Keeping schools safe from racial abuse

Gerald Ott of Ankeny was a high school English teacher and for 30 years a school improvement consultant for the Iowa State Education Association.

Earlier this month, the Kansas City Star’s editors wrote about White Kansas City-area high school students who were racially taunting Black players on an opposing basketball team.

In the same week, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights levied serious changes against the Ottumwa, Iowa school district (as per numerous newspaper accounts). Following release of the OCR’s report, the Ottumwa Courier’s editors took the superintendent to task, saying he has “skirted the harsh realities of what happened.” The realities of racial abuse are clearly enumerated in the OCR report, which is online (and reproduced at the bottom of this post).

The agency’s findings are grave and require the school district to take extensive steps of remediation.

The Kansas City Star’s editors admonished adults who attended the basketball game, saying they should be embarrassed for allowing children on school grounds to violate the rules of sportsmanship by yelling obscene and sexist (taunts) at the opposing players. This shouldn’t be permitted at any level of basketball, let alone inside a high school gymnasium, say the editors. The incident ”… reminds that racism still exists in our country.” And, that “… abhorrent incidents (like) in Valley Center school district do not happen in a vacuum. These are learned behaviors and need to be confronted head on.”

The same might be said of Ottumwa, where incidents of racial abuse in a middle school extended back over a two-year period—and, as per the OCR report, neither teachers nor administrators had earnestly addressed the racism. Arguably, however, the abusers did not first learn the N-word in school. No doubt, the youngsters brought the willingness to use vile words with impunity from home or the larger community—which makes remediation a shared responsibility.

Such a town-wide task would require dedicated leadership. Hard to find. Which may explain half the problem.

This fall at Slaton High School in Texas, a Black 17-year-old senior asked a boy four days in a row to stop saying the N-word in class. And, according to the young woman, and a half-dozen witnesses, the boy disregarded her pleas. That’s why, the student said, when the boy in gym class said the slur yet again, she snapped. “My mindset (she told NBC News) was: ‘This is the only way it’s gonna stop. This is the only way he’s gonna learn.’” She grabbed the boy’s hoodie and repeatedly slapped him on the head. Another student filmed the incident, and within minutes the video appeared on social media. 

The violent outburst, which had been building, lasted barely 30 seconds — but it was long enough to derail her life. According to a complaint (filed December 12 with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights), the Slaton administrators sentenced her to 45 days in an alternative school for students with severe disciplinary problems.

“Do I think there’s racism in our community? Absolutely,” neighboring school district superintendent Keith Bryant told NBC News. “Do I think it spills over into schools? I will certainly say it can. We work really hard to try to mitigate that. There is no place in Lubbock-Cooper ISD for racism.”

“It’s ironic,” a civil rights lawyer with the Intercultural Development Research Association told NBC News. Attorney Paige Duggins-Clay, who represents the Slaton student, said “politicians and activists who’ve fought to stop schools from confronting racism — in the form of diversity training and changes in disciplinary policies — have done so this year under the banner of “parents’ rights.” 

Parents in the Loudoun County (Virginia) school district are suing over “student equity ambassadors,” a school committee of student-volunteers tasked with helping administrators identify examples of racial discrimination and bias. As the Washington Post reported last week, the case is before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The parents say the initiative discriminates against White conservatives and chills free speech.

The Loudoun program was created after a district-wide audit found that Black, Latino, and Muslim students “were particularly affected by racial insults or slurs, and even racially motivated violent actions,” in the words of a court filing from the Loudoun County School Board (as reviewed by the Post). 

In January, as per the Post, U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga ruled that the parents failed to show that the school system’s diversity initiatives violate the First Amendment and the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“While the specific course chosen by the [Loudoun County School Board] to promote a more inclusive, non-discriminatory environment can be reasonably debated, addressing the effects of invidious discrimination within the educational environment is clearly a legitimate pedagogical concern,” the judge wrote. “Local school boards, not the courts, have the responsibility and obligation to assess how best to advance those pedagogical concerns.”

Meanwhile, according to WJLA-TV (Arlington Virginia), a new, “massive” lawsuit was filed mid-summer 2022 against Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) Superintendent Scott Ziegler and the school board for allegedly promoting secret gender transitions, distributing pornographic books and other alleged misconduct, according to America’s First Legal Center for Legal Equality, a conservative clearinghouse for litigation opposing school policies affirming LBGTQ+, critical race history, and training in support and for understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Thinking back to Ottumwa, it’s easy to guess some parents might fight the new training and policies the OCR is mandating for the district. To reach out into the community, the Courier editor advises the district “hold meetings with a diverse group of citizens in the community and school district to gather feedback and monitor the district’s progress toward a more inclusive and welcoming environment — which should all be open to the general public to observe.” 

I hope these meetups are facilitated to focus on solutions instead of bickering, further animosity, or political or litigious intervention. The district should articulate its intent to eliminate abuse on the basis of race, et al, (as per its own anti-discrimination policy) and teach all students the tenets of diversity, equity, and inclusion. In addition, the whole community needs to be in on the fix—which essentially is learning empathy and practicing tolerance. 

Appendix: Full text of U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights report on the complaint filed against the Ottumwa Community School District

Top image designed by Freepik by user pikisuperstar.

About the Author(s)

Gerald Ott