The Chatham County school system has confirmed that some Black students were "sold" by classmates at a mock "slave auction," but says no school employees were involved in the "racial incident."
Chatham County has attracted international media attention and widespread criticism after Ashley Palmer, a parent, posted on Facebook that Black middle school students were symbolically sold by white classmates at a school in the rural town of Goldston this month.
"Chatham County Schools has completed the investigation into a mock 'slave auction' that took place at one of the district's schools recently among a group of students," the district said in a statement Monday. "We want to clarify that there were no adults involved and no adults witnessed it.
"School board policy limits our ability to disclose many of the specifics of the investigation, however, we felt that it was important to share what policy allows us to."
A statement released last week by a group calling for changes in the Chatham County school system said "at J.S. Waters School, white students felt safe enough to commit blatantly racist acts on school property, in the presence of staff and faculty, and while being filmed."
Karinda Roebuck, executive director of Chatham Organizing For Racial Equity (CORE), said the wording about the staff's presence had come from the parents complaining about the auction.
Auction occurred March 1
An email released by the school district in response to a public records request shows the auction occurred on March 1. The names of the parent who sent the email and the students involved are redacted due to privacy laws.
"Apparently today at practice the kids separated into families and had a slave auction," according to the email. "(Name redacted) was sold for $350 and (name redacted) was the master bc he knows how 'to handle them.'"
Palmer said in a message Monday to The News & Observer that the auction took place "where we believe the coach was NOT aware or could overhear what was going on."
"However, we have multiple accounts where staff was aware of these types of scenarios or participated in racist acts/verbiage," Palmer said Monday. "The County has been made aware of these concerns and is taking action accordingly to address them."
Christy Wagner, the parent of a bi-racial 8th-grade student who was sold during the auction, said at last week's school board meeting that she worries how it will affect her son.
"I am a mother who just had to explain to my son why being auctioned as a slave is unacceptable," Wagner said. "This moment in my son's early life has already made him question playing the sport he loves with his friends, and I pray this does not impact him mentally and socially going forward."
Nancy Wykle, a school district spokeswoman, said Monday she can't discuss whether any disciplinary action was taken due to student and employee privacy laws.
Palmer has said on Facebook that the students got a one-day suspension for the slave auction.
District responds to slave auction
Parents and community members packed last week's school board meeting to demand that the school district respond to the auction.
In response to the auction and other reports of racial incidents in schools, Chatham County Superintendent Anthony Jackson issued an apology.
At Jackson's request, the school board unanimously approved recommendations to ensure there is a swift response if a staff member or student reports any form of discrimination — and to prevent a similar incident from occurring in the future.
The superintendent laid out the four main parts of a comprehensive "plan of action" to address instances of racism and discrimination in schools through disciplinary measures, support services and expanding staff.
The plan includes immediately responding to incidents of discrimination and potential changes to the bullying and harassment policies.
"We are taking steps to address and eliminate behaviors that are not consistent with our district's core values and toward restoring relationships with our students, families and staff," the district said in it statement Monday. "Chatham County Schools reiterates that racist, homophobic and xenophobic behaviors, comments and/or acts are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. We will ensure safe and respectful schools."
Palmer pointed as a positive sign how the school system is partnering with CORE on a free community webinar on Tuesday on "how to talk to your kids about racism."
"We hope this is one of the many steps being taken to address this widespread and ongoing issue in our community and look forward to further partnerships," Palmer said.