School administrators, community leaders grapple for answers, solutions in wake of incident at J.S. Waters

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In response to the mock “slave auction” incident — where Black middle school students were targeted by their white classmates at J.S. Waters School in Goldston earlier this month — Chatham Organizing for Racial Equity (CORE), a Pittsboro-based nonprofit, hosted a webinar for the community last Tuesday entitled, “How to Talk to Your Kids about Racism.”

“We wanted to provide space for the community that’s really hurting and suffering from these racist events that [have] been happening across Chatham County Schools and specifically this one mock slave auction,” Karinda Roebuck, executive director of CORE, said. “We wanted to offer a space for healing and reconciliation.”

The session, which was held via Zoom and attended by more than 100 individuals, opened with statements from several speakers, including Tracy Fowler, executive director of student support services for Chatham County Schools.

“I hate so much that what brought us to this point this evening is harm that happened with some of our students, but I’m very, very grateful for the collective response and searching for a solution,” she said.

Fowler acknowledged that school administrators aren’t experts in systemic racism or racial trauma, which is why CCS partners with mental health and community organizations like CORE.

“We all know that in this post-pandemic world that our students need support more than ever,” Fowler said. “This is specifically true for marginalized students, especially our Black and brown students.”

Fowler said the school system takes a multi-layered approach to student support with programs that focus on a child’s social and emotional well-being, utilizing restorative circles “to build relationships and help with conflict.”

In addition, she said each school within the system has at least one school counselor on staff to address student needs and concerns, adding all CCS staff members who work with children will receive six hours of mental health and suicide prevention training during the school year.

Last year, the school system implemented an anonymous reporting app if students or parents wish to report incidents of racial intimidation, hatred and intolerance.

“There’s a call center, so if a student were to call in, they would have someone available there they would speak with about a concern,” Fowler said. “The call center then provides information for us to support the students.”

Ashley Palmer, whose son was one of the Black students targeted by the mock auction, credited CORE and its community organizing efforts over the past several weeks with creating a safe space for other parents and students to come forth with their stories of racial intimidation, discrimination and intolerance within the school system.

“Our son and daughter were subjected to racial trauma as students, both through micro-aggressions and macro-aggressions during their time at J.S. Waters School,” Palmer said. “I have countless stories where they were subjected to racial slurs by their peers or not provided the same academic opportunities as their white counterparts, whether it was deliberate or subconsciously decided.”

Roebuck echoed Palmer’s sentiments, stating that CORE has been contacted directly by a number of concerned Chatham County parents whose children have suffered similar racial trauma and bullying at J.S. Waters.

Dr. Ronda Taylor Bullock, executive director of Working to Extend Anti-Racist Education (WE ARE), delivered a presentation as part of Tuesday’s webinar about how to speak to your children about racism.

A native of Goldston and a graduate of J.S. Waters, Bullock said this most recent incident of racial intimidation hit home for her. She recounted incidents from her childhood that occurred at J.S. Waters where she was excluded from activities like birthday parties — all because of the color of her skin.

“I don’t like why we had to come here this evening, but I think it is a move in the right direction to hold this space and to start to build this community and to move forward and to put some actions behind our words,” Bullock said.

Dr. Karen Barbee, owner of Renaissance Wellness, LLC — an agency which contracts with Chatham County Schools to provide mental health services to students — also presented to the group about the mental health aspect of racist incidents like the one at J.S. Waters.

“I was deeply affected by what happened recently at J.S. Waters,” Barbee told the News + Record. “As a Black female and native of Chatham County, I attended Chatham County Schools and actually two schools that are very close in proximity to J.S. Waters.

“I can relate to what happened because I too experienced racism as a student in high school at Chatham Central,” she said. “Unfortunately, these racist acts continue to be a problem for each generation of students that have attended since the integration of schools.”

During her presentation, Barbee shared information with attendees about how to better understand and address racial trauma in the K-12 school setting. She said racial trauma can be both direct and indirect — meaning it would be impossible to comprehend the number of students, parents and school staff impacted by the mock slave auction incident.

“There may have been other students of color who observed what occurred and didn’t know what to do, or how to effectively process what was happening,” Barbee told the News + Record. “We may never hear their stories if they choose not to come forward.

“This is actually very understandable due to the fear of retaliation, losing friends and other fears that a young person can have if they share their story with the world,” Barbee added. “This incident is so very painful for people of color in Chatham County because these are boys who are behaving like this, which tells us that they more than likely learned it at home.”

Bob Pearson, a retired diplomat, moved to Chatham County with his wife seven years ago. A lifelong member of the NAACP, Pearson — who’s white — addressed the slave auction incident during the public comments portion of the Chatham County Board of Education meeting on March 14.

He said racist incidents like those at J.S. Waters run counter to the narrative of America he was fond of sharing about during his time working for the U.S. State Department in a number of European countries.

“I knew of these attitudes when I was a child, and it’s very discouraging to see that they still exist,” Pearson said. “And it’s very discouraging to see that they are still tolerated — that no action has really been taken to this point to deal with it. I spent my life telling people that America was a just and open and free society. I knew we had the problems, but I find it way too late to be pretending that these things can be tolerated today.”

Roebuck said concerned citizens like Pearson can contribute to healing and reconciliation in a number of ways, including participating in future webinars and community organizing training sessions led by CORE.

“You are investing in the community so that we can start moving forward with some big problems in our county around race equity,” she said. “We can build a base in which we have ready on standby folks who are working to address our systemic inequities that exist in our county — what it means to do community organizing and why that’s a way to see this system change and to dismantle structural racism in our community.”

Barbee lauded CORE’s approach to community organizing as a response to the incident at J.S. Waters. She said concerned parents, citizens and community members coming together to form a collective is one of the best paths to healing and reconciliation but introspection is the first step in that lengthy process.

“We should all begin and continue a process of reflection to heal ourselves as we attempt to heal our community,” she said. “There is definitely power in numbers. The more we have people in our community come together for causes such as these, the more impact we can have in healing and creating a community that is welcoming, inclusive and equitable for all.”

During the March 22 webinar, Palmer, who is white, underscored Barbee’s point when she spoke directly to the Caucasian people participating in the CORE webinar.

“Even those of you who consider yourself, like I did, as an ally — how are you being part of the solution?” Palmer asked rhetorically. “Are you maintaining the status quo and doing what’s comfortable, or are you challenging your reality and being willing to educate yourselves to be part of that solution?”

The Chatham County Board of Education has its next meeting on Monday, April 11.

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