PITTSBORO — Chatham County Schools Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson spoke softly and deliberately at the end of a lengthy public comment period during the board of education’s regular Monday night meeting.
Addressing the board, most speakers expressed their collective outrage over a mock “slave auction” involving Black middle school students at J.S. Waters School in Goldston earlier this month.
So, before presenting proposed policy changes — revisions to the student code of conduct, additional training resources for faculty and staff, and partnering with community organizations — Dr. Jackson first apologized to Chatham County parents and students, speaking to the overflow crowd inside the county’s historic courthouse in downtown Pittsboro.
“I want to first offer an apology … to every single student who has ever felt unsafe while in our care to every student who has ever felt demeaned, disrespected or marginalized because of their race, ethnicity, gender or disability,” Jackson said. “In the Chatham County Schools, we proudly boast that diversity is our strength and moving forward it will be our intentional focus to ensure that this celebration includes everyone.”
“We will do better,” he added.
Board Chairman Gary Leonard echoed Jackson’s sentiments.
“We want to do right by our children,” Leonard said. “We want to make sure they’re treated well, so please understand we’re working to do a better job.”
Board member David Hamm said the criticisms leveled at the school board by concerned parents and citizens were “well-taken,” and said the racist incidents at J.S. Waters have been equally painful for board members.
“Sometimes when you get hurt, you get yourself up and move forward,” Hamm said.
Board member Del Turner characterized the public comments as a “wake-up call,” while board member Jane Allen Wilson also offered an apology to parents of J.S. Waters students targeted in the mock auction.
“Whenever there’s racial violence from adults in a community, it’s troubling and upsetting, and when it happens with our children, it is exponentially upsetting,” Wilson said. “And it’s humbling to me to realize any inroads we make just scratch the surface. We could have done a better job.”
The board unanimously adopted a set of proposed policy changes Jackson presented to address racial discrimination, bullying and intimidation in the Chatham County Schools.
Jackson’s proposal includes developing a districtwide protocol for training all staff members to clarify expectations, working closely with parents and community agencies to improve communication between stakeholders and the school system, and performing a thorough review of the Student Code of Conduct to address racially charged incidents on school grounds.
During the first hour of Monday’s meeting, 21 speakers addressed the mock slave auction incident in which white students at J.S. Waters “auctioned” classmates earlier this month. Board members heard from a variety of concerned citizens — from elementary school children to parents to longtime Chatham residents.
Christy Wagner, the mother of one of the J.S. Waters students targeted by white classmates in the mock auction, took a moment to compose herself during her allotted three minutes. Wagner said she had experienced every possible emotion over the past two weeks.
“Some days I feel anger about what happened,” she said. “Some days I feel a sadness, just trying to grasp, ‘Why are we still having these issues in 2022?’ I’m a mother who just had to explain to my son why being auctioned as a slave is unacceptable.”
Mary Nettles, president of Chatham County Community NAACP, pointed out that the recent incident of white supremacy at J.S. Waters is inextricably linked to Chatham County’s racist history.
“After more than 250 years, we are still fighting the same fight in 2022,” Nettles said. “Our children in Chatham County, especially at J.S. Waters, are still impacted by race-based discrimination — a problem that generations have failed to address or even attempt to acknowledge. It is time for children and the adults in the county to say enough is enough.”
The Rev. Carl Thompson Sr., senior pastor of the Word of Life Christian Outreach Center in Siler City, proposed creating a task force of school board members and a community coalition to implement changes to school system policies and procedures.
“It is apparent that changes or revisions to the current policy, as well as sensitivity and diversity training for staff, (are) needed,” Thompson said. “One could reasonably argue that existing policies and procedures don’t seem to be working.”
“May I suggest that we work together towards a solution to this recurring issue?” Thompson added.
Ronda Taylor Bullock, co-founder and lead curator of the WE ARE nonprofit, said she founded her organization — “We Are” is an acronym for Working to Extend Anti-Racist Education — because of the “racist experiences” she had while attending J.S. Waters Elementary as a child.
Bullock proposed an initiative to educate school faculty and staff on becoming anti-racist as one way to address the issue. Bullock also said the recent incident at J.S. Waters represented a golden opportunity for the school board.
“What will you all be remembered for doing during this time?” Bullock asked. “Diversity and equity and inclusion is inadequate. Sometimes we just diversify and include people in racist spaces.”
“This is a civil rights moment, and here’s your time to live out your values,” she continued. “How you show up now will be remembered because this is a civil rights moment.”
Bob Pearson, a retired diplomat and lifetime NAACP member, described the racism that led to incidents like the one at J.S. Waters as a “social cancer.”
“Nice rhetoric doesn’t solve problems,” Pearson said. “Actions do solve problems and for whatever reason — which I don’t understand myself — there’s some level of acceptance of racial, verbal and physical attacks and abuse that is corrupting the educational system in Chatham County.”
Pearson said the board’s response to these racist incidents will have a powerful ripple effect impacting thousands of Chatham residents.
“Tonight is your chance to take a step so clear, and so unambiguous, that no one can fail to understand what was wrong and what is right,” he said. “We can’t erase history, but we can redeem it.”
Sara Martin, vice chairperson of the Chatham Health Alliance, said teachers have a profound impact on children’s beliefs and attitudes about race by the example they set in the classroom. So the school board, she said, should focus its efforts on training teachers to better facilitate discussions of race in schools.
“When teachers invite the conversation about how everyone is learning about race and that racism is all around us,” Martin said, “we give children the space to name it and to become anti-racist themselves.
“The system is designed for some to rise at the expense of others, and loving all children equally is not enough,” she continued. “If teachers are not actively working toward an anti-racist space, then they may be teaching children to be racist by their own behaviors and words in the classroom.”
Dr. Dana Iglesias, Chatham Hospital Maternity Care Center’s medical director, said childhood trauma caused by racially charged incidents is a growing public health issue with long-term consequences. Adverse childhood events include things that happen in our homes, she said, but one of the additional areas that the CDC has added is that historical trauma — and one of the forms of historical trauma is racism.
“It affects people,” she said. “ ... it affects our genetics. It affects not just our psyche, it affects us physically, so what happens to us as a child in our schools, affects people when you become adults.”
Sarah Daniels, a Chatham County parent, spoke last during the public comments portion of Monday’s board meeting. Daniels, who recently moved to the area, said she was disappointed that the punishment for the J.S. Waters students who engaged in the “slave auction” was a one-day suspension.
“I want to hold the school, the teachers, the adults accountable,” Daniels said. “There is clearly a lack of leadership, there is clearly a lack of empathy, and there is clearly a blind eye being turned to these things. This is unacceptable, and I’m holding all of you accountable.”
“I am here to demand better for my children because I work every day to make sure that they are given a good education, but more importantly, a good character education,” she continued. “You all know what to do, so there’s no excuse.”
Jackson’s recommendation’s including addressing policy regulations, revisions to the school system’s Student Code of Conduct, additional training, “restorative circles” and focus groups for students, and working to build formal relationships with local community agencies and nonprofits — including Chatham Organizing for Recial Equity (CORE), which presented its own list of recommendations (see accopanying story in this edition).
He also authorize staff to immediately employ a community engagement coordinator to assist CCS with supporting parents with accessing community-based support for students and providing support to them as they exercise agency and advocacy on behalf of their students.
“I ask our community to see these changes as a beginning and not a fix,” he said. “None of this will work if we continue operating in silos. We are better together. Working together, I am confident that we can provide amazing educational opportunities and experiences for all of our children in school environments where they feel safe and welcome. This is our moment. Chatham County Schools stands ready to work with you to build a brighter unified community. Our children deserve this and our community will be better because of this.”