RSS board to revisit Mace issue due to liability concerns

Published 5:48 pm Wednesday, May 11, 2016

By Rebecca Rider

SALISBURY — The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education will review a recent decision to allow high school students to carry Mace and pepper spray after members were alerted that the change in policy might put the board and the system in “a vulnerable position,” board Chairman Josh Wagner said in an e-mail.

Wagner said that these concerns were not brought up during the initial discussion about the policy, which occurred during the board’s Monday work session.

“No one really spoke up with concerns about major liability,” he said.

Two policies, both dealing with weapons on campus, came before the board at a previous meeting because of inconsistent language. Wagner said that one policy explicitly forbade staff from having Mace and defensive sprays, while the other — which applied to students — did not mention it at all. Out of concern for the safety of students who might be walking to and from school events alone, or who may forget to leave the items at home, the board agreed to allow the canisters for high school students only. Wagner said he thought the change would benefit students, and the system has never had a problem with defensive sprays.

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“I guarantee you, as anyone on the board would agree, that a lot of students have pepper spray in their car or in their purse,” he said.

The policy would have gone into effect in August when new student handbooks are issued.

After consulting with the board attorney Monday on the items prohibited by state law on school campuses and other educational property (North Carolina General Statute 14-269.2), the board modeled the amendment’s language to reflect the state law. Wagner noted that state law does not bar students from having Mace on campus.

“I didn’t know if I thought that there was a huge safety risk, considering that the state statute doesn’t prohibit it on school property,” he said.

But yesterday, Wagner received a phone call which alerted him to the possibility of a potential liability to the system, and brought up several concerns.

“I feel certain if these concerns had been expressed in the meeting, some board members, including myself, would certainly have looked at the situation differently,” Wagner said in an e-mail. “Our intent was to give consistency across the board between our staff and student policies.”

Wagner and a press release from school system Public Information Officer Rita Foil also addressed a comment made during the meeting by board member Chuck Hughes. During the discussion, Hughes spoke out in favor of allowing students to carry Mace, and alluded to HB2 — a controversial new North Carolina law that prohibits transgender people from using bathrooms that correspond with their gender identity in public buildings, including schools. The law is the focus of a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department and suits filed against the federal agency by leading North Carolina lawmakers.

“Depending on how the courts rule on the bathroom issue, it may be a pretty valuable tool to have on the female students if they go to the bathroom, not knowing who may come in,” he said during the meeting.

The comment sparked online commentary and controversy, and Foil made it clear that Hughes’ comment in no way reflected the opinion of the board.

“There was no board discussion about HB2. An individual board member made a comment that is not discussed or adopted by the full board,” Foil said.

Wagner also clarified that Hughes’ comment was that of a single individual, and had no effect on the board’s decision to green light Mace in schools.

“This discussion in no way addressed the issue that Mr. Hughes brought up. He is certainly entitled to his opinion and comments,” Wagner wrote, “However, that idea had no bearing on the situation or discussion. I assure you that the board did not see this as an opportunity to endorse the use of sprays in school for any reason.”

Reached by telephone, Hughes said he would e-mail comments to the Post, but they had not been received by Wednesday evening.

Hughes told the online media site BuzzFeed that his comments were “inappropriate,” but were meant to refer to “perverts and pedophiles,” and not the transgender community.

“The LGBT issue has never been a problem to my knowledge,” Hughes told the website. “People have a different sexual identity, they go about their business. You don’t even know that a transgender is in your bathroom. They’re not there to create havoc. But perverts are.”

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Hughes told BuzzFeed that, come May 23, he will be voting to outlaw pepper spray on school campuses.

The issue will be brought back for review at the board’s May 23 business meeting at 4 p.m. in the Wallace Educational Forum. Wagner said he hopes the board will receive new information and clarification on specific ways the policy change could affect the system.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.