Health advisory committee members blindsided by board decision to remove them

After the Charleston Co. School Board of Trustees removed six sitting members of its health advisory committee, the former members say they were blindsided.
Published: Oct. 6, 2023 at 5:03 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 6, 2023 at 7:10 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCSC) - After the Charleston County School Board of Trustees removed six sitting members of its health advisory committee last month, the former members say they were blindsided by the decision that was made well before their terms were up.

“I was devastated and not for me,” former chair Bonnie Cleaveland said. “I was thinking about the students of Charleston County who have the opportunity to have really good and comprehensive sex education which all the surveys show that the students want and the parents want them to have.”

This is just one of the recent and highly scrutinized decisions by the board, including the administrative leave of superintendent Dr. Eric Gallien which has prompted a lawsuit from the latter.

The board voted 5 to 4 at the meeting on Sept. 25, after board member and policy liaison Ed Kelley brought it forward.

The committee had five vacant positions, but ten new names were listed by Kelley, effectively dismissing six of the eight current members.

“Health advisory by-laws explicitly state that all committee members serve at the pleasure of the board,” Kelley stated when asked by another board member what the motion would entail.

Per state law, the committee is made up of 13 members including clergy, parents, teachers and students to review sex education curricula and make recommendations to the board. They serve in three-year terms.

In 2020, the committee passed the “most medically accurate and comprehensive” one allowed by law according to Cleaveland, which was unanimously approved by the board.

“That’s a bit broader than some people think about so we talk about the idea of for example refusal skills, you know being able to stand up to, not do something that you don’t want to do,” Cleaveland said. “We talk about things like, at developmentally appropriate levels, child sexual abuse and how to prevent that and how to look at health sources and determine if they’re good sources of information.”

The four board members not backed by Moms for Liberty voted against the motion.

“It’s just irresponsible to put completely new people on in position just because we want to,” District 4 board member Courtney Waters said. “We haven’t seen any sort of evidence that the people that you’re wanting to replace current members with would be more suitable.”

“This is absolutely ridiculous for one person to change the entire makeup,” District 8 representative Darlene Roberson said. “This is not the pleasure of the board.”

“Thinking about this removal and knowing what Moms for Liberty endorsed candidates have been doing around the country with book bans and trying to create policies that are harmful to LGBTQ students and to black students. I just I knew what it meant, even though we weren’t told,” Cleaveland said.

District 7 board member Leah Whatley released a statement in an email:

I regret that the decision has upset some members of the community. Others have expressed support. I assure those who are inquiring that no ill will or disrespect was intended on my part. I did not take any issue with allowing a new slate of volunteers from the community. One reason in particular is that it shifted that committee from having a large portion of representation from the Mt Pleasant area to a more broad representation across the entire County. Whereas, for example, prior to this change, we did not have any representation from the Hispanic community. Now we have two members who are Hispanic, as well as bi-lingual. There is a desire to also seek members from the sea-island areas, and more specifically the black community in those island areas.

“That doesn’t make any sense to me, you know clearly our committee has been lacking in racial diversity. And when these applications opened up, I did send letters to a number of organizations...mostly organizations that serve African American and LGBTQ students to make sure that we have adequate representation,” Cleaveland said.

During the open sessions, this reasoning never came up in a discussion between board members.

Whately did not respond to a follow-up question about why that is.

Cleaveland says she has concerns about the board’s seemingly abrupt decision but hopes that the new committee will keep the students in mind first and foremost. Primarily for African American, gay and trans students who she believes are the most vulnerable to the committee’s decisions.