PITTSBORO — Family members and supporters of Ashley Palmer will hold a “Community Call to Action,” organized by Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity, at 4:45 p.m. Monday in response to a March 4 incident involving a mock slave auction — which included Palmer’s son — at J.S. Waters School in Goldston.
At the events, speakers will demand a series of actions — including eight specific initial recommendations — to “graduate globally competitive and confident students by providing a rigorous and relevant curriculum in a supportive, safe and nurturing learning environment.”
CORE has reached out to a number of organizations and individuals over the past few days to invite them to the call to action — which will feature a press conference at Pittsboro Presbyterian Church in downtown Pittsboro — asking them to also attend and consider speaking during the regular meeting of the Chatham County Board of Education, which follows at 5:30 p.m. at the historic courthouse nearby.
CORE described those involved in the effort as "a growing coalition of concerned parents, citizens, faith leaders and organizations in Chatham County organizing to address the race-based bullying, stereotyping, disrespect, abuse and traumatic harm that black students have been experiencing in Chatham County Schools."
The full text of the statement can be seen here.
Speakers plan to urge changes and actions, including an apology from students involved and making child trauma counselors skilled in racial trauma available to students, within Chatham County Schools to address what happened at J.S. Waters, plus similar incidents organizers have heard about from parents in other schools since Palmer made public the J.S. Waters incident in a Facebook post on March 4.
In that post, Palmer wrote: “Our son experienced a slave auction by his classmates and when he opened up we were made aware that this type of stuff seems to be the norm so much that he didn’t think it was worth sharing. His friend ‘went for $350’ and another student was the Slavemaster because he ‘knew how to handle them.’ We even have a video of students harmonizing the N word. Since when were children so blatantly racist? Why is this culture acceptable?”
Then, a week ago Monday, Palmer posted on Facebook that students who participated in the “auction” had been suspended for one day. In the same post, she said the “slavemaster” student “’accidentally’ hit my son with a baseball 4 times upon his return to school. Now he has decided to retaliate by making up things that Jeremiah didn’t say to attempt to get him into trouble. No further action from the school at this point.”
Chatham County Schools Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson released a statement after the incident. On Monday, Chatham County Schools released a short statement on Twitter and Facebook: "At tonight's Chatham County Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson will make recommendations for immediate policy revisions, training and additional resources in response to recent racial incidents in the district."
In a statement released to the News + Record Monday afternoon, CORE's Karinda Roebuck and the Rev. Dr. Carl Thompson Sr. outlined more about the incident.
"Our coalition heard the testimony of a mother whose bi-racial son, an eighth-grader, was racially bullied and abused by his white classmates at J.S. Waters school," the statement said. "We learned what this young man experienced was the latest of many experiences that span generations; during our meeting and immediately afterward, multiple families and former students recalled racialized bullying, microaggressions, terror and trauma experienced in Chatham County Schools. As a result, black students and their families have very different school experiences from white students.
“At J.S. Waters school, white students felt safe enough to commit blatantly racist acts on school property, in the presence of staff and faculty, and while being filmed. These students were emboldened to not only commit brazen and overt acts of racism but to retaliate further and continue their aggression after serving a perfunctory one-day suspension. The initial tepid response by the school’s administrators to these traumatizing incidents is problematic. An intense examination and redress of the cultural, structural and institutional informants creating these environments are essential."
Meanwhile, the Rev. Dr. Carl Thompson Sr., pastor at a Siler City church and a former Chatham County commissioner, helped organize a Zoom meeting, which took place last Thursday, and which the News + Record first reported on Friday. Thompson told the News + Record that Monday’s press conference and board meeting comments will feature “people coming forward to express their concern and, more so, demand that changes be made as opposed to asking for any specific type of policy change.”
“Ideally, that needs to happen,” he said when asked about specific changes to Chatham school policy. “But I think just given the timeframe, that’s something that we’ll need to take some time and to look at and to review and make recommendations.”
In the CORE release to the News + Record, the organization outlined what it hopes to see.
“We will make the following initial recommendations to the Chatham County School Board members and school administrators:
“We all agree that our students should not be subject to racial abuse and stereotyping by their classmates or the adults entrusted to teach and support them. However, until Chatham County Schools implements these community-driven recommendations, our community will continue to see no dedicated commitment to dismantling the culture of racism in our schools. By adopting these recommendations, Chatham County Schools will send a clear message that no forms of racism are tolerated in our schools.
“How many generations of black students will continue to be racially traumatized in our schools? We say no more. With strong leadership, clear goals, and accountability, this coalition believes the Chatham County School District can ensure its mission, a safe and nurturing learning environment for all students, not predicted by race.”
Local pastors, community leaders and members of the Community Remembrance Coalition-Chatham, whose members include leaders from both of Chatham County’s NAACP branches, have confirmed to the News + Record they’ll speak during the public comments portion of the school board meeting. Some organizations have invited their own board members to attend in solidarity.
The incident at J.S. Waters isn’t on the published agenda of the board meeting, but the board’s public comments policy allows speakers who sign up in advance three minutes to address the board.
“I think the thing we want to do Monday is to express our dire concern to make sure that the board and the administration understand that there have to be some changes made,” Thompson said. “… that those changes have to be made not in the course of years, but short-term changes that have to be made. I think people want to make sure the board understands that we’re just not going to tolerate this any longer and that we need to work together.”
Thompson envisions the community and the board collaborating on those changes.
“It has to be done together, and it has to be the school board [buying] in and the administration [buying] in with the community, that we have to work together to just simply eradicate — stop these incidents of brazen acts of white supremacy that [are] taking place on the school grounds now,” he said.
Thompson, 68, is a lifelong resident of Chatham County. He spent 16 years as a commissioner and says the 50 or so local residents who met last Thursday to support Ashley Palmer and her family “all love this county.”
He recalls attending public schools in Chatham during the 1960s, during the period of local integration.
“Of course, back then there were acts of racial bigotry and hatred that took place that I even remember today,” he said. “It stayed with me a lifetime some of those acts. But if what I’m hearing today is true about the incident at J.S. Waters …”
Thompson referred to that and other incidents that have taken place in Chatham County Schools in years past as “brazen and bold.”
“There were just brazen and bold acts by children — white children against black children — and to me that’s extraordinary because they did it without any fear of reprisal,” he said. “These acts were even more brazen and bold than some that the kids did when we were coming through school. That shouldn’t be in 2022 — 50 years later in this county.”
It's a part of a larger pattern, he said, that CORE and Palmer family supporters want to address.
“I’ve been involved over the years in incidents in the school system that happened,” he said. “I can go back to 20 years ago at Chatham Central, there were racial incidents going on — nooses on a school bus that they found — a visiting school bus, mainly Black athletes, when they went back to the bus, they found nooses on the bus … There were racial epithets that the school principal actually used.”
A lawsuit Thompson and others brought against Chatham County Schools two decades ago led to the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights visit to Chatham 20 years ago, resulting in pledges by the board.
“We’ve had promises over the years,” he said. “We’ve always had promises that changes were going to be made, that changes would be instituted that would stop these kind of practices, and it just hasn’t happened … We remember the promises and we look and see what’s happening at places like J.S. Waters, and Chatham Central, and other places today.
“So I think we’re to the point right now where we’re tired of the rhetoric,” Thompson continued. “We want to see some action. Don’t tell me anything — show me something now. And we want to work with [the school system] to make sure that they have the right kind of policies instituted and in place and other requirements that will help change people’s behavior, so they just act like decent human beings. People are more of the posture now that we’re tired of asking, we’re demanding — these type of things have to change and they have to change now.”
And it’s not just because of what happened at J.S. Waters, he said — but rather “a continuation of similar type issues have come out in recent months.”
“So I think the idea was, we need to come together and really demand that something be done about these continued incidents,” Thompson said. “And so that was the reason behind the meeting. The meeting was kind of like a meeting of a number of groups, and we coalesced around this particular issue.”
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