‘A CLEAR MESSAGE’ TO STUDENTS, STAFF

Chatham County Schools outlines new discipline for students, staff who commit 'confirmed acts’ of racism

Local leaders reflect on school system’s response in aftermath of mock ‘slave auction’ incident

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In the aftermath of a mock “slave auction” at J.S. Waters School earlier this month, Chatham County Schools has outlined new disciplinary consequences for students in grades 6-12 “who commit confirmed acts of bullying or harassment that include racist, homophobic or xenophobic speech.” 

In addition, school administration says staff members who violate the policy will be suspended immediately.

In a list of consequences provided to the News + Record late Monday, students found to have committed such acts will receive a minimum 10-day suspension.

The full list of consequences include: 

• 1st offense — 10-day suspension; required participation in restorative circles upon return.

• 2nd offense — 10-day suspension with administrative school reassignment; required participation in restorative circles upon return.

• 3rd offense — 10-day suspension with recommendation for long-term suspension; required participation in restorative circles upon return.  Restorative circles are used in schools and other settings to build and restore relationships through equal opportunity sharing and listening. They’re also used to teach participants how to negotiate conflict, practice respectful listening and healthy self-expression, according to the websites of a number of school-related organizations using them. 

“The 10-day consequence for the first offense is intentional and meant to be a deterrent and send a clear message of our intolerance of this behavior in our school culture,” states the disciplinary plan provided to the News + Record by Chatham County Schools. “As outlined in the new regulation, restorative practices will be used to support both the victim and offender throughout the investigative and post incident periods. Current requirements for disciplining students with disabilities remain the same.”

In addition, Chatham County Schools said that “any staff member who violates this regulation will be immediately suspended from service pending an investigation per current school board policy. If allegations are substantiated, the employee will be subject to consequences outlined in the current policy, which is disciplinary actions up to and including a recommendation for termination/revocation of licensure.”

CCS said the administration is working with community partners to develop additional training for administrators, staff and teachers, as well as hold a series of focus groups and restorative circles within the system to provide an opportunity for students, staff and families to engage in meaningful dialogue.

These new announcements come a week after a community rally held March 14 in response to the mock slave auction involving students. The “auction” took place prior to a baseball practice at J.S. Waters, located on Goldston, on March 1. A mother of one of the targeted students, Ashley Palmer, first made the incident public in a March 4 Facebook post, and the Raleigh News & Observer reported Tuesday that the incident occurred on March 1 — not March 4, as has been previously widely reported.

That community rally, held by organizers from CORE — Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity — at Pittsboro Presbyterian Church preceded the school board’s monthly meeting, and drew about 100 people. Palmer was among the speakers at the rally; another 20 community members later spoke at the board’s meeting that evening.

‘Help with the healing process’

Chatham County Schools Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson said in a Monday email message to the News + Record that his administration will use open and honest conversations and restorative practices “to help with the healing process for what has transpired” at J.S. Waters and at other schools. 

The school system’s goal, he said, could only be achieved through recognizing the reality of the behaviors that made the incident occur.

“We should always strive to be better,” he said. “Demeaning another person is never minor. Our goal is to be a safe, nurturing, respectful environment for all students. Behavior that runs counter to that is harmful and should be recognized for what it is.

“We have to make it clear that racist, homophobic and xenophobic behavior among either staff or students is unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” he added. “The consequences for any such actions will be dealt with swiftly and severely. Our staff will continue to take part in equity training opportunities across the district.”

Jackson also stressed the need to continue to engage in conversations “with our community members and strengthen partnerships with stakeholders such as CORE, the NAACP, the Boys & Girls Club, the (Chatham) Education Foundation and others to foster support and understanding. Our community must be part of the path forward.”

But Jackson also said the school system didn’t have sole responsibility for this work. When queried about what “asks” his administration would make of the community, he responded with three specifics:

• “We need strong partnerships with our stakeholders, hearing their views and ideas, and relying on their support in helping us build a better district.

• “Continued training for our staff.

• “An open dialogue about issues facing not just the school district, but our community so we can work together to forge a path forward.”

Changing attitudes takes education, time and effort, Jackson said in his statement.

“It can’t be the work of just the district — this needs to be a community effort,” he said, adding that the district has pledged transparency.

“We want to be transparent with our community as we take steps to root out and eliminate such behavior and to work toward healing with our staff, students and their families,” he said. “Chatham County Schools reiterates that racist, homophobic and xenophobic behaviors are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. We will ensure safe and respectful schools.”

No adult witnesses, no video

Chatham County Schools clarified to the News + Record on Sunday that no adults were involved in the mock slave auction and no video of the event exists. School policy limits its ability to share other specifics, including punishment for any involved students.

At the CCS board of education’s March 14 meeting, students, parents, community leaders and concerned citizens spoke directly to members of the school board and Superintendent Jackson, sharing their thoughts and feelings following the first news reports of the “slave auction.” The incident has since attracted national attention.

At the conclusion of that meeting’s public comments portion, Jackson outlined a proposal to directly address the school system’s response to future racist incidents like the one at J.S. Waters — a set of recommendations that would amend Chatham County School policies, regulations and the student code of conduct. He also made a promise before everyone attending that meeting.

“Those who participate in acts that demean any person are acting outside of the values of our school system, and will be held accountable using every means at our disposal,” Jackson said. 

The proposal he presented to the school board last Monday was comprised of four recommendations, including a commitment to work closely with community members to solicit their input in finding a path forward. 

“I’m asking this board to look at our staffing needs to ensure that we have the tools and the staff to appropriately reach out to our community — to support these community agencies — and to work with our parents who are crying out to us to help and that we have a pathway for those parents to be able to say very clearly that we hear you, and that we are going to address this matter as quickly as possible,” Jackson said at the meeting.

Public trust at stake

Since last Monday’s meeting, community leaders have had a chance to reflect on Jackson’s plan and reaction to the mock slave auction.

Stephanie Terry, organizing director for CORE, described the variety of speakers at the March 14 rally as a reflection of the nonprofit’s overall philosophy in addressing incidents of racial intimidation, hatred and intolerance in Chatham County.

“At CORE, we are hoping to show the value of addressing the situation with an organized approach,” Terry told the News + Record. “And what we mean by that is, all of us members and stakeholders in this community coming together, first, because we’re in relationship with one another, but second, because the values of our community have been violated.

“We’re coming together around our values, and through a process of doing an analysis and assessment of the problem in a way that where we can understand where the solutions are — where the best levers for change are — then we as a community can begin to hold accountable everyone that is involved in this,” Terry added.

Accountability proved to be a common thread in the comments of the students, parents, community leaders and concerned citizens who spoke at the board meeting and the rally.

Mary Nettles, president of Chatham County Community NAACP, was such speaker. Nettles commended Jackson for the proposed changes to school policies but pointed out the proposal outlined on March 14 represents a first step in addressing an issue that has been simmering since the integration of the public schools in Chatham, more than 50 years ago. Nettles grew up in Pittsboro and attended Chatham schools.

“Public trust in the Chatham County school system depends directly on whether the present administration, teachers and staff take prompt, concrete, clear and just actions that change the present totally unacceptable policy and behavior,” Nettles told the News + Record. “Dr. Jackson did not make this policy nor create this behavior, which dates back decades, but he is now responsible for it and so is the school board.”

Underlying systemic racism

The Rev. Carl Thompson, senior pastor of the Word of Life Christian Outreach Center in Siler City, also spoke at last Monday’s board meeting. In his remarks, he proposed the formation of a task force — composed of community leaders and representatives of the school system — to develop a strategy to address the underlying issue of systemic racism in the Chatham County Schools.

Thompson, a former Chatham County Commissioner, also commended Jackson, stating he deserved a great deal of credit for the actions he has taken thus far in response to the J.S. Waters incident. Still, Thompson said, there’s much to be done to protect students of color from future incidents racist bullying in the Chatham County Schools.

“Dr. Jackson is the first [superintendent] I’ve seen who said publicly that the institutionalized racism in the Chatham County Schools has to stop,” Thompson told the News + Record. “But there’s been a culture in which people have been protected and there has been no accountability. These people at the local level in the school system have been left to deal with these situations in the past, so I think [Jackson’s] challenge is going to be to change that culture.”

Thompson said the idea of a task force is simply a way for the Chatham County Schools to use the wealth of social capital at its disposal.

“The whole thing behind the community coming together with the school system is that if we’re working in concert together, and if they will listen to what we’re saying, and when those issues arise that need to be dealt with, we can advise them and help them in solving the problems,” he said.

CORE, which was founded in 2016, was built on the idea of building social capital by the creation of a multi-race, multi-faith and multi-class coalition of community organizations — making it an ideal partner for the Chatham County Schools in its effort to address systemic racism in the school system, Terry said.

“We’re going to learn together,” Terry said. “We’re going to learn what relational power means. We’re going to learn how to be political together. We’re going to learn how to hold so-called powerful people accountable together. We’re going to learn how to act together. We’re going to learn how to reflect together.”

And when it’s over and addressed, she said, “We will still continue to be together, deepening our relationships so that if other issues arise, we have the infrastructure, the capacity to be able to make the changes that we need.”

More response from CCS

Nancy Wykle, public information officer for Chatham County Schools, acknowledged that the central office continues to receive inquiries from concerned citizens about the mock auction at J.S. Waters School. The top priority of the school system, though, remains how to prevent future racially charged incidents from taking place on school grounds.

“While this matter has been regrettable and extremely traumatic for all involved, our focus is now on supporting the students impacted and rebuilding community, trust and relationships at the school,” Wykle said. “We want to provide a final update on this matter and ask that moving forward we focus our full energy, effort, resources and attention towards meeting the immediate and long-term needs of our students and setting expectations for the entire district moving forward.”

Wykle told the News + Record that Jackson issued a directive last week to all principals and leadership staff in the school district containing guidance on “how future issues of racist, homophobic and xenophobic remarks and acts will be addressed and a consistent set of consequences.”

“This directive is effective immediately and principals will begin communicating these expectations [this] week,” Wykle added.

Revising school policies and regulations, issuing directives and amending the student code of conduct are a good start, Terry said, but ultimately the onus is on Chatham County residents — parents, students, community leaders and concerned citizens — to demand the school system make the changes necessary to prevent future incidents of racial hatred, bigotry and white supremacy from occurring on school grounds.

“Through the process of organizing, and through the process of people dialoguing together — about their concerns about the things that are affecting their families — that process itself begins again, to raise the possibility of being able to make the changes that you need,” Terry said. “We have the means and the agencies to transform the institutions that we’ve inherited; we only have to understand our role in it, and work together as a collective.”

Meanwhile, late Monday, CCS released a new statement outlining additional steps the district is taking in the aftermath of the incident, which include: 

• Meetings; district leadership has met with principals and assistant principals.

• Sharing clarified expectations.

• Continued use of restorative practices to support students, staff and schools in the healing process.

• Identifying additional training for administrators, staff and teachers.

• Continued collaboration with community partners and other key stakeholders.

• Holding focus groups and restorative circles within schools to provide an opportunity for students, staff and families to engage in meaningful dialogue.

“We reiterate that our goal is for all students to feel safe and welcome in their school,” the statement reads. “Chatham County Schools expects our students and staff to be respectful, mindful of others and engage in appropriate behavior.”

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