RSS board member’s comment gains national attention

Published 1:53 pm Friday, May 13, 2016

By Rebecca Rider

SALISBURY — Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education member Chuck Hughes had his 15 minutes of fame earlier this week after a comment from Monday’s work session hit major national news outlets.

During a debate on whether the board should allow students to carry pepper spray or other defensive sprays on campus, Hughes tossed out a comment alluding to HB2, a controversial law that, among other things, requires transgender persons to use the bathroom that matches the sex listed on their birth certificate.

“Depending on how the courts rule on the bathroom issues, 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.

Other board members did not comment on or add to Hughes’ remark, and the discussion moved on. The board voted unanimously to remove pepper spray from a list of prohibited items, and agreed in a 5-1 vote to amend language on another policy to allow students to carry personal shaving razors and for high school students to carry defensive sprays on campus.

The story was picked up by the Associated Press on Tuesday, and quickly went viral after the AP story cited what Hughes said was a misrepresentation of his original comment. While Hughes only alluded to the controversial bill, and made no reference of the LGBT community, the Associated Press story claimed he specifically cited transgender students.

“A North Carolina school system has adopted a policy allowing high school students to carry pepper spray this fall, a policy one board member said may be useful for students who encounter transgender classmates in the bathroom,” the article read.

The story was quickly snatched up by major news outlets, and by Wednesday morning was a national story that sparked public criticism and outrage. The board’s decision to allow pepper spray, coupled with Hughes’s comment, was featured in newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post. The story also appeared in online sources like Slate and Salon, and on social media sites such as Reddit.

Some news outlets and advocacy websites suggested that the board’s decision was to provide protection from transgender students, such as the New York Daily News headline, “North Carolina schools let students bring pepper spray to class — in case transgender students use bathrooms.”

However, school board Chair Josh Wagner made it clear that the comment of a single board member did not reflect the opinion of the entire board.

“This discussion in no way addressed the issue that Mr. Hughes brought up,” he said in an e-mail to the Post, “He is certainly entitled to his opinion and comments. 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.”

Hughes said in an e-mail to the Post that he never meant to target the transgender community and felt that his comment had been misinterpreted.

“The intent of my controversial comment … was to provide a layer of protection from all unwelcome males invading the privacy of all females. All females, by definition, means transgender and transsexual students as well,” he wrote.

Hughes spoke to BuzzFeed News and told the site that his comment referred to “perverts and pedophiles,” not transgender students. When Hughes spoke with a Post reporter Wednesday evening, he said he’d received numerous phone calls throughout the day. He said some of the conversations were very informative, while other callers were angry with him.

“It was never my intent to disrespect or deprive GLBT (sic) students of the rights to which they are entitled. Nor did I suggest that GLBT students were the likely invaders of privacy. In fact, statistics strongly suggest that the most likely individual to take advantage of our female students, straight or GLBT, in or out of school, are from the ‘straight’ community,” he wrote.

The board will review the defensive sprays policy at their May 23 business meeting. Hughes and Wagner said the review comes after board members received phone calls citing liability concerns the policy may incur. Hughes said community members told the board the sprays could cause an asthmatic reaction in some students, or may be used inappropriately. He told BuzzFeed that he, personally, will be changing his vote.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.