particularly with Bert Connolly, though some members acknowledged both boards had made negative statements about the other when discussing the funding of the new high school.
Board members involved in the text conversations that responded to comment requests from the Record & Landmark said they saw nothing wrong with the conversations and claimed open meeting law rules weren’t violated.
Not all of the discussions were revealed as sections of text were redacted by school board attorney Dean Shatley. Redacted sections were deemed by Shatley to not be subject to public records requests.
According to an analysis from the School of Government at UNC-Chapel Hill, state law draws no distinction between an in-person and remote meeting in regard to open meeting policy. A meeting of four members of the board would constitute a quorum and would require a public meeting notice.
The text message group began on Dec. 19 when James established it to share information with the board members, board members said.
Howell said he didn’t believe the text messages constituted a meeting. He said rarely were more than three members talking at the same time. He also said that comments often were made hours apart and questioned if that constituted a meeting.
Brian Sloan speaks during the Iredell-Statesville Schools Board of Education meeting.
Trent also didn’t see an issue with the texts.
“I don’t believe that I have broken any laws. I never conducted school board business through that texting group that was set up. It was set up as a way for Dr. James to keep all of us board members up to date on what’s happening within the schools in our district,” Trent said. “I’m involved in many discussions regarding school-related issues on a regular basis with other board members, administration, elected officials and the voters, and transparency has and always will be my top priority while serving the people of this county.
“I just think that this issue is just trying to create division, and I don’t want to get into the weeds on some of the other issues or topics that are coming out.”
Knight also said he didn’t believe the board violated the law. “There was no intent ever to violate any laws,” Knight said. He said any of the comments made within the texts are no different than the ones he made in public.
Kurn said her belief was that by virtue of the text messages being able to be requested by the public, the board was not in violation of open meeting policy rules. She compared it to emails, as not all members participated at the same time.
“When I took the school board training, it was my personal interpretation that the very fact that anyone could request and have access to our messages fulfilled the law,” Kurn said. “Just the fact that anyone can access through a FOIA request fulfilled the requirement that there was public access to anything we discussed.”
Kubiniec and Sloan both said they had been directed to not comment.
Superintendent James declined to comment.
Iredell-Statesville Schools Superintendent Dr. Jeff James addresses school safety issues.
Follow Ben Gibson on Facebook and Twitter at @BenGibsonSRL.
Typically, when people communicate with one another via texting, a relationship has been established that allows each other to interject the small nuances of communication that are lost in the form of texting that would otherwise be clear when speaking with one another directly. However, when someone doesn’t know a person personally, we can easily have communication misunderstandings. I believe that is exactly what happened with a misinterpretation of the ” Thunderdome” comment. I want to make it very clear to the people of Iredell County that I was not joking, it was sarcasm. Fighting in our schools is absolutely not a joking matter. My response was to exhibit the strong disagreement with having students fight to resolve their issues with one another and to amplify the ridiculousness of such a suggestion. I believe that my fellow board members understood my point because they know me and my character.
It was also very clear to the board members my intention because the following text from me in that conversation was, “In all seriousness. Never teach a child to fight until they first value discipline. That is not a character trait that these kids yet possess.” I am not sure why Mike Fuhrman at the Iredell Free News chose to leave that text out. Maybe because it diminished the sensationalism of his article or it possibly was simply an oversight on his part. One can only speculate as to the reason for his omission.
Actions speak louder than words, therefore I would like to share what the administrative staff and the board have been working on to help resolve these issues of fighting in the schools. Shortly after the discussion regarding the fights, Iredell Statesville schools sponsored a gang prevention taskforce coalition and invited gang activity specialists from California to Iredell County. These experts took tours of our most impoverished areas and our low-performing schools and have devised a plan to reduce gang violence and, in turn, reduce the fighting in the schools. I was at that meeting, actively working to resolve these issues.
Iredell- Statesville school administration and board also brought experts in to raise academic standards in low-performing schools. I had the pleasure of having dinner with Baruti K. Kafele, author of the book “Motivating Black Males to Achieve” as we discussed his book and how to apply his experience here in our schools to assist in the unique challenges that our low-performing schools face every day. In addition, we are utilizing the services of Mr. Bill Daggett, one of the nation’s leading experts in turning around low-performing schools. He is also making a specialized plan for turning around our youth and setting them on a promising path for their future.
Having alternative learning choices is an essential part of helping these children find meaning in their lives instead of turning to gang affiliation. That is why the board approved putting in a barber shop at Statesville High School. This allows students to learn a skill and draws in the community to form healthy relationships with our students.
A long-term action that the board and administration are working on is to help combat illiteracy in our low-performing schools. After hearing a presentation from the administration, I recognized the need for a preschool program and suggested that we put one in starting with NB Mills Elementary. We are now working with the Statesville City Council to expand our preschool programs. This will make a huge impact on our low-performing schools and allow working mothers to be able to improve the economic stability of their homes.
Security at school is a top priority and we are one of the only districts that has a service resource officer at every school. ISS also has state-of-the-art security and has an active working relationship with our local police in order to ensure that our schools are the safest in North Carolina. The administration and board are continually reviewing the district’s security plan and adjusting as each vulnerability is revealed.
These are some of the things that the Iredell- Statesville Board and staff have actively been working on to combat fighting, gang-related activity, and learning loss especially targeting Statesville High School, Clear Creek Middle, and NB Mills Elementary. I hope that I will see all of you at more school board meetings to hear more about the amazing work that our school faculty, staff, administration, and board are doing to make Iredell County Schools the best choice in education.
These thoughts are my own and do not necessarily represent the thoughts of the rest of the board.
Anita Kurn, Iredell-Statesville Schools board of education member.
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Anita Kurn speaks during the meeting.
Brian Sloan speaks during the Iredell-Statesville Schools Board of Education meeting.
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