It was standing room only in the North Room of the Guntersville Recreation Center Tuesday night as a large crowd of concerned parents and community members gathered to discuss concerns of racial discrimination within the Guntersville City School system.
Several parents and even a few students shared their experiences of mistreatment by school staff or other students, which included the use of racial slurs, physical altercations and unequal punishments for misbehavior.
District 1 Guntersville City councilmen Sanchez Watkins, who attended Guntersville City Schools, said he had "never seen it this bad."
“When I was in school, we had our issues, but we didn’t have issues like this. It was never this bad.” Watkins said. “I have never in my life seen something where our kids are afraid to go to school… This cannot continue.”
At the meeting, parents alleged that on several occasions, a teacher has used the "n-word," "monkey" or another slur to refer to a black student, and other students have also used slurs and threatened black students without receiving any punishment from staff.
“My child has been exposed to discrimination by educators who are obligated to teach and not impose emotional and psychological harm,” one parent said. “Instead of cultivating an environment that is conducive for learning, my child has experienced racial slurs such as being told she sounds like she came out of the cotton field.”
Parents also told of a class assignment where the students were placed at tables divided by race and of a fight that broke out after a soccer game where, out of all those involved, the only ones suspended were three black students.
“When I asked the principal to clarify and explain what happened, he told me he stands by his decision,” the mother of one of those suspended players said. “The only difference between my son and the other students [who weren’t suspended] is the color of their skin.”
Other complaints included a teacher grabbing a student’s face, students being allowed to fall behind in class and a general lack of communication between the parents and school staff.
Parents said they have tried to take their concerns to school leadership but so far have not been heard.
“We tried to reach out to the board of education, the principals, superintendent, all of them, nothing was successful,” a parent said. “... I just think it’s important that we protect our children. There’s got to be a change. All of them, it’s not just black kids, all of them. Black kids, white kids, Hispanic kids, mixed; all of them… Guntersville School System is a shame and a disgrace.”
Guntersville High School assistant principal Lindsey Hornbuckle was the lone school staff member to attend the town hall. She told the crowd she was “taking notes” and hearing their concerns.
“When I say this matters, it matters,” she said. “These kids have my heart.”
Guntersville Superintendent Jason Barnett said though he was unable to attend the meeting, he is willing to communicate with the parents and learn more about their concerns. He said he “hated” that anyone would feel discriminated against and that he wants to be “transparent and open” with parents and their concerns.
“We want everybody to be welcome at our schools,” Barnett said. “... I welcome the opportunity and am certainly willing and interested to have further dialogue and work together to make sure that all of our students feel welcome, invited and part of our school community because we value all the members of our community.”
Regarding teachers allegedly using racial slurs, Barnett said any such instance would be investigated on a case-by-case basis.
“If allegations are brought forth to us, we investigate the allegations, and that may involve talking to teachers, talking to witnesses — going through a process to identify and uncover the facts as best we can so that we can make a determination of appropriate actions, next steps, interventions, consequences, whatever that may be.”
He continued: “We can’t always talk about personnel matters [due to] privacy laws and things of that nature. And I think that’s one of the frustrations that some people have because we may address certain matters, but members of the public may not always be aware of those things because we can’t publicly disclose some of that information, which puts us kind of in a tough spot, everybody.”
Barnett said he reviewed the video of the soccer field fight and “understood” the concerns of the parents whose children were suspended. He said he did “make adjustments” to the punishment and implied at least one other student was disciplined, but he wouldn’t go into details to protect that student’s privacy.
“I feel as though we addressed their concerns to the best of our ability at that time,” he said.
Benard Simelton, a member of the NAACP’s National Board of Directors and president of the Alabama chapter, opened the public forum by calling for diversity among Guntersville school staff and denouncing the Alabama Legislature’s efforts to pass a law banning critical race theory and other “divisive concepts” from the classroom.
He closed by saying the next step was to “re-engage” with the school board and superintendent about addressing these concerns and making changes to school policy.
Barring that, he said he would consider looking into “legal matters” with the help of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Alabama Civil Liberties Union.
Kevin Myles, Deputy Director of Programs and Strategy for the SPLC’s Learning for Justice, encouraged those in attendance to vote and to get other people registered to vote to hold the Guntersville City Council, and the school board by extension, accountable.
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