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Police get involved in CMS board incident involving swiped signs and a crying teen

A tweet from Mecklenburg Moms For Liberty Chair Brooke Weiss shows Debbie Baynard with a sign tying Sean Strain to her group and book restrictions.
A tweet from Mecklenburg Moms For Liberty Chair Brooke Weiss shows Debbie Baynard with a sign tying Sean Strain to her group and book restrictions.

On the last day of early voting, police were summoned to a Ballantyne recreation center after an encounter between Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Sean Strain and a volunteer for one of his opponents. Strain, who’s running for reelection, says the volunteer spread lies and harassed his 13-year-old daughter.

The volunteer, Debbie Baynard, says her signs linking Strain to the group Moms For Liberty are accurate. She filed a larceny report Monday against Strain for taking her signs — one of which she says he grabbed directly from her.

“Sean comes and sneaks up behind me, throws his arm in front of my chest, maybe 2 inches away from my chest, grabs the sign and takes off,” Maynard said Monday, describing part of Saturday’s encounter.

The conflict comes at the end of an often-bruising campaign for six seats on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School board. School board elections have become political battlegrounds across the country. In Mecklenburg County, this is the second recent incident in which candidates have accused others of causing distress to their children, who were helping parents campaign at early voting sites.

Strain, a Republican, faces a challenge for the southern District 6 seat from Democrats Summer Nunn and Michael Watson.

Signs about Moms For Liberty

Baynard, a Democrat, was out Saturday supporting Nunn and Susan Rodriguez-McDowell, who is running for reelection as a county commissioner. She has spoken at CMS board meetings in opposition to Moms For Liberty, a national group that encourages members to challenge books deemed to have sexually explicit or otherwise inappropriate material. Members of the Mecklenburg chapter have read aloud from certain books they deem offensive and urged the board to restrict access to allow for parental sign-off.

Baynard made signs saying Moms For Liberty “doesn’t want you to read these books,” with four pages of titles attached. She said afterward she got the list from a Newsweek article detailing books that had been challenged nationally. The signs also noted that Strain was endorsed by Moms For Liberty.

She says she posted one sign at the South County Library, then moved on to the Elon Recreation Center voting site with another sign. Nunn remained at the library, campaigning.

“Sean, I guess caught wind of (the sign) and came and ripped it up,” Nunn said Monday. “I saw him rip it up because he asked me if I put that sign there and I said no, I had nothing to do with that sign. Somebody else put that there.”

Baynard says she talked to voters at Elon Recreation Center, telling them Moms For Liberty “want to ban books, while Nunn supports reading. Later she was resting on bleachers when she says Strain came up behind her and snatched her sign.

“I yelled out, ‘Hey, everybody, that’s Sean Strain running for school board!’ ” she said with a laugh.

13-year-old in tears

Baynard says she got another sign from her car, and Strain approached her again when she was at a tent with other Democrats.

“Sean comes around the back of the building, yelling and screaming, calling me by name, wanting me to see what I had done to his daughter,” she said.

She says she had seen the teenage girl who was with Strain, in tears, but hadn’t known the girl was Strain’s daughter and had addressed no comments to the girl.

Baynard says she’s 71 years old and 5 feet tall. “He was yelling, I mean, he was blood red,” she said of Strain. “He towers over me.”

Strain declined to comment, but when asked specifically about his daughter, he said by text message that he draws a line at “harassment and intimidation of voters … and ultimately my 13-year-old daughter.”

Nunn’s mother, Linda Knotts, says she saw the confrontation at the tent.

“(Strain) walks up, yelling at (Baynard) about lying and fraud and ruining his daughter’s life. And he was towering over her, and she had the good sense to walk off,” Knotts said.

Laureen Callender was also at the Elon Recreation Center, volunteering for a different Democratic candidate. She says she saw Strain take Baynard’s sign, and saw that Strain’s daughter was “very upset.” Callender says she was near Strain’s daughter in the campaign line and did not see Baynard say anything directly to the girl, but believes the daughter was upset by Baynard’s characterization of Moms for Liberty and Strain.

“It was kind of a normal campaign issue,” Callender said. “But it’s very upsetting to a young person when their parents are being discussed in a manner that they consider untrue or I guess you could say ill-fitting.”

Police get involved

Baynard, Knotts and Callender say Strain called police to the voting site. In his text message, Strain says that police told him people are free to say whatever they want. Strain characterized that as “spreading misinformation, innuendo, half-truths and outright lies,” but did not give specifics.

“Apparently there is little that can be done about it,” he said. “But when that rises to the level of harassment and intimidation of voters, and then poll greeters, and ultimately my 13-year-old daughter … I draw the line.”

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department confirmed that officers were sent to the site but say no report was filed.

Brooke Weiss, chair of the Mecklenburg Moms For Liberty chapter, tweeted a photo of Baynard at the polls and said she was “spreading misinformation and making thirteen year olds cry today.” Weiss said Monday she was not present at the incident. She described the list of challenged titles as inaccurate: “There’s not a single chapter in the country trying to get all the books on that list banned.”

Meanwhile, Baynard says she called police Monday and filed larceny reports regarding the signs taken from the library and the recreation center. Reports released Tuesday said she reported the theft of two signs by a "known suspect" and the case is under investigation.

Bad advice from elections board?

Kristin Mavromatis, public information manager for the Mecklenburg Board of Elections, says she may have given Strain bad advice. She says he called her saying there were signs at early voting sites and told her that “nothing on the sign is truthful.”

“And he kept calling in to us. And he was very upset that no one would own the fact that they’re the ones that put them up," she said.

Mavromatis says she told Strain that “it’s really a police issue, but if it’s not truthful, take them up.”

She says she didn’t know details about what was on the sign and did not realize until police contacted her Monday that Strain could face misdemeanor charges for taking the signs. She also says she never told Strain he could take a sign away from someone.

Baynard says she stands by the message — and plans to work with the Democratic Party to have similar signs posted at all District 6 polling places on Tuesday.

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Updated: November 8, 2022 at 9:33 AM EST
Updated Tuesday with the status of the larceny reports.
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.