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Decatur School Board confronted over response to racist videos

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Decatur School Board confronted over response to racist videos

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Decatur High School, City Schools of Decatur, N McDonough Street.

By Sara Amis, contributor 

Decatur, GA —  At the Decatur School Board meeting on June 9, several parents expressed concern about their children’s safety and dissatisfaction with the response to racist videos made by Decatur High School students.

“A generic e-mail each time one of these incidents occur is not enough,” Alayne Hightower said. “We’re not asking you to figure out how to build a rocket, we’re asking you to be human in your leadership.”

After the videos emerged, the School Board released a statement that read, in part, “The [City Schools of Decatur] School Board would like to express our anger, sadness, and disappointment concerning recent racially charged incidents by CSD students that have hurt the fabric of our community. We recognize how these incidents have reinjured the wounds of systemic racism that plague our local community and nation. We want the community to know that we understand the compounded pain that many of our staff, students, and their families are experiencing as the nation struggles to confront and heal from the recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.”

Parent Kevin Payne agreed with Hightower’s opinion of that statement, saying, “How you respond is the measure of the character of the school district …The statements that you make don’t ring true.”

Parent Keisha Smith said, “I want to know that my children will fit into this community. I want to know if they will be comfortable and know that they matter.”

Parents Odufa Aburime and Audrey Maloof called for revisions to the code of behavior to address hate speech and aggression towards Black students, and Maloof also called for regular reporting of disciplinary records, broken down by race.

“I believe that if CSD devises a clear-cut discipline policy with input from the affected group, we send several messages,” Aburime said. “One, it’s clear to everyone the consequences. Two, Black students know they matter. White students learn to treat Black students with humanity. In this learning environment, not doing the above teaches Black students that they do not matter to this district. White students learn to dehumanize Black people by an indelible print left on their psyche that they can do this, each and every time, with little to no penalty. Is this what the district is choosing to teach its students? Are we more concerned about the perpetrators or the victims?”

Adam Horowitz, a parent of two students at F. Ave., said the videos were not the result of ignorance.

“While I appreciate the plans the district has announced regarding anti-racist training and education, what is most important to see is meaningful accountability for racism and white supremacy within the CSD community,” he said. “While education is always important I don’t think the racist videos we’ve seen recently have been expressions of ignorance, but they’ve been expressions of power.”

Mawuli Davis, co-chair of Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, referenced the organization’s previous discussions of racial inequity in the Decatur school system.

“We are again reaching out, following up as we have for the last couple of years now about equity, racial issues in the City Schools of Decatur,” Davis said. “We are concerned that our white citizens do not understand the level of anger and frustration that many African American and Black people in America generally but Decatur, in particular, feel in this moment. We are fed up as a community and people are ready to explode.  If there is no action taken, I can only imagine what the response will be to people who are at the point of frustration.  It will then be an attempt to blame the victim.  The victim is not to blame.  I again urge action, anti-racist work to root out white supremacy by students and faculty. We ask that everything be as transparent as possible as soon as possible.”

Superintendent David Dude said the school district is serious about eliminating racism.

“This is work we are very deep in,” he said. “I do understand that words are one thing actions are another. I think if you look carefully you will see that we have taken significant actions and continue to take significant actions. We do appreciate the collaboration of Beacon Hill, they push us hard and keep us aligned. We have invested very significant funds and personnel into this work, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars that we commit every year to our equity work, including positions and training and things like that.  We are very serious about this.”

Board member Tasha White, who is Black, thanked parents for speaking out.

“I wrote everything down, I heard everything you said, and I hear you,” she said. “We won’t be happy until our community is happy. We know that we have more work to do and we’re going to dig deeper to do that work.”

White noted that the district is revising its code of conduct.

“I just want to recognize and let you know that I feel the same pain that you feel,” she said. “I’m not immune to it just because I’m sitting on the board. I feel your anger. I feel your pain. I feel your frustration.”

Board member Jana Johnson-Davis, who is Black, agreed. Johnson-Davis is the wife of Mawuli Davis.

“As a parent and former staff member, I’ve experienced the system of racism that exists,” she said. “I’ve experienced it first hand, which is one of the reasons I ran for a seat on the board because I’m committed to trying to dismantle that system. This is a wonderful district.  It could be better. I’m committed to doing what I need to do so other families and other staff members don’t have to experience some of those things. I appreciate the community members who came and expressed their feelings. I have been there, and I’m there now. I’m here to get the job done.”

Board member James Herndon said that he understood why parents would not feel a lot of trust in his words.

“The anger needs to keep up because it’s doing a lot of good all over this country right now and I think the anger makes sense,” he said.

Board member Heather Tell said the conversations are needed and necessary.

“Only when we have those conversations can we make any progress whatsoever,” she said. “As a parent, I want to encourage everyone to speak to their children. I know as the school board and a system we are committed to having more of these conversations and some formal education on anti-racism, but I think it also needs to come from the home. Thank you for pushing us harder.”

In other business, the School Board heard updates about CSD’s equity work already in process.

Dr. Lillie Huddleston, Executive Director of Equity & Student Support, said, “The Equity and Student Support Department is committed to addressing racial inequities within our district, especially in light of the devastating local and national incidents of racism we have experienced.”

Huddleston went on to say that the district’s Equity Action Plan continued to be implemented while schools have been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Anti-racism and social justice education will be incorporated into the curriculum beginning fall 2020, including an African American History class at Decatur High School. Materials for a four-session anti-racism curriculum for all secondary students were drawn from the work of the Pacific Education Group who also designed the Beyond Diversity program. In addition, restorative justice practices training was conducted with teachers over the summer.

Executive Director of Schools Maggie Ferhman reported that the updated code of conduct is currently in the second round of revisions, based on the recommendations of a committee made up of CSD staff and parents. “My goal is to get the revised code of conduct posted on our website by July 8,” she said.

Director of Staff Support Adena Walker stated that College Heights will be re-opening on June 15 in compliance with the Families First Coronavirus Response Act which went into effect April 1, 2020.

“Reopening of College Heights is giving us a pilot of what we will be doing in the fall,” Walker said.

Sergio Perez, who has been selected as the new Executive Director of Operations, reported that the Career Student Center construction is ahead of schedule and is 85% done and that a cold plasma air purification system is being installed in the College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center building which will kill mold, bacteria, and viruses.

Executive Director of Finance Lonita Broome presented the tentative 2021 budget. Revenues and expenditures for 2021 are currently balanced at $82,174,219, with some shortfalls compensated for from the emergency fund. Broome stated that projections beyond next year are difficult to make because it’s uncertain how quickly or slowly the economy will recover from COVID-19 or what extra expenses it may entail. The budget was approved unanimously.

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