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Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Aaron Sánchez-Guerra

Outrage came after 'slave auction' at North Carolina school. Here's what the district plans to do

RALEIGH, N.C. — Chatham County Superintendent Anthony Jackson said Monday he wants to crack down on issues of discrimination in the school district after reports of a student "slave auction" drew widespread criticism and national attention.

The Chatham County school board unanimously approved Jackson's 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.

Jackson proposed a plan to give more teeth to existing policies surrounding student conduct and discrimination, establish support systems for students, train the district's staff and hire new personnel. The school board unanimously approved the plan.

The policy update at the school board meeting in Pittsboro came after reports of students involved in a "slave auction" in which Black students were "sold" by white students at J.S. Waters School in the rural town of Goldston. The school serves students from kindergarten through eighth grade.

"Over the last week, we have all heard or read accounts of experiences that children have had in our school system," Jackson said at the meeting. "These accounts of mock slave auctions, the use of racial epithets and images have shaken us to the core, particularly me."

Around 150 people gathered for a news conference before the meeting to call for action from the school district. At the meeting, Jackson listened for about an hour as parents, students and residents condemned racism and called out to him and the board for accountability, which he described as "difficult" and "painful."

Before proposing administrative action in response to the racist incident, Jackson issued an apology.

"I want to do something that needs to be done here publicly. I want to offer an apology," Jackson said. "An apology to every single student who has ever felt unsafe while in our care, to every student who has ever felt demeaned, disrespected or marginalized because of their race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion or disability.

"Moving forward, my personal commitment to you is that we will do better," Jackson continued. "With that said I'll be making for very clear recommendations to this board for immediate action and direction."

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:

—Policy review and recommendations: Twenty-three existing policies surrounding student conduct will be reviewed and updated, focusing on discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity or disability.

Jackson proposed updating policies to respond more quickly to incidents of discrimination with "a very prescriptive process for how schools will look at these and the after-action work that's required," he said. The newly revised policies would immediately investigate these incidents, alert parents or guardians and deploy the involvement of several school staff in the process.

According to documents provided in the school board meeting packet, the issue with current student conduct policies is that the district lacks "specificity relative to our procedures which govern our organizational response when violations of these policies occur, and we have allowed variability and discretion in responses."

The regulation also called for relevant incidents in schools to be tracked and recorded in a database so that trends and data can be reviewed in the long term.

—Review of disciplinary measures: The superintendent directed the board to authorize a "full top-to-bottom review" of the student code of conduct to review bullying and harassment policies.

Recommendations will be given to the school board following the review before changes to the code of student conduct are made and published. The school board's attorney will be consulted to ensure compliance with state and federal laws about student discipline, Jackson said.

"In the meantime, we will be looking at case-by-case basis of incidents of this nature and students will be held accountable according to our current process," he said.

—Staff training and student support: Chatham County Schools will develop districtwide training for staff surrounding racism and discrimination.

The school district will work with "community-based support partners to develop a plan to support the training of our principals, staff and teachers," Jackson said.

This plan calls for creating focus groups and "restorative circles" in the district's schools to discuss expectations for student and staff conduct surrounding discrimination with students, staff and families in "the next few weeks."

—Staff and community resources: The superintendent said the school board should consider the need for increasing staff to aid in this effort. A position for a full-time community engagement coordinator will be created for community outreach and assistance with training of school staff.

"I'm asking this board to authorize us to look at our staffing needs to ensure that we have the tools and the staff to appropriately reach out to our community to support these community agencies," said Jackson. "And to work with our parents who are crying out to us to help and that we have a pathway for those parents to be able to say very clearly that we hear you and that we we're going to address this matter as quickly as possible."

At the press conference before the school board meeting, a coalition of activists made specific recommendations for the school board.

—The students involved need to apologize to their discrimination targets and the school community.

—Child trauma counselors skilled in racial trauma should be available to support students.

—Revise the student code of conduct "to designate racist and discriminatory remarks as hate speech separate from the current bullying policy with corresponding consequences that match the severity of this abuse our children face."

—Revise school personnel guidelines "to make racist remarks and behaviors a fireable offense for teachers and staff."

—Review the administration's response "to this and previous racist incidents at the school to determine the appropriateness of their responses."

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