Community rallies around family of student who was subject of ‘slave auction’ at J.S. Waters

Group plans to address Chatham School Board on Monday; NAACP official says incident may rise to the level of a federal hate crime

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Concerned community organizers and activists have rallied around the family of a J.S. Waters student whose mother says was involved in a mock slave auction at the school last Friday, and they plan to address the Chatham County Board of Education about the incident at its regular meeting Monday.

In the meantime, the incident has drawn attention statewide and beyond, with the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization — the Council on American-Islamic Relations — weighing in, condemning the incident and calling on Chatham County Schools to respond.

“Racist acts of bullying and intimidation cannot be tolerated in schools,” said National Communications Coordinator Ismail Allison in a statement released on CAIR’s website. “We urge the school district to offer anti-racist curriculum to students to help ensure these kinds of alleged hate incidents do not continue to occur.” 

Back in Chatham, a group of about 50 leaders met via Zoom at noon on Thursday to hear from Ashley Palmer, who made a Facebook post about the incident last Friday, and to discuss how to respond.

Those attending included members of both of Chatham’s NAACP chapters, the Community Remembrance Coalition-Chatham, leaders in the faith community — including former county commissioner Rev. Carl Thompson Sr., senior pastor of the Word of Life Christian Outreach Center in Siler City — and at least two board of education members. The News + Record was initially invited to attend the discussion, but Palmer and family members decided as the meeting was beginning to exclude the media.

Later in the day, two of those who attended characterized the meeting as positive and even “upbeat.”

But there was also concern because the incident — first reported by the News & Observer of Raleigh late Wednesday afternoon — wasn’t the first involving Palmer’s children and reflected a systemic problem within the school system and the community.

“We’ve heard from several other families concerned about this issue, and also sharing their own personal stories as well,” Karinda Roebuck, the executive director of Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity [CORE] told the News + Record. “And not just specific to J.S. Waters, but across the county school system as well. You know, this is a culture thing. This is in our culture, and this is something that needs to be addressed on a systemic level.”

J. S. Waters School is a K-8 school serving the central rural region of Chatham County and located just off U.S. Hwy. 421 near Goldston. It has a student population of about 200 students, 68% of whom are white.

On Friday, Palmer wrote in a Facebook post: “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 on 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.”

She concluded the post by tagging Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson and saying she would be calling him “to discuss the legal options for the assault and continuous harassment (sic). It’s a shame my child isn’t safe at school. Where is the staff when this is happening? Now when my son gets fed up, will they protect him the way they have protected this other child?”

The News & Observer reported on Friday about similar incidents occurring in Chatham County, including:

• A report that a Black student at Chatham Central was surrounded by white students who chanted the N-word at her and dropped cards on the floor that had racist language.

• A photo on social media appearing to show a white Chatham County student lying on the ground while another white student simulates holding a gun over them. The photo was captioned “Black history month.”

“What surprises many people in this community is the boldness with which these students acted,” Siler City pastor and former county commissioner Thompson told the News & Observer. “They seem to have little care about the damage they do to the African-American students to which their acts are directed.”

One participant on Thursday’s call told the News + Record that the victim of last Friday’s event at J. S. Waters was told by students in February that “he wasn’t Black enough” to take part.

Hearing about Friday’s incident and others led to a mobilization of the group and the meeting, which was held, Roebuck said, “with the express permission of Ashley Palmer.”

'The purpose of community'

“This is basically community organizing in action,” said Roebuck, whose organization is a Chatham-based volunteer-led group working to build a broad-based coalition of individuals, nonprofits, and community groups.

Roebuck said the group was working with the Palmer family on next steps and didn’t “want to divulge too much information on that.” She said she didn’t have permission to share “some of the actions” the family is considering moving forward.

“But we will explain a lot in that press conference [on Monday],” Roebuck said. “I mean, the purpose of the community is to be able to gather in community and to raise our collective voices and say that ‘This is not OK, this is not OK.’ And it’s time to move forward from talk into action. And for outcomes to be reflected as such.”

The desired outcome, she said, would be “an equitable community.”

“We want to see a culture in which our kids can feel safe when going to school,” Roebuck said.

The Palmer family and supporters plan to speak at a press conference prior to Monday’s regular meeting of the Chatham County Board of Education. The group will gather at 4:45 p.m. at the historic courthouse in Pittsboro, then some of the group plan to address the board during the public comment time at its meeting, which begins at 5:30 p.m.

It's not known for certain what supporters will ask or demand, but another person on Thursday’s call said race-based sensitivity training would be a place to start.

“I know that the family, from my understanding, there are certain asks they are making with the district,” said long-time Chatham educator Valencia Toomer, a former Chatham principal and founder and head of school of the School of the Arts for Boys Academy, which will open in Pittsboro in the fall. “They have been in communication with the district; and they have been in communication with law enforcement. There are very specific asks the family has communicated to the district and they may be something they will share at the school board meeting on Monday night.”

Toomer said the incident was proof changes were needed.

“What must change is cultural responsiveness,” she told the News + Record. “Public schools have to be intentional about building a school environment that’s inclusive and culturally sustainable; you have to get adults and personnel in the building that look like the children they serve.”

And part of that, she said, is holding staff and faculty accountable.

“I think that at this point, we have to move beyond words,” she said. “We have to move beyond ideas and the thought of inclusivity and the thought of equity and put it more in action. These are permanent scars that particularly some of these children of color will have because of this incident. Think about the kind of message that instigators of this behavior will get if the schools and other adults in their lives do not do the right thing.”

It's time, Toomer said, for this “systemic issue” to be addressed.

“At some point we have to hold the mirror up to ourselves and say, you know, ‘Houston, we may have a problem.’”

Bob Finch, the District 8 regional director for the NAACP of North Carolina — which covers six counties, including Chatham — was also on Thursday’s call. He told the News + Record family members wanted those responsible for Friday’s incident to be accountable and for a recognition of the problem that allowed the incident to occur.

Finch also said the incident may rise to the level of a federal hate crime.

'Everlasting' change

“It just goes against what’s right,” he said. “Mrs. Palmer has two children and both have experienced some degree of racial bias from the administration over the years.”

Finch said his impression was that J.S. Waters has been “soft-pedaling” about building community in the school, and that the family wanted constructive change that would be “everlasting.”

“I don’t think anyone should accept anything less than that,” he said. 

Finch said the group developed “a pretty good road map” for moving forward to address what happened.

“At this point, the local community is handling this quite well,” he said. “We just want to make sure these issues are dealt with appropriately, and to make things better for the students.”

Finch and Toomer both said it’s disappointing lessons from the past haven’t been learned.

“I am disappointed and I’m hurt that it is the year 2022 and we are still seeing incidents like this," Toomer said. “Now I am aware this is not isolated to Chatham; it’s happening in Texas, it’s happening all around. But what’s disturbing is the level of boldness that existed for this to even happen — we have children who decided that it was OK to hold a slave auction at our public schools. That’s what’s not OK. You imagine that happening to your own child — and my heart, it just breaks.

“But until you hear the voice of the mother and the voices of the family, that really painted a picture that is disheartening and it’s hurtful; and we don’t want this behavior to continue and as a community find solutions to the situation and even moving forward.”

In a letter sent to parents and later posted on the Chatham County Schools website, Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson said incidents “involving students using racially insensitive language and offensive imagery” were “unacceptable and do not reflect who we are as a school system or a community. Incidents such as these cannot and will not be tolerated by Chatham County Schools.”

He wrote: “As a school system and community, we cannot be silent in the face of incidents and behavior that create an unsafe or uncomfortable environment for students in our schools. The core values espoused by this school system compel us to recognize and to interrupt any issues that demean or disrespect anyone on the basis of their race, gender, sexual orientation or religion. 

“No student, staff, or family should be silent when their humanity, dignity or identity are threatened, disrespected or challenged. I want to be crystal clear: Racist, homophobic or otherwise hateful behavior or speech has no place in the Chatham County School System. We are better than this as a school system and a community. I want to assure everyone that we are working with and will continue to work with families of students who are targeted in this way. Those who are acting outside of our expectations will be held accountable. 

“As a system, we have tools in place to encourage students to speak up when they are the target or witness behavior that is hurtful, racist and demeaning. We will be reviewing these processes to determine if revision or additional resources are needed because the truth is, if children master academics but fail to appreciate the value of inclusivity, respect and diversity, we as adults have fallen short of preparing them for tomorrow. 

“Moving forward, through our collective work, we must commit to dismantling racism and other negative influences that affect our school community. We must capture this moment to strengthen our commitment to ensuring that every person feels valued and respected for who they are and what they contribute to their school and our community. This means confronting issues openly, directly, transparently and unapologetically. This is our moment, we will not miss it.” 

Nancy Wykle, CCS’ public information officer, told the News + Record on Thursday that no other comments on the incident were planned for now. When asked if any punitive actions were taken related to the incident, she said the school would not comment on disciplinary issues.

This is a developing story and will continue to be updated.

Keith Barber contributed to this story.


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