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How racist bullying is tearing apart a school district in the South

Schools are reckoning with the intertwining issues of race and bullying in an atmosphere of growing anger and mistrust.

by Christina Sterbenz
Jan 12 2018, 2:44pm

At 6 feet 2 inches tall and 270 pounds, Micah Speed is big, especially for a 16-year-old. He starts on the varsity football team at North Carolina’s Wake Forest High School, about half an hour outside Raleigh, and dreams of playing in college.

So when Micah grabbed another student by his backpack and twice threw him onto the ground in the middle of his high school’s hallway on a Thursday last March, everyone noticed. A video later posted to Instagram showed the student, who’s white, calling Micah a “fuckin’ black piece of shit” before a teacher intervened. The teacher said Micah would be in “big trouble” and that the other student had only “used words.”

“Something happened,” said Micah’s mother, Yolanda Speed. “Micah is not an instigator; he don’t start fights. But he’ll finish them.”

As the video started gathering thousands of views, shares, and comments on Facebook and YouTube, the discussion centered on the racial slur the white student had hurled at Micah. The full story began to come out. Micah said the other student had been bullying him for months because of his race. In one instance, the boy told Micah that if he had kids, he should name them “Convict” and “Crackhead” because that’s all they’d ever grow up to be. He also showed Micah a video of himself shooting a shotgun, dedicated to “you, your mother, and your sister,” according to Yolanda.

The video brought unwelcome attention to the Wake County Public School System — which, with more than 157,000 students, is the largest district in North Carolina and the 15th largest in the country. After Micah was suspended for 10 days over the incident while the white student’s punishment remained unclear, the local NAACP and other groups tried to rally support for Micah’s case. About 100 students staged a protest the next Monday, and an online petition gathered nearly 40,000 signatures. National media swarmed.

Students return for their first day of classes at Barwell Road Elementary School in the Wake County Public School System in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Monday, July 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Racism and bullying aren’t new issues for schools, but educators nationwide have reported a worrying “Trump effect” on students’ behavior — like drawing graffiti of swastikas or chanting “build the wall” in the cafeteria — through the 2016 presidential campaign and after the election. While there’s no hard data on whether President Donald Trump’s often racially charged rhetoric has made the problem worse, schools have been forced to reckon with the intertwining issues of race and bullying in an atmosphere of growing anger and mistrust.

In Wake County, for example, there’s a widespread belief among black parents and community members that Micah’s bully was simply allowed to transfer to another school without repercussions. The district wouldn’t comment, citing privacy reasons.

When these tensions arise schools are forced to walk a delicate line between punishment and effective intervention. Impose an immediate suspension or expulsion, for example, and administrators risk forcing the aggressor deeper into already problematic beliefs. Yet with too weak of a response, the targeted student can feel unsupported and even ignored.

“If these issues aren’t handled properly, it will send a message that this is OK to do this,” said Marvin Lynn, the dean of Portland University’s Graduate School of Education and author of the “Handbook of Critical Race Theory in Education .” “That harms the victimized students in an entirely new way.”

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The district’s lack of transparency regarding the white student’s punishment didn’t particularly surprise black community members and parents. Wake County students, they said, often go unpunished when the victims are poor and minority kids, who make up almost a quarter of the district but aren’t given the same benefit of the doubt as their wealthier or whiter peers.

In the past seven years, advocacy groups have filed at least three federal complaints with both the Department of Education and the Department of Justice that allege racially discriminatory discipline practices in Wake County schools. After major gains in integrating the district starting in the early 2000s, the school board dismantled its integration plan in 2010 amid a public fight over what members called “social engineering.” By 2015, the district’s schools had become more segregated.

After Micah’s suspension, the district experienced a few more high-profile incidents involving race where administrators took steps to hold students accountable. Just two months later, a white student was disciplined for sending a Snapchat during a pep rally captioned, "Plantation owner watches his former slaves rejoice and celebrate their newfound freedom.” And weeks after that, four seniors were charged with trespassing and destruction of property for hanging a black teddy bear in a noose with the message “Make Wakefield TRIPP again,” an obvious reference to Donald Trump’s campaign slogan. At Wakefield High School, a black principal had taken over the role from Tripp Crayton, who’s white.

Officials began to worry these incidents would “define” the district.

Prevention over punishment

After what happened to Micah, school administrators in Wake County recommitted to fighting racism in the district. But they — and other schools around the country — have a difficult task in front of them.

Punishment can be especially ineffective in incidents that involve race, according to Howard Stevenson, a professor of Urban Education and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education. If schools suspend or expel a student outright for a comment or behavior they didn’t know was wrong, how will they ever learn?

“Most schools should be learning environments. If you say something wrong about algebra or history, there’s a process by which the student realizes they’re wrong without breaking any rules,” Stevenson said. “But we don’t apply those same strategies to learning about the world.”

As a result, schools have largely abandoned “zero tolerance” policies that suspend or expel students, no questions asked. So to handle bullying, whether it’s about race or not, schools instead turn to programs that teach social and emotional skills in hopes of preventing conflict, rather than doling out harsh consequences after the fact.

Wake County uses two main tools: Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS), a Department of Education-funded program; and the lesser-known Restorative Justice, a criminology theory that has trickled into education policy. More than 25,000 schools around the country have now implemented at least parts of PBIS’ framework, which tries to make a universal definition of respect clear to students and intervene when they struggle to adhere to it. Through Restorative Justice, Wake County focuses on mediation, where teachers and administrators meet with students, both the bully and the victim, and their parents to facilitate amends.

“I really do think that part of the problem in the United States is that we don’t teach America’s racial history to young children.”

These programs are by no means silver bullets. Students can easily manipulate mediation sessions or continue to harass each other in different and more nuanced ways. Of more concern for kids like Micah, several experts said programs designed to address the broader issue of bullying don’t always work in situations of racial bias that can be more sensitive and complex to remedy.

Stevenson, for example, advocates for the idea of “racial literacy,” or teaching students, educators, and parents how to better control their emotional responses to race-fueled interactions through strategies like meditation.

“These [racial] encounters are so intense that their stress levels, from a scale of one to 10, are at about an eight. You kind of lose peripheral hearing. You’re in a flight mode,” Stevenson said. “People don’t know how to manage that kind of stress.”

Experts also want to see more education on race reflected in schools’ curricula. Parents and community members said that’s especially relevant in Wake County because of the South’s complex history with race and the area’s ties to the KKK.

“I really do think that part of the problem in the United States is that we don’t teach America’s racial history to young children,” Lynn said. “And they don’t have any real understanding of what has transpired with African-Americans and Native Americans and other racially oppressed groups.”

Wake County schools teach students about race and oppression, including the history of the KKK, in middle school and high school, according to Heather Lawing, a senior administrator in the communications department.

“He just wants his life back”

Micah’s case brought up another important issue for the community: equity — or how students of different races are treated and disciplined. Data collected from the Department of Education and independent researchers shows that black students, especially males, get suspended and expelled at disproportionately higher rates than white students. These disparities can also skew how schools discipline students for bullying. In Wake County, reported incidents of harassment and bullying decreased by more than half between the 2014 and 2016 school years, but the district doesn’t break down the data by race.

The school reduced Micah’s suspension to just five days after seeing the Instagram video and hearing evidence of the bullying he experienced. Still, Micah couldn’t play in several of his football games the following season, including a championship game, as part of his punishment. And he still has to deal with the attention. Almost everyone at the school, and even in the community, knows what he did and why he did it. At one point, Micah even thought about transferring schools.

“He just wants his life back,” explained Yolanda, who also said her son didn’t want to comment. “I have to remind him that he has a heavy burden on his shoulders. As long as he’s at that school, he’s going to be carrying it.”

The district wouldn’t say what punishment, if any, the other student received, citing privacy rules. But in an unusual and powerful move, a teacher was suspended without pay for failing to intervene in escalating tensions between the two students.

“When it comes to poor children, to black children, to brown children, everything is used differently.”

And despite the district having options other than suspension, Yolanda said she and Micah were never approached about mediation and didn’t have a chance to meet with the white student who bullied him or with that student’s parents. Administrators wouldn’t comment on that, either.

“None of these programs [at Wake County] are used in an equitable manner. When it comes to poor children, to black children, to brown children, everything is used differently,” said Geraldine Alshamy, a local activist who worked with Yolanda to get Micah’s suspension reduced. “That’s why the school needs oversight.”

After Micah’s suspension, community members renewed their push for the district to provide a clearly outlined process for all disciplinary actions as well as advocates to help parents navigate the process.

“Oftentimes, some suspension is laid out, and a decision is made, and the parent doesn't know what happened and has little recourse,” said Craston Artis, the leader of the Community Equity Leadership Team, a group formed to advise the district on the equal treatment of students. “Parents can also feel intimidated. School administrators are speaking a language and using jargon that the parent might not understand.”

The district tries to make the process as clear as possible by providing parents with a letter explaining their rights, according to Lawing, who added that administrators are always willing to meet with parents. But right now, the district doesn’t provide advocates. Instead, parents can turn to several local organizations, like Legal Aid.

Going “beyond diversity”

After the past year’s incidents and amid heightened scrutiny, administrators stepped up efforts to talk to students, teachers, and other school leaders about these issues and started meeting with the Community Equity Leadership Team on a quarterly basis.

When the teddy bear appeared in the noose at Wakefield High School, for example, administrators organized an open forum that gave students a space to express their feelings about that particular incident as well as others they may have heard about, like Micah’s suspension.

“It was one of the first examples that we’ve tried in this district just to make sure we were having a robust conversation about one of the most important topics that’s on the table across the country,” said Rodney Trice, who leads the Office of Equity Affairs, a 5-year-old program created to address racial disparities within the district, especially in discipline. The office also oversees Restorative Justice and PBIS.

The district also later hosted a “Beyond Diversity” seminar where more than 180 principals gathered to discuss the racial issues plaguing the district and undergo training on how to effectively and equitably handle these incidents.

Parents and community members largely respect Trice’s efforts and want to see the district embrace them even more. For them, the viral video provided hard evidence of issues they’ve long known existed, and they hope the district will pay more attention.

But it’s slow going. When asked what had improved or changed since Micah’s suspension or the recent efforts to address bias, those same community members had the same answer: not much.

“The best thing to do in the short term is policy change and addressing bullying more quickly,” Artis said. “And unless there’s something going on that I don’t know about, that hasn’t happened.”