Like many in the community, we were disturbed when we read the Nov. 24 Chapelboro news report about the decision of East Chapel Hill High School’s (ECHHS) administration to relocate two African-American male teacher assistants (TAs) from their Exceptional Children’s classroom in response to a parent’s request, reportedly accompanied by the threat of a lawsuit. We understand that there are privacy regulations in regards to protecting the confidentiality of student and personnel information that prevent the community from knowing the specific details behind this decision, however we believe that we have enough information to warrant valid concerns.
In this letter, we want to “zoom in” to examine this particular situation and “zoom out” to reflect on how this situation is historically positioned and indicative of longstanding problems in the CHCCS culture and policy. Finally, we are writing to request an independent investigation to shed greater light on the effects of incidents like this, and how they perpetuate an unhealthy climate that weakens and harms the educational experience of all our students.
Our District’s Racial History
We preface our concerns by noting the persistent documented racial inequities that exist in our system, exposing our students, parents, staff, and faculty of color to racial bias and educational structures that sustain racially inequitable opportunity, access, and support in our school system. We are a district that has become nationally known for our exceedingly large racial “achievement gap,” which we know to be a direct result of opportunity gaps. Our yearly Racial Equity Report Cards, researched and published by the NC Coalition for Social Justice, reveal that, compared to other counties, we have the highest or second-highest racially disproportionate suspension rates in the state. Within this context, we also note that our classrooms are disproportionately staffed by White female teachers; our academically and intellectually gifted classrooms are disproportionately populated by White students; and our exceptional children/special education classrooms are disproportionately populated by Black male students. Our district has bemoaned the fact that we are not able to recruit and retain enough teachers of color, and especially Black male teachers who represent the identity and culture of students who have been most adversely impacted by systemic racism. This reality is critical because recent research studies have demonstrated how outcomes for Black students, and, in fact, students across all racial and ethnic backgrounds, improve when they are taught by Black teachers.
The ECHHS Situation
We have a number of concerns and questions regarding the information that has been shared about the situation at ECHHS. Whatever the stated needs of a student’s Individual Educational Plan (IEP), created to accommodate special needs, it is hard to imagine the circumstance where specification of the race of a teacher could be considered an acceptable and reasonable accommodation. If there were such a circumstance, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to find another placement for that particular child, as opposed to removing TAs from a classroom of students who already have built relationships with these students? Why should the well-being of two valued teacher assistants and the other students in the classroom be compromised or harmed because of the requested preference of one parent? How was this scenario allowed to progress so far that grievances were filed and that a valuable TA/Coach has resigned from our system? The news article shows that at least one grievance was filed in early October. Many things about this particular process, including the response to the grievance, remain unclear. We appreciate any clarifications that district personnel can provide to help the community better understand this troubling situation.
On-going Concerns About Racial Inequity and How Decisions Are Made
The CFRE and the NAACP Education Committee include people who have been close to CHCCS for many years in a variety of roles. As we zoom out from this present concern, we are reminded of recurring issues in our district including:
● Parents requesting that their children be removed from Black teachers’ classrooms.
● Parents threatening lawsuits to obtain particular opportunities or outcomes for their children.
● Weak support for staff and faculty when parents make unreasonable demands.
● A system that is more responsive to fear of parents and lawsuits than to making the best decisions for students and for our educational system.
● Lack of transparency and accountability about how and why decisions are made.
Request for an Investigation
As we seek to work together as a community, with our district leadership and elected Board of Education members, to develop a more transparent, equitable, and vibrant educational system that is serving all of our children, we strongly request an independent and thorough investigation into the issues we have outlined. Perhaps we can, together, look at both quantitative and qualitative data to dig deeper into some of the processes which maintain the very racial inequities that we seek to eliminate. In our experience faculty and staff of color are often hesitant to tell their stories and file grievances because they fear losing their jobs or other repercussions. Their stories need to be heard. This incident is just one example that happened to surface.
We would like for the investigation to perform a deep dive into this particular incident, and other issues related to these kinds of occurrences. Our questions include the following:
1) How common is it for a parent to request that administrators modify their child’s classroom or other educational assignment because of the race of the teacher or staff? Are requests such as these typically honored? What is the grievance process for Black and Brown teachers/staff when such requests are honored?
2) What processes are in place to increase recruitment, support and retention of Black and Brown teachers? Given the history of racial discrimination and bias that Black teachers have faced in our district, are there special safeguards put into place to center racial equity in supporting Black teachers on a day-to-day basis, and especially when conflict, disputes or grievances arise?
3) To what extent does fear of lawsuits lead to actions that override considerations of sound and just educational practice? To what extent does this perpetuate existing inequities?
4) What legal guidance, around race specifically, is the district’s legal counsel providing?
5) In a district that has prioritized racial equity, how are administrators and legal counsel using tools like the Racial Equity Impact Assessment in decision-making? (A tool can be very helpful because if racial equity is not consciously considered, racial inequity is often unconsciously replicated. The district has repeatedly committed to using racial equity tools to guide policies, programs and decision-making, but there is no public or shared evidence that such a practice has been part of on-going professional development or integrated in the day-to-day workings of the district.)
We hope that the findings of such an investigation would contribute to the constructive dialogues that our superintendent has called for on the policies, practices and culture that we need to develop to reduce harm and increase equity. We must commit to establishing a public school system that always prioritizes the value, dignity and worth of our entire student body and all of those who work to educate and prepare them for their lives beyond school.
We look forward to your response and the opportunity to work together for the health of our community and our children’s futures.
Campaign for Racial Equity in Our Schools (CFRE); Wanda Hunter, Steering Committee contact Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP; Dawna Jones, President
Chapel Hill Organizing Against Racism (CHOAR); Deborah Stroman, Chair