Note: This is the first of a series of stories examining some of the issues in public education in Bryan County.
Betsy DeBry is a longtime Richmond Hill resident with a grandchild in the local school system. Until August 2021, DeBry, who has a master’s degree from Georgia Tech in chemistry and works as a volunteer teacher for homeschooled families, rarely if ever attended a Bryan County Board of Education meeting.
But she showed up at the August meeting in Black Creek, then came back in September to the BOE’s meeting in Richmond Hill, where she was the first of several speakers to blast school board members for the school system’s then-policy of requiring masks on campus in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At that meeting, DeBry went over her allotted 3 minutes speaking time, as did other speakers. At the end of the meeting some in the audience chanted “shame” at board members as they left the room at the Richmond Hill Community Education Center Lunchroom to go into executive session.
When DeBry later asked to again address the board, school officials responded first by suspending and then apparently revoking her right to speak to the board at its monthly meetings.
DeBry has not gone quietly. She attempted unsuccessfully to speak to the board publicly at the board’s Jan. 27 meeting in Black Creek, and continues to email school board officials on various subjects, from the board’s management of Superintendent Dr. Brooksher to curriculum concerns to what she believes is a lack of transparency or accountability to voters.
She also believes the school board’s rules on who can speak at meetings violates her First Amendment right to address her elected officials in a public forum.
“All I ever wanted is accountability and transparency from this administration and board,” DeBry said. “When I tried to get those things, I ran up against stonewalling, I ran up against misdirection and them telling me my concerns weren’t valid. The more they wouldn’t tell me anything, the more I began wondering what they’ve tried to hide.”
School officials counter by saying they are following state law and haven’t restricted DeBry’s access to the board or the administration, and DeBry’s actions Jan. 27 were aimed at disrupting a public meeting.
They call her allegations and others raised “ridiculous and insulting.”
In a response to a request from the BCN, BOE Chairwoman Amy Murphy issued on behalf of the school board a statement regarding DeBry’s claims.
It has been lightly edited for space.
“The Bryan County Board of Education welcomes comments and feedback from parents, community members, and stakeholders. We, as parents ourselves, understand the importance of advocacy on behalf of one’s own child. Additionally, as long-term residents of Bryan County, we are passionate and committed to the Bryan County School System and support a continuous growth and improvement mindset, at every level.
“The (BOE’s) public participation policy does not restrict individuals from addressing the board; however, it does provide certain protocols to ensure meetings are conducted in a professional and orderly manner. Currently, individuals may address the board on any agenda item. If an item is not on the board agenda, members of the public can meet with staff in an attempt to gain information and work towards obtaining a timely solution. If a resolution is not achieved, the individual can be placed on the next applicable board agenda. It is worth noting 18 individuals have addressed the board since Jan. 28, 2021.Also, all board policies are periodically reviewed by legal counsel to ensure compliance with local, state, and federal laws and statutes. There are a multitude of other school districts across the state with similar participation policies.
“The Bryan County School System has not impeded, interfered with, or violated any person’s ability to speak to the board. The board is well within its rights to set parameters for the orderly operation of board meetings. Without a doubt, individuals do have a right to free speech; however, individuals are also responsible for their words and actions. For example, a middle school student has the right to express themselves; however, if they choose to utilize profanity as prohibited by a code of conduct, the student is subject to certain consequences and/or restrictions going forward.
“Mrs. Betsy DeBry requested to be on the Board of Education agenda for the Sept. 23, 2021 meeting and her request was granted. She was advised at the time of her request, by the administrative assistant, she would be allotted up to 3 minutes to speak. Additionally, the evening of Sept. 22, she received an email regarding guidelines for comments. All speakers on the agenda received an email from the Board Chairman stating, “You will be allotted up to 3 minutes. I will motion to you when you have spoken for 2 minutes, as a signal to wrap up your comments. At 3 minutes I will verbally note that your time has expired and thank you for your participation in our meeting.” Mrs. DeBry replied to this email and affirmed her plans to attend and speak.
“Additionally, upon entrance prior to the start of the meeting, the Board Chair spoke with Mrs. DeBry (as is customary practice for speakers on the agenda), and verbally reiterated the time limit and the signals that would be given at the 2 and 3 minute mark. Again, Mrs. DeBry confirmed her understanding of this expectation.
“Mrs. DeBry was the first speaker on the agenda. She was signaled at 2 minutes and at 3 minutes was told her allotted speaking time was concluded. She indicated she was not finished speaking and continued with her remarks, despite a warning and a notice her 3 minutes had expired.
“No current member of the Board of Education can remember any speaker in our history blatantly ignoring the direction of the Board Chair regarding public participation in a meeting. While the Board understands there may be great passion surrounding the comments we receive, expectations are clearly stated, and decorum must be followed. We cannot allow meetings to become lawless and out of control. If the Board of Education cannot function in an orderly fashion, then our students will suffer; we cannot conduct our business as needed.
“Mrs. DeBry later expressed a desire to speak again in October regarding curriculum concerns. Mrs. DeBry was alerted, per our clearly stated policy, her right to address the Board had been forfeited. It was discussed with Mrs. DeBry this forfeiture of her ability to address the Board was based solely on her actions and disregard for expectations of conduct by speakers. Alternatively, in an attempt to answer and address all of Mrs. DeBry’s concerns and questions, she was offered a meeting with the Board Chair, Superintendent, and Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction. The Board of Education agreed this attempt to listen, understand, and address all of Mrs. DeBry’s concerns would be more effective than a time limited comment.
“ On Nov. 18, Mrs. DeBry met with the Board Chair, Superintendent, and Assistant Superintendent for approximately 2 ½ hours. There were no time constraints or topics that were off limits. Mrs. DeBry was offered complete discretion to ask questions regarding any matter she wanted to address. Of note, Mrs. DeBry has no children enrolled in the Bryan County School System and produced no artifacts to support her vague allegations. Many of her concerns were based on rumors or hearsay. The process for having concerns addressed, at every level, was shared with her. She was reassured when given a specific concern or concrete lead to follow, the most appropriate staff person would be assigned to investigate complaints.
“Additionally, during the 2 ½ hour meeting, Mrs. DeBry expressed her feelings regarding the Board of Education’s governance structure and public participation process. Specifically, Mrs. DeBry noted displeasure that the Superintendent is requested by the Board to attempt to address concerns prior to community members addressing the Board. The Chairman discussed with Mrs. DeBry that state laws govern board member conduct. Specifically noted is that Board of Education members are prohibited by law from managing day to day matters of the school system; that is the role of the Superintendent.
“Also shared with Mrs. DeBry was the belief that in all high functioning organizations, complaints should be given the opportunity to be resolved at the lowest level possible. Clarification was provided that the Superintendent is not attempting to prohibit speakers from addressing the Board of Education, but instead attempting to resolve concerns expeditiously.
“Historically the Board of Education has received positive feedback when concerns are addressed by the most appropriate staff member. Parents or stakeholders rarely, if ever, still need to address the Board. Their matter has been resolved. Parents have been thankful that their concern was addressed in the timeliest and most efficient manner.
“On Jan. 25, Mrs. DeBry requested to be placed on the Jan. 27 agenda. The Board Chairman responded to Mrs. DeBry’s email request restating that Mrs. DeBry’s right to address the Board publicly had been forfeited. The email to Mrs. DeBry stated, “Your request to speak at the January 27th meeting is respectfully declined based on your intentional disregard for public comment protocols at a previous meeting. Policy BCBI states, ‘Failure to comply with this policy may result in forfeiture of the right to participate in future meetings.’” The response also indicated that Mrs. DeBry was welcome to direct her comments to the Board of Education via email and they would be taken under advisement.
“However, despite receiving notice her ability to participate in meetings was denied (based on her previous behavior) and her request was declined, Mrs. DeBry still attempted to address the board at its Jan. 27 meeting. Her actions can only be viewed as an intentional attempt to disrupt a public meeting. The state, through its adoption of GA Code § 16-11-34 (2020) clearly recognizes the importance of conducting public meetings in an orderly fashion. It was extremely unfortunate the meeting started with celebrating student success but turned into one where students were removed because of the disruptive conduct of adults.
“The Bryan County Board of Education does not hide from or purposely ignore conflict, disagreement, or negativity. At its Aug. 2021 and Sept. 2021 meetings, multiple community members, including Mrs. DeBry addressed the board. Some of the comments from the individuals included accusations of Chromebooks being embedded with critical race theory (which is not being taught in any form or fashion in any Bryan County School) and board members being told they were going to hell.
“In closing, we would be remiss if we did not take this opportunity to stand up for our teachers and staff. They are working harder than ever to support our students in continuously unprecedented times. Not only are they demonstrating a high-level work ethic and commitment to our children and community, but they are also producing results! Bryan County School System is ranked 8th out of 180 school districts in literacy. Our CCRPI scores are 13th out of 180 school districts. In 2013, the graduation rate at Bryan County High School was 61.8% and Richmond Hill High School’s was 80.4%. In 2021, Bryan County High School had a graduation rate of 90.32% Richmond Hill High School, 94%. During a national and local teaching shortage, our teacher retention rate for 2021 was the highest it has been in the last decade since we began tracking this information. To assert that our District is ‘broken and not serving our children’ is unfathomable. Allegations of our teachers indoctrinating or brainwashing students with various agendas is ridiculous and insulting.
"The Bryan County Board of Education provides their unwavering support to our employees, and we are unable to express the magnitude of our appreciation for what they do each and every day. We are grateful and humbled by the opportunity to be a part of such an amazing school district.”
For her part, DeBry, a member of a recently formed local chapter of Truth in Education, an education reform group based in Atlanta, issued her own emailed statement Feb. 6, in part to rebut a separate public statement emailed to the head of the Bryan County Republican Party a few days earlier, a portion of which was printed in the Feb. 3 issue of the Bryan County News. Here it is, lightly edited.
“The questions being asked of this board do not come from animus towards the board, our teachers, or our system. We love Bryan County and our school system. Like all of you, we want it to be the best it can be. Our concerns arise from questions being asked without receiving a satisfactory response, as well as the lack of accountability and transparency seen in the system. As parents, we have the right and the duty to know what our children are learning. This is a basic tenet. When this information is not forthcoming, as has been the case in our system, it leads to more questions.
“While we respect our teachers and administrators, it is naïve to think that societal trends found nationwide are not affecting our school system. People may remember our county schools from their own experience years ago, and think it is still a ‘Mayberry’ situation. Much has changed since then. Because of that, it becomes necessary to reexamine school curriculum and policies every so often to make sure our schools still conform to the deservedly good reputation the system has attained. We can’t rest on the laurels of the past. We must strive to improve our system and continue to ask for accountability to that end.
“The board touts the results of our system, and they are indeed laudable. I do not question their statistics, but they are irrelevant to the discussion at hand. Can our students do well on state tests which they have been trained to take? Yes. Does that imply that their education is superior? Not necessarily. The questions at hand are 1) are students being taught to think and reason, which is true education and 2) are students being educated, or are they also being indoctrinated with a worldview antithetical to the values of the Bryan County community? You can have a person educated the wrong way. Is that happening? I’m not sure. But I have heard enough anecdotal evidence from students and parents which makes it necessary to ask the question.
“The board states the following: ‘CRT (Critical Race Theory) has not been taught in any form or fashion in the Bryan County School System and the Board of Education has never held a discussion about plans to even consider introducing this curriculum.
“There are no current or past staff members who wrote their dissertation on CRT.
“This statement is disingenuous. They do not have a clear understanding of what Critical Theory (CT) and Critical Race Theory (CRT) are. They do have a staff member who did a dissertation on critical theory (a fact no one disputes), and this person is directly involved in determining curriculum. To clarify what CT and CRT are, I offer the following information.
"Critical Theory itself is a way of examining topics. It is a Marxist ideology, and always involves an oppressor and a victim. CT looks at any subject and finds the oppressor/victim relationship. It is purposely engineered to divide people into groups to foster division. In the words of critical theorists: “They… seek “human emancipation” in circumstances of domination and oppression” and “any philosophical approach with similar practical aims could be called a “critical theory,” including feminism, critical race theory, and some forms of post-colonial criticism” (https:// plato.stanford.edu/entries/ critical-theory/).
“CT is merely the framework used to achieve this. The APPLICATION of Critical Theory to a subject then becomes Critical Race Theory (CRT), Critical Gender Theory (CGT), etc. For example, imagine you have a telescope, an you have a telescope, an instrument for looking at the heavens. The telescope (I’ll call it Critical Telescope) is the tool I use to look at the universe. If I train my telescope on planets, I now have a Critical Planet Telescope (CPT). If I use it to look at asteroids, I now have a Critical Asteroid Telescope (CAT).
"So, while it may be true that no staff member did a dissertation specifically on CRT, it is true that the basis of the dissertation referenced was Critical Theory, which by definition INCLUDES CRT AND EVERY OTHER APPLICATION THEREOF. Please read the abstract and page 24 of the dissertation linked here to find out more. Teacher Empowerment Through Instructional Coaching: A Qualitative Study on the Theory and Application of Partnership Principles (georgiasouthern.edu)
“Is Critical Theory being used in Bryan County schools? I am not sure. I have seen evidence that seems to suggest it is, regardless of the denials of the board and superintendent. My guess is they may not know themselves. Just because they haven’t formally addressed it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I acquit teachers of any nefarious designs. Many materials available to them on the state websites can have CT built into the lesson, and they may not recognize it. Has there been a deliberate introduction of CT materials? I don’t know. But I find it improbable that a person involved in choosing curriculum, who did work on critical theory, is not then applying that knowledge in choosing materials for the schools. The administration has made it prohibitively difficult to know, because parents are unable to easily examine what their children are learning on a daily basis.
“As for the board speaking policy, they have the most restrictive policy in the area. The way it is written and inconsistently applied makes it very difficult, if not impossible, for residents to address the board regarding board policy. As elected officials, once they have allotted a portion of the meeting for public comment, they are required by law to allow such comment without undue restriction. The current policy is unduly restrictive, and again begs the question, why do they make it so difficult for people to address the board? What are they afraid people will say?
“Additionally, they are the only public county meeting that is not videotaped or live streamed (city council, county commission and planning and zoning all are). All surrounding county school board meetings are live streamed, videotaped and posted on the board website or YouTube for viewing, including Chatham, Effingham, Glynn, Liberty, etc.
“As a result of these actions, concerned residents are now asking more questions. Why does that upset them to be questioned? Any governmental institution that cannot undergo reasonable scrutiny by the public will always invite further questioning.”
Up next: The Bryan County News will try to take a look at critical race theory. Share you thoughts on the issue with us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.