Cawthorn leads mask protest at Johnston County school board

Rep. Madison Cawthorn, from western North Carolina, led protests in Smithfield Tuesday over mask mandates in Johnston County schools.

About 150 people protested outside a Johnston County Board of Education meeting Tuesday, calling for an end to mask mandates in schools.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn, from North Carolina’s 11th District in the western corner of the state, traveled down to Smithfield to lead the protests. Cawthorn has spoken against masks at several school board meetings in his own district.

“I believe that fear is the tyrant’s favorite tool,” Cawthorn told the school board. “Science and reason have been cast aside, replaced with fear.”

“Our children have been muzzled,” he said.

Before the meeting, Cawthorn rallied a crowd of about 150 outside the school board meeting. “Each and every single one of you is out here because we are going on offense to take our country back,” he said.

He called on the board to make masks optional and end contact tracing in schools.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn, from western North Carolina, led protests in Smithfield Tuesday over mask mandates in Johnston County schools. (Photo: Charles Duncan)

The Johnston County school board at first decided to allow masks to be optional, but then, in a split 5-4 vote in August, changed the policy to require masks indoors on school property.

The Johnston County school board did not have a vote on mask rules Tuesday, but did take public comment on the policy.  

Cawthorn said parents in Johnston County invited him to join the protest. He said he plans to visit all 100 counties in North Carolina. He’s the youngest member of Congress and has crafted a Trump-like style.

He led a short march from a nearby hotel to outside the Johnston County Public Schools building.

Among the news media in Smithfield Tuesday, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show was there to cover the protest.

“I just want it to be parents’ choice,” said Kristin Sprout, a Johnston County parent who joined the protest. “I don’t want to homeschool but I can’t take much more of this.”

Given all the new coronavirus restrictions, she said she told her husband recently, “This is the list of states we can move to: Texas and Florida.”

“Let us decide,” said Kayla Bernet, who joined the march with her husband and their son, a first grader. She said they recently moved to North Carolina from California.

“Moving here and having all these mandates, it’s kind of discouraging,” she said.

Almost all school districts in North Carolina have decided to require masks indoors as the delta variant has led to a new spike in coronavirus cases. Gov. Roy Cooper left it up to the state’s 115 school districts to decide on mask mandates for students and teachers.

Asked why he was in Smithfield, more than 250 miles from his district, Cawthorn said he’s there “to help save my generation from socialism, to help save my generation from all these mandates coming out from the Cooper administration.”

A recent law passed by the Republican-led General Assembly and signed by the governor requires local school boards to vote on mask rules each month.

Some school boards have bucked the state’s mask recommendations. Harnett County this week voted to make masks optional once again starting on Oct. 5, citing declining case numbers there.

In Union County, outside of Charlotte, school board members have not only left masks optional, but they decided to end all quarantines for students and staff who may have been exposed to the virus.


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