Here’s a must-read: WRAL News has published a fascinating deep dive into campus racial tension and post-election feuds in a North Carolina school system.
The report, which draws on accounts collected by an Orange County Schools administrator, details ugly incidents in which students of color were harassed or threatened by their peers.
It captures student clashes over President Trump’s election, boasts by Trump supporters, threats of deportation leveled at Hispanic students, and it reports, in at least one instance, backlash against students perceived to be Trump supporters.
According to the report, school system leaders collected the stories as school board members considered a ban on clothing that displays the Confederate flag, as well as Nazi or KKK symbols.
From the WRAL report:
In May 2017, an assistant principal entered a boys’ bathroom at Cedar Ridge High School in Orange County. There, scrawled on the wall, was a threat: “Kill all (racial slur).” He soon found similar graffiti in other bathrooms. Swastikas and slurs littered the walls.
A few months earlier, a Cedar Ridge High teacher heard a student yell “white power!” as they walked to the bus, but she couldn’t make out who it was. Back in her classroom, she found a swastika scratched into a desk in her classroom.
“You going to get deported,” a student told a classmate. The conversations were so upsetting to one student, they went home early.
During the 2016-17 school year, Orange County school leaders recorded 70 incidents at their middle and high schools involving racist threats, political feuds about Trump, clashes over the Confederate flag and other similar fights. They documented the incidents in a report known internally as the “confidential student-specific incidents data,” which noted the date, what happened and the consequences.
Orange County Board of Education members reviewed the document in closed session in May 2017 but didn’t release it publicly.
WRAL News requested a copy of the document this past spring after discovering it existed. Several months later, the school district released the five-page document with numerous redactions, citing student privacy. Of the 70 incidents, 16 are completely redacted and 24 are partially concealed.
The document has never been shared publicly until now. Its existence has prompted several questions: Why did Orange County Schools collect this data when other local school systems did not? Why did they not share it publicly? What did they learn from it? And why have they stopped collecting it?
Orange County Schools Superintendent Todd Wirt said he and his staff collected the information during the 2016-17 school year at the request of the school board, and they discussed it privately in closed session later that school year.
“This wasn’t about the district hiding this information,” Wirt said. “It was about protecting the students that were on the particular document and providing our board with accurate information to help them make a really difficult decision.”
That difficult decision, Wirt said, was whether to ban the Confederate flag on school grounds.
Last August, the school board decided to ban all clothing depicting the Confederate flag, swastikas or any KKK related symbols or language. The decision came after months of pressure from parents and students who urged the school system to change its dress code.
Before making a decision, the board wanted an accurate count of issues stemming from the Confederate flag and racial and election-related incidents in schools, not just anecdotes from a handful of people, according to Wirt. The superintendent assigned the task of collecting the incidents to Jason Johnson, his executive director of schools.
“Basically, each [school] administrative team, they just kind of kept the incidents in a spreadsheet and then I just ran around and got it from them so I could collect it and put it all in one location,” Johnson said.
While the middle and high schools reported dozens of incidents, the elementary schools reported none, according to the superintendent.
“We reached out to our elementary principals and, at the time, honestly, we just weren’t seeing those same types of behaviors at the elementary level,” Wirt said.
After collecting the reports from middle and high schools, Johnson scanned the pages. The stories of students’ hateful language and actions saddened him but didn’t surprise him, he said. He was already aware of some of the stories through his work with the schools’ principals. But others were new.
“You know, I’m an African-American male, so I’m probably a little bit more hurt than anything,” Johnson said. “I think it’s just very painful that we have a few kids – and I do mean a few – that will say some of the things they said or do some of the things they’ve done. But I also know that’s an opportunity to teach.”
The stories didn’t surprise the superintendent, either.
“This is year 20 for me in public education. I was a high school principal for quite some time. I don’t know that surprise would be the right word,” Wirt said. “I honestly was probably most surprised by some of the responses and animation around the election, more than anything from the document.”
The records captured multiple feuds between students over the election of Trump and some displays of support for his victory.
One day after the election, four students walked the halls of Gravelly Hill Middle School chanting “build a wall” within earshot of Hispanic students. That same day at Orange High School, a white student pulled into the parking lot with a Trump flag flying on the back of his truck. He got out and ran around the parking lot with the flag and a Trump mask on his face.
A few days after the election, a parent emailed Orange High School leaders regarding “a negative comment that a teacher had made about the type of people who voted for Trump.” And on a bus ride from C.W. Stanford Middle, a student called others “white crackers and Trump voters.”
In Johnson’s time leading schools, it has “never been this way around election time.”
“I don’t remember anything that compares to it,” he said. “I was a principal when we had the first black president, and we didn’t have anything like this.”
As the report notes, public schools in North Carolina are not required to track such data. And it’s worth noting such incidents are not limited to Orange County Schools.
Education Week published an in-depth look at “Hate in Schools” this month.
Read more on the Orange County report at WRAL.com.