The Moore County Board of Education is now fielding calls to reprimand David Hensley in light of a remark he made on social media the day before the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C. last week that ended when rioters breached the Capitol.
Hensley, who was elected to the school board in November, says that he did not attend the rally in support of President Donald Trump, and that his post on Moore County Republican Party social media manager Steve Woodward’s personal Facebook page to bring back “severed ears” from the rally was intended as innocuous banter.
But in light of the day’s events, which forced members of Congress to evacuate or barricade themselves in offices while rioters were cleared from the building, some are reading it as an attempt to incite violence.
Hensley posted twice in response to photos Woodward posted Jan. 5 as he traveled to Washington for the rally. At first, he simply commented “Thanks for representing us.”
But it was his second comment that made headlines in statewide media outlets on Tuesday.
Later in the thread, Hensley responded to another post encouraging Woodward to “be safe,” and Woodward’s subsequent response that “I don’t want to be safe. I want to be free,” by suggesting: “Okay then, Kick some ass and come back with a collection of severed ears! Is that better?”
The post and attached comments have since been removed from Facebook. But before it was taken down, a reporter for the McClatchy publishing company used it as the basis for an article that appeared Tuesday on the websites of both The Raleigh News and Observer and The Charlotte Observer.
In an email to Hensley on Monday, reporter Hayley Fowler told him that the Observer had been “alerted” to a number of his Facebook posts, including his comments on Woodward’s page.
After the article’s online publication, Hensley posted his full response to the reporter on his “Hensley School Board” Facebook page. He said in that post that his reference to severed ears was meant figuratively, and that “no one should read anything into that.”
“I actually believed I had just finished watching a season of American Horror Story where that played a part, so as I mentioned and made a flippant, metaphorical comment,” Hensley wrote.
Hensley, a retired Marine Corps officer, said that the way he formed his comment is reminiscent of Marine vernacular. He also said that his comments on Facebook were made as a private citizen, rather than representative of the Moore County Board of Education and that he doesn’t see how any of his comments could be construed as inciting violence.
“My hopes for the Washington, D.C. rally were that a group of upstanding people from Moore County travel to Washington, D.C. and show their support for both the president and fair elections,” Hensley said when reached by The Pilot this week. ”And that is exactly what they did. Neither them nor I bear any responsibility for anything else which occurred in D.C.”
He characterizes having his social media activity shared with media outlets as a left-wing political attack. Hensley said he, and other parents critical of the school system in recent years, have also been on the receiving end of personal harassment via anonymous text messages and emails.
More than 20 emails criticizing Hensley hit board members' inboxes in the day after those stories were published on Tuesday. One of those letters, which was also sent to The Pilot, urged school board members to “hold each other to the highest possible standard.”
"Our words matter, the children are watching and listening to us, and they are learning. Where one member of the board calls for violence against their fellow Americans, the integrity of the entire board is in question,” wrote Pinehurst resident Justin Bradford.
“Conservatives must hold to the highest possible standards to which we aspire, and failing that, take responsibility, rather than deflect, deny or attempt to reduce poor behavior with hollow explanations and justifications. When nothing nice to say exists, rather than members of the board denigrating, calling for boycotts and/or violence against citizens with whom they do not ideologically align, however flippant the tone, perhaps the best thing to say would be, simply, nothing at all.”
Input also came via Moore County Schools' Facebook page, where three people added comments to an unrelated post promoting a virtual career fair calling for the school board to comment or take action against Hensley. Two others supported Hensley and posted in defense of his freedom of speech.
Moore County Schools posted a separate statement early Wednesday afternoon, which drew about 170 comments from posters both in Moore County, and who were drawn by the statewide news coverage, within a day.
“We thank all of you who have contacted Moore County Schools to share your thoughts and concerns,” the post reads.
“It is beyond the scope of the Board of Education to limit the right to public speech on behalf of any one member, so long as they are not speaking on behalf of the full Board. Any comments currently being attributed to Mr. Hensley should not be considered reflective of the thoughts of the Board as a whole or of other individual members.”
Hensley’s remark would likely have fallen outside Moore County Schools’ code of conduct as it applies to students. The district’s policies prohibit students from making “false threat of harm or violence, even jokingly, which cause or is reasonably likely to cause fear or a disruption to school activities.”
But he doesn’t believe that the “vast majority” of parents or children would find his comments offensive.
“Should something be left unsaid because some portion of the population might find it offensive? I think not,” he said.
“If a student comes across something which challenges their preconceived notions of what is offensive, it gives them an opportunity to consider what is being said and apply critical thinking and reach their own conclusion on what was said. It also provides an opportunity for a parent to engage the child in conversation about the remarks.”
In nearby Sanford, similar criticism is mounting against a member of the Lee County Board of Education. Sherry-Lynn Womack, also a military veteran, participated in the pro-Tump rally last week and has disavowed the ensuing violence at the Capitol. But earlier this week the Lee County school board voted to investigate whether or not Womack violated board policy as dozens of protesters and public comments condemned her attendance at the rally.
For Hensley’s part, he says he intends to remain openly politically active, but doesn’t plan to let partisan politics create a distraction from working toward the betterment of Moore County Schools.
“The contributions I make as a member of the MCS school board are 100 percent non-partisan and are always made with the best interests of Moore County Schools, our parents, our students and the Moore County taxpayer,” Hensley said.
“Outside of the school board, I am a father, a businessman and a conservative activist. Those are all very different roles and I am committed to each and every one of them. I made no attempt to hide my conservative values and approach during my campaign for the school board.”