Listen as Joseph Dunkle calls 911 on fellow school board member Cynthia Gregory-Smalls
A Beaufort County school board member’s conduct during a closed-door session of a Board of Education meeting prompted another board member to call the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday afternoon.
Board member Joseph Dunkle called the Sheriff’s Office around 2:40 p.m. based on a perceived threat from board member Cynthia Gregory-Smalls, according to a Sheriff’s Office report made available Thursday.
Since superintendent Jeff Moss’ ethics violations in 2015 and the board’s handling of the situation, the board has been starkly divided. The six majority members — who include Gregory-Smalls — align themselves with Moss, and the five minority members — who include Dunkle — typically do not.
Snippy exchanges, eye rolling and under-the-breath comments have tainted many of the board’s public meetings in the past two years. The extent to which this intensifies in the privacy of executive sessions — which, per board policy, prohibits members from publicly sharing — has previously been unknown, but the report sheds light on just how uncivil board relations have become.
Both Dunkle and Gregory-Smalls’ accounts to deputies acknowledge tensions were running high during Tuesday’s two-hour, closed-door session.
The members’ accounts on how the situation escalated differ from there.
While trying to calm everyone down, Dunkle told deputies Gregory-Smalls started yelling at him and assumed she thought he called her a “b----” because other board members were “hurling” the word around.
Gregory-Smalls told deputies Dunkle stood up, motioned in her direction with his thumb and said “here’s the problem.” Offended, she said she “got verbal with him,” prompting Dunkle to ask her if she was threatening him. She said she told Dunkle if he wanted to take it as a threat, he could.
According to Dunkle’s account to deputies, Gregory-Smalls said she would “get” him. He also told deputies he asked Gregory-Smalls if that was a threat and she responded to take it as a threat if he wanted.
“If someone’s going to make blatant or veiled threats, I’m not going to stand idly by,” he said Wednesday. “I hate to waste deputies’ time, but if push comes to shove, I want it well documented that this was ongoing.”
Gregory-Smalls, who was installed to the board this April, did not respond to two calls seeking comment Thursday.
In the report, she told deputies that people inside the room could verify her story.
The deputy’s report noted no one else wanted to speak and said “no crime had occurred.”
Board members Evva Anderson, Mary Cordray and JoAnn Orischak said they were not asked by deputies for statements. Anderson and Cordray, both of whom typically align themselves with the majority vote, questioned why Dunkle went so far as to file a report.
“She did not threaten him in any way,” Cordray said.
Cordray said she has felt threatened at past board meetings.
About three weeks after then-private citizen John Dowling verbally confronted her at an April 22 work session, sheriff’s deputies began attending board meetings. Dowling was later elected to the board Oct. 17 and has sided with the minority.
The district’s security contract with the Sheriff’s Office runs through December, department spokesman Capt. Bob Bromage said Thursday.
Dunkle, who said this is his first time calling deputies in his capacity as a board member, has a history of working in law enforcement. He said he served as a deputy in Hampton County for about a year and as a police officer in the town of Ridgeland for 2 1/2 years before resigning when elected to the board in 2014.
Comparing the job he gave up to what replaced it, Dunkle said, “It’s easier to be a cop than a school board member sometimes.”