Rally’s message to Chatham and its schools: ‘Heinous’ acts of racism must stop now

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PITTSBORO — The message of Monday’s “Community Call to Action” was clear: Now’s the time to finally put an end to acts of racism in Chatham County’s schools.

More than 100 concerned citizens, students, faith leaders and parents gathered prior to Monday’s Chatham County Board of Education meeting in response to a March 4 incident involving a mock slave auction at J.S. Waters School in Goldston, where several students auctioned off at least two classmates at recess. 

Organized by Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity, the 40-minute combination rally and press conference took place in front of Pittsboro Presbyterian Church, a short walk from Chatham’s historical courthouse downtown.

Speakers included pastors, local NAACP leaders and four Chatham students, but the focus was on the family of Jeremiah Palmer — the son of Ashley and Justin Palmer, and one of the students who experienced the auction.

In her remarks to those gathered, Ashley Palmer said the March 4 incidents weren’t the first of a racial nature her children experienced at J.S. Waters. Palmer’s Facebook post about the incident galvanized the community response — leading to parents and students sharing their own stories with CORE leaders and others, including the Rev. Dr. Carl Thompson Sr., a Siler City pastor and former county commissioner who helped organize a large Zoom call last Thursday, which led to Monday’s rally.

But it did mark the first time, Palmer said, that “we decided to go the distance to make sure it wasn’t met with a cultural acceptance bulletin board.” Rather, Palmer wanted the “heinous act” to be recognized as real racism — with real consequences for those who allowed it to happen.

“That said, today we will bring forth a document to the Chatham County Board of Education and Chatham County Schools Administration that will outline what we, along with some of the experts here today, think will provide solutions to such a terrible act,” she said. “Our goal is to provide real tangible solutions that make racist acts handled appropriately without the need to go to social media, and to also create a teaching opportunity for both children and administrators. The reality is, many have reached out to us and said ‘this is the norm’ within our school system. This should not be the case.”

Palmer said the “blatant” racist acts weren’t exercises in diversity, inclusion or equity, but rather a violation of the school system’s code of conduct.

“Racists acts shouldn’t be disciplined on the same level as someone pulling another student’s hair, with a one-day suspension,” she said. “It should have its own designation reportable at the county level and handled with the significant consequences it deserves. No child should face abuse by their peers or staff.”

A readiness to help

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.

Palmer said J.S. Waters Principal Matthew Wilkins and CCS administration had been “extremely supportive emotionally” and had expressed a readiness to help. She singled out Chris Poston, the system’s executive director for excellence and opportunity (a recently-created position), Dr. Amanda Moran, assistant superintendent for academic services & instructional support, and Dr. Anthony Jackson, who was named superintendent last summer, for their response.

But Palmer asked now for the administration and school board to act on a list of recommendations made by the CORE-led community coalition — a list presented to the board later that evening.

That document, as first reported by the News + Record, was widely circulated in advance of Monday’s board meeting. It read, in part:

“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. 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.”

‘To denounce racism’

Under the heading of “What We Want,” the coalition reminded CCS of its mission to “graduate globally competitive and confident students by providing a rigorous and relevant curriculum in a supportive, safe and nurturing learning environment.” 

“Unfortunately, this is not happening for all of our students,” the document read. “This coalition believes we are at a pivotal moment in our district to denounce racism and white supremacy by implementing policies, procedures, and consequences in our school system that support safe and just learning environments.”

The coalition’s list of “initial recommendations” included eight points:

• Collaborate closely with community equity partners, parents of color and this coalition for community-led approaches to an equitable school system.

• The students involved need to apologize to their discrimination targets and the school community.

• Child trauma counselors skilled in racial trauma should be available to support all students impacted.

• Review and revise the Chatham County Code of Conduct to designate racist and discriminatory remarks as hate speech separate from the current bullying policy with corresponding consequences that match the severity of this abuse our children face.

• Review and revise the Chatham County Schools Personnel Guidelines to make racist remarks and behaviors a fireable offense for teachers and staff. Racist educators have no place in the classroom.

• Review the administration’s response to this and previous racist incidents at the school to determine the appropriateness of their responses. Consequences have to be sufficient to deter future acts.

• Provide protocol for reporting hate crimes to Federal Authorities when the level of behavior warrants it.

• With the guidance of racial equity consultants, develop a harm protocol when racist acts occur to be available and accessible to every school.

“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,” the document concluded. “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.”

Other speakers, including a 4th-grade student from Virginia Cross elementary, urged changes and actions, including an apology from students involved and making child trauma counselors skilled in racial trauma available to students.

The ‘slave auction’

Just 10 days earlier, Palmer made public the incident 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,” she wrote. “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.”

Jackson, the CCS Superintendent, released a statement after the incident, saying administration had become aware of other incidents in which students used racially insensitive language and offensive imagery.

“These incidents were unacceptable and do not reflect who we are as a school system or a community,” he wrote last Thursday. “Incidents such as these cannot and will not be tolerated by Chatham County Schools.”

In the statement, Jackson said his administration and the community “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,” he said. “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.”

He promised to review processes and encourage students to speak up if they witness or are targeted by behavior they consider “hurtful, racist and demeaning,” saying the school system “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.”

‘Express dire concern’

Meanwhile, over the weekend, Thompson told the News + Record that Monday’s gathering would 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.”

“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 envisioned the community and the board collaborating on those changes, something Jackson later embraced during the school board’s meeting (see story, page A1).

“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,” Thompson 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 Palmer and her family “all love this county.”

He recalled 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 sought 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.”

‘Tired of the rhetoric’

A lawsuit Thompson and others brought against Chatham County Schools decades ago led to the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights visit to Chatham, 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.”

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.” 

Another one of the speakers at Monday’s rally, long-time Chatham educator Valencia Toomer, said the incident was proof changes were needed.

Toomer is a former Chatham principal, as well as founder and head of the School of the Arts for Boys Academy, which will open in Pittsboro in the fall.

“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.’”

Keith T. Barber contributed to this report.


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