School & District Management

Are America’s Schools Ready for Tough Talk on Racism?

By Corey Mitchell — June 12, 2020 7 min read
Graduating seniors Shamar Poole, Amier Hatcher, and Fendi Garth, from left to right, raise their fists in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement before their commencement ceremony this month at Grand Blanc High School in Mundy Township, Mich. The May 25 death of a black man in police custody in Minneapolis spurred protests around the country and provoked a larger discussion about racism in society, including in schools.

With school leaders across the country denouncing racism, Gale Satchel, a black superintendent in a majority white Alabama school district, saw an opportunity to talk about racism in education.

At a protest rally, she told the crowd about the students who casually used racial slurs around her son. She said that in a Facebook post, an angry parent compared her husband, a tall black man and high school principal in the district, to a gorilla. That colleagues confront her about personnel decisions, implying that she hires too many black people in a district where more than 80 percent of the students are white.

But Satchel learned the hard way that not everybody in America is ready for the race conversation.

Satchel’s speech at the rally against racism and police brutality has sparked a sharp debate about whether racism even exists in the Colbert County schools, a largely rural district in the northwest corner of the state. One school board member told the Times Daily, a newspaper in nearby Florence, Ala., that he was disappointed with the tone of Satchel’s speech and that it “split us apart.”

Less than 5 percent of the nation’s 14,000 superintendents are black. But many of those superintendents and their districts are taking a prominent role in the push to denounce racism in schools in the wake of the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in the custody of police in Minneapolis—sometimes at a high personal cost and after anguish and soul-searching. Whether the public and other school system leaders are ready to engage with them in that conversation remains an open question.

Signs hanging on a fence near the White House speak to the debates taking place across the country this month over the treatment of people of color, following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“The national conversation around racism is challenging,” said Kevin Hampton, a longtime teacher and now the executive director of communications in the Ferguson-Florissant, Mo., school district.

After Michael Brown, a black teenager, was shot dead by a white police officer near Ferguson in August 2014, the problem with police violence in the United States captured national and global attention. He had just graduated from the nearby Normandy school system less than a week before.

Brown’s death sparked weeks of protests in Ferguson. But six years later as millions march around the country in protest to Floyd’s death, racism remains a hard word for some educators to hear and say.

For some people, “‘We want equity’ is easier to say than ‘We stand against racism,’” said Hampton, who is white.

‘Moral Obligation’

In the wake of George Floyd’s May 25 death during an arrest over a counterfeit $20 bill, the calls for change came swiftly from black educators around the nation. In California, state Superintendent Tony Thurmond, a black man, announced plans on June 1 to lead a statewide effort to address racism in schools. A week later on June 8, in Akron, Ohio, where the superintendent is black, the city school board declared racism a public health crisis that “adversely impacts our students, our families, and our community.”

However, others came to take a stand more cautiously.

In a speech where he struggled to hold back tears, Superintendent Donald Fennoy II of the Palm Beach County, Fla., schools—the nation’s 10th largest district—told his school board that he, as a black man, operates in “this world as a scared human being” despite his position and that he often fears for the life of his 11-year-old son because of racism.

“I hope we don’t take this as another dead black man in America and move on with our lives,” Fennoy said in an interview with Education Week.

Washington resident Esther Newman was among those protesting last week in her city.

Even with a supportive school board that expressed concerns about addressing racism in schools, Fennoy was still reluctant to discuss how it shapes his life. His chief of staff and communications director urged him to forgo prepared remarks and speak from the heart. In the end, he listened.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Fennoy said. “Many of us are experiencing personal loss of life in the pandemic. We’ve got a looming budget crisis, there’s so much going on and no one has been able to decompress, at all. So I think the normal filters that a person like me would normally have were just worn down.”

But a conversation with his son in the moments before the meeting convinced him.

“What I heard him say is, people in power shouldn’t abuse their power and people in power should use their powers for good and positive change,” Fennoy said.

“Well, who I am I? I am a powerful person in the grand scheme of things, in terms of where I sit in this world, in terms of this job. I have a moral obligation to do something. That’s what it boils down to. And if I choose not to, then shame on me.”

Jobs on the Line

In stark contrast, a few school leaders have denounced the protests in provocative terms, or even suggested that Floyd was partly to blame for his death—and have lost their jobs as a result.

The Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools’ board fired its executive director, Ana Meyers, who is white, after she posted on Facebook that “All Lives Matter” and that the protests inspired by Floyd’s death left her disgusted. Meyers, the wife of a retired state police trooper, later apologized for her remarks, calling them “insensitive and inappropriate,” but could not save her job.

In a statement, the coalition board said “its member schools share a mission that rejects racism and injustice.”

In Grand Ledge, Mich., the school board fired its white superintendent, Brian Metcalf, after he wrote a Facebook post that suggested Floyd would be alive if he were a “law-abiding citizen.”

“Had he not paid with counterfeit money, had he not resisted, had he not been under the influence—then there would be no contact with officers; that does not excuse the officer, it just eliminates the conflict to being with!! It starts with being a good citizen!” Metcalf wrote.

Insisting his comments were taken out of context, Metcalf wrote an apology letter and offered to take a diversity awareness and sensitivity class, but public outcry led the board to terminate his contract.

Satchel, Colbert County schools’ first black superintendent in its 106-year history, now realizes that her job may be on the line for entirely different reasons. In 37 counties in Alabama, school superintendents are elected. Four years ago, Satchel won her job in Colbert County, beating out a former coworker in the Democratic primary. But this November, she will face a Republican challenger.

In the county seat of Tuscumbia, which has its own school system, three buildings are named for Confederate general James Deshler. In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump won two-thirds of the vote there.

With the “Black Lives Matter” banner reflected in his sunglasses, Kellan Gray, 8, of Newark, Del., holds a sign at last week’s demonstrations in Washington.

In her speech at the rally hosted by the local NAACP chapter, Satchel urged people to look out for hidden racism, warning that “We got to stop it now. It’s right here at home, it’s right here in church, it’s right here in school.”

When she said bias leads to disparities in discipline for black children and that was just as much a concern for her as a superintendent as it was for other school districts, that was a step too far for some residents.

Federal data do not show that black students in Colbert County face greater rates of suspension and expulsion than their white classmates, but the district’s schools are effectively segregated by race and white students are far more likely to enroll in honors and gifted classes than their black peers.

Colbert County school board member Ricky Saint, a fellow Democrat and retired teacher, told the Times Daily that he is familiar with many district employees, including some he worked alongside, and “I don’t know a single one who’s a racist.

“There’s not been a word to me about any incidents of racism in our classroom in the six years I’ve served on this board,” Saint, who is white, told the newspaper. “I took her remarks as aimed at our system, and so did a lot of others. I’m disappointed in the tone of that speech.”

Saint declined an interview request from Education Week.

Satchel defended her remarks, saying she was discussing systemic racism in education as a national issue, not just in Colbert County.

“Racism is alive and well, it does not always look like Mr. Floyd and what he went through,” Satchel said. “It’s subtle. Sometimes it’s not as plain, as black and white. Sometimes it’s gray, and people are not willing to have those conversations to address the tough questions.”

“I thought that, by addressing that topic, that we would all have an, ‘Aha!’ moment. That wasn’t the case.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 17, 2020 edition of Education Week as Are America’s Schools Ready for Tough Talk on Racism?

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