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Evaluation of racist slur incident at Decatur High is complete; district promises changes

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Evaluation of racist slur incident at Decatur High is complete; district promises changes

Students at Decatur High School staged a walkout on Friday Dec. 16, 2022, demanding action after a teacher used a slur in front of students. Photo by Dean Hesse.

This story has been updated.

Decatur, GA — On Tuesday, City Schools of Decatur released the findings of an independent evaluator who looked into how the district responded to a teacher using a racial slur in class.

Decatur High’s principal, Rochelle Lofstrand, will return to her job on March 13 after getting reassigned in January. The district hasn’t decided what to do with the teacher involved in the incident.

“A decision around the teacher’s return is yet to be made pending further review,” the letter from the school district says.

The district has promised to implement several changes based on feedback from the evaluator’s findings.

To read that letter, click here.

A message to Phil Cuffey, co-chair of the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, seeking comment about the findings was not immediately returned. The report says Dr. TaJuan Wilson conducted the evaluation. Earlier, CSD said contractor Courtlandt Butts would conduct the evaluation.

School Board Chair James Herndon said via email that Butts played a different role in the evaluation.

“Dr Wilson did a review of the incident and policies in place,” Herndon said. “He is not affiliated with Courtlandt Butts. Dr. Fehrman can speak more in-depth to Courtlandt’s role.”

Superintendent Maggie Fehrman clarified the role of Wilson and Butts in this process.

“Mr. Butts’s role is to lead the restorative work to facilitate healing with the staff and students,” Fehrman said. “He is also supporting the work of the DHS Equity Team.”

Herndon told Decaturish the release of the findings is not the end of the discussion about how CSD handles these incidents.

“I think it was important for the district to do a third party review of what happened and how we got there to inform whatever district policy that we put in place,” Herndon said.

The timeline provided in the report sheds new light on what Lofstrand did in response to the incident. The timeline shows that the incident occurred on Dec. 7, and Lofstrand was made aware of it that day.

“Two students, Student A, and B, in the teacher’s classroom, argued back and forth towards the end of the period on December 7, 2022,” the timeline says. “During the argument, Student A called Student B the n-word. The teacher then asked in disbelief to Student A, ‘…you called Student B a ‘n-word’?’ The teacher actually said the word. Another student asked the teacher to repeat himself, and the teacher said, ‘I said Student A called Student B a ‘n-word.’ And the teacher again said the actual word.”

That same day, Dec. 7, Lofstrand began interviewing students and contacting school administrators about the incident.

On Dec. 9, she asked the school’s lead counselor to support her in leading restorative conversations with the teacher’s class. That same day, Dec. 9, a parent emailed Lofstrand. The parent wrote, “I heard there was an incident, captured on video, with a white male teacher using a slur in a Freshman science class.”

Lofstrand responded within minutes.

“Racial equity is very important to me and the students and staff at DHS,” Lofstrand wrote back. “I take all situations involving harm to students and/or staff seriously. The rumor you heard is not accurate.”

The timeline clarifies that there is a video of what happened after the teacher used the slur, but no video of the teacher using the slur has surfaced, contrary to rumors circulating in the community. Decaturish has seen the video of what occurred after the teacher used the slur.

Wilson’s report does not address Lofstrand’s Dec. 9 email. The timeline does say Fehrman was first made aware of the incident on Dec. 12. It said she “immediately” deployed three executives to investigate and address it.

To see the full timeline of events, click here.

Decatur High students have pushed for more accountability for the teacher and the school’s administration. Students held a walkout on Dec. 16 and a community town hall soon after.

Wilson’s recommendations were:

1. Take Authentic Steps to Create an Anti-Racist/Equity-Oriented Culture

2. Issue an Authentic Apology to All Constituents and Provide Immediate Mental Health Support to Students and All District Staff

3.  Engage in proactive Policy Review and Development and Create a Plan for Policy Dissemination (while coupling an anti-racist lens to all policies).

4.  Develop a District Communications Team and Plan

5.  Provide Restorative Justice Training to All Employees

6.  Reimagine Teacher Evaluations

7.  Develop a Reentry Team

8.  Provide Training and Empowerment to the District Human Resources Team

9.  Creation of a Black Teacher Safe Space

10.  Hire a HR Team Member Devoted to Employee Relations

11.  Hire an Equity Team Member Exclusively Devoted to Training and Professional Development for Students and Staff

12.  Hire a Full-Time Communications Professional or Establish a Consulting Contract with a Public Relations and Communications Firm

13.  Re-evaluate District Affinity Groups and Provide Executive Sponsorship

14. Consult with Your District Legal Team Early and Often

15. Provide Clarity Regarding the Role of the Equity Office

16. Develop a Centralized System for Reporting Racial Incident

17. Provide this Full List of Recommendations to All Learning Community

Here’s how the district intends to address those recommendations, according to Fehrman:

We are reimagining teacher evaluations. We are reimagining teacher evaluations to more accurately provide honest and open feedback that maximizes the experiences of students. This is an important component of the Board’s Theory of Action approved in October 2022 and the pending approval of our new Strategic Plan. We have been working for several months with several district leaders, including our equity director, on re-envisioning evaluation tools.

Timing: We anticipate these evaluation tools, along with necessary employee and supervisor training, to roll out for the opening of next school year.

We will continuously strive to create a safe and receptive space for all our teachers. The perspectives of staff and faculty of the global majority are essential to our system. As a result, the district has provided multiple pathways for all employees to share their perspectives. For the past three years, we have provided opportunities for staff to engage with the Equity and Student Services Department through monthly Employee Resource Groups that address racial affinity, in which employees share experiences and needs. If they prefer, employees are also encouraged to use our equity ideas and concerns portal to address experiences and needs without meeting face-to-face. They are able to submit either anonymously or directly. Efforts will be made to further connect specifically with the high school staff of color to ensure they know these spaces exist and are available to them.

We are focused on stronger Restorative Practices. Restorative Practices are an important tool for how we repair relationships in CSD. We will create a plan for Restorative Practices to be implemented with fidelity at the high school, which will be reviewed annually.

Timing: Annually

We are strengthening established protocols for communication. A CSD Communication Plan and Handbook was developed several years ago. The plan has been shared with all CSD leaders and is continually updated. It is one of the key training resources we use in our CSD Leadership Academy and with all our new leaders. The Chief of Staff is refreshing the communication advisory team to ensure we have all key stakeholders represented and equitable representation of historically marginalized groups included on this team. This team will review and vet our communication protocols.

Timing: Annual re-training and tabletop exercises will be used to ensure that leaders are consistently implementing procedures and communicating with families and staff in a timely, transparent manner. Additionally, our PR team is auditing our communication channels and

supporting our communication coordinator in making improvements to our protocols. Finally, our Human Resources (HR) staff is trained in all areas of HR including employee relation issues, investigations, and legal compliance and the team continues to proactively attend trainings.

We are applying a racial-equity lens to communication. We remain continuously engaged in proactive policy review and development and apply a racial-equity lens for policy and procedure development and revision. For example, part of the immediate response to this incident was to develop a focused bias incident response toolkit, oriented around a mindset of “Prepare and Prevent” (“P2REP”). Work on this began within days of the initial incident. P2REP will strengthen communication specifically geared toward similar situations in the future. We will communicate with the District legal team early, often, and with complete information.

Timing: A final version of our P2REP protocol is expected to be adopted and implemented in the coming weeks.

We will provide clarity on the purpose of the Equity Department. The Equity Department welcomes any opportunity to further communicate its purpose to our stakeholders. Presently, the Equity Department facilitates a monthly gathering of every school’s equity team, works daily with school and department equity leads on acute and recurring issues, has presented to each school’s PTA, publishes a monthly equity newsletter, and curates a robust website with educator and family resources around applying equity best practices in our daily work. The Equity Department also collaborates with school and district leadership to address concerns submitted to through the Equity Concerns form.

We will continue to support District affinity groups and provide executive sponsorship. For example, each year multiple all-calls are sent to CSD employees who may wish to engage in a Racial Affinity Group. Consequently, we have established an Asian American Pacific Islander Affinity Group (AAPI-RAG), a black male affinity group (BM-RAG), a black female affinity group (BF-RAG), a black multi-gender affinity group (B-RAG) and a white multi-gender racial affinity group (W-RAG). We are now in year three of that effort.

We will continue to use a centralized system for reporting racial incidents. For several years there have been links from the district equity homepage to an “Equity Concerns Form” and a more general “Community Ideas or Concerns Form.” The equity website is pushed to every employee and student via CSD LaunchPad, and it is prominently linked on other district and school webpages.

The Voice Box exists as an alternative, DHS-specific avenue for students to more immediately raise concerns with their school leadership. Although Voice Box submissions are not part of a “centralized” report from the equity website forms, submissions to the Voice Box are shared with the same Equity Department leadership. Anonymized Voice Box submission reports have been a regular and important part of the principal’s monthly senior leadership team reports, and a helpful barometer for student needs. We are evaluating with the school, district, and student leaders the effectiveness of the Voice Box at DHS, and after thoughtful consideration, will decide whether to maintain, enhance, or retire it.

Timing: The evaluation of Voice Box at DHS is underway.

We are hiring new, key staff members to support these efforts. We plan to hire an additional HR team member devoted to employee relations to focus on taking a more proactive approach to supporting employees. Additionally, we will hire an Equity team member to support implementing culturally responsive pedagogy and leading professional development for staff.

Timing: These positions will be incorporated in the upcoming budget for Board approval, and if approved, we aim to have them filled going into the 2023-24 school year.

Decaturish will update this story when more information is available.

Correction: Following the publication of this story, CSD corrected the spelling of TaJuan Wilson’s name. This story has been updated to reflect that correction.

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