Schools’ response to racist incidents: Let’s talk about it

Wake County students and parents should expect to hear a lot more conversations about race and diversity when school resumes in August in an effort to stem the tide of racially charged incidents.

Since March, Wake schools have experienced several highly publicized incidents on social media, including students chanting “KKK” and students and teachers comparing African-American students to slaves. On Thursday and Friday, all 180 Wake principals met for a two-day “Beyond Diversity” racial equity training seminar to learn about strategies for creating a school climate where racial incidents are less likely to happen.

“Before leaders can do anything to prevent racial incidents, we need to make sure that our leaders have the knowledge, skills, attitudes and beliefs to lead racially transformed school cultures,” said Rodney Trice, Wake’s assistant superintendent for equity affairs.

“Today is really about creating a common language, a common set of skills and strategies to use to do just that to transform school cultures so these incidents don’t manifest themselves.”

Trice said principals are expected to return to their schools and have “courageous conversations” about race with their faculties and students. He said conversations about race should become more “pronounced” moving forward.

Yolanda Speed said Wake needs to make sure principals act on what they’ve learned this week. Speed’s son Micah was the subject of national headlines after the African-American student was shown on social media pulling a white classmate to the floor at Wake Forest High School.

Wake school officials later apologized to Micah, saying his teacher didn’t do enough to prevent the racial harassment and bullying that led to the confrontation. The teacher was suspended without pay for a week.

“Anything that they do that strikes up a conversation about race is going to help the situation,” Speed said in an interview Friday. “It’s pointing to the right direction. You can lead a horse to the water but you can’t make the horse drink.”

School officials, citing the need to have “open, honest discussion,” did not allow journalists to attend the training sessions at the McKimmon Center in Raleigh. But Trice said facilitators had principals think about how they had developed their own understanding of race.

“So often when we talk about issues of race, there may be a lot of finger pointing, blaming and shaming,” Trice said. “But the skills and the strategies that our principals are learning today really push against that and begin to create safe spaces where students and teachers, or students and students, can come together and have these courageous conversations about race.”

Nolan Bryant, principal of Cary High School, said the training helped him realize that people look at the world through different filters.

“When I’m looking at a problem or situation, I need to be able to glimpse through other people’s lenses to see the situation so when I try to address an issue or come up with a policy, I can do it in a manner more supportive of all students,” he said.

Sandy Chambers, principal of Hortons Creek Elementary School in Cary, said it was important for principals to see how their experiences and beliefs drive their behavior.

Despite the spate of incidents, Trice said data don’t show an increase in racial incidents in the district. He said the glare of social media is putting more attention on the individual incidents.

Trice said parents should talk with their children about being careful what they post on social media and have conversations with them about race. He said those two things can go a long way toward eliminating racial incidents being posted online.

Chambers agreed the public needs to be involved in discussing race and working with the school system.

“These conversations need to be had because the world is changing and it’s going to continue to change for better or for worse,” she said. “How can we be in the moment and work together in a positive way?”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui