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Chapel Hill-Carrboro investigating claims Black educators reassigned because of race

·9 min read

Chapel Hill-Carrboro school officials are investigating reports that two East Chapel Hill High School educators were asked to move to different classrooms this year because a parent didn’t want Black men working with their child.

School board Chair Deon Temne confirmed the investigation following Thursday’s board meeting. He and other district officials previously had declined to talk about the allegations, citing personnel and student privacy rights.

East Chapel Hill High students at the meeting said a walkout is possible Friday. Protests were held at the school this week and at the Lincoln Center administrative campus, students said.

Superintendent Nyah Hamlett emailed district families after the meeting, saying she had talked with the school’s interim Principal Aaron Acome and the ECHHS administrative team.

Principal Ken Proulx is taking previously scheduled time off, district spokesman Andy Jenks said in an email Friday. Proulx is planning to leave at the end of December for a new job as principal of Newport Middle School in Carteret County.

In her email, Hamlett said school officials want to make a “safe space available on campus” for a possible walkout and would talk with students Friday about safety and “preserving instructional time.”

The district’s Equity and Engagement team also will meet with students, she said, noting a potential conversation in the future about reviving the school’s internal equity team and finding students for the Superintendent’s Equity Ambassadors team.

Meanwhile, the Exceptional Children team is reviewing student schedules and needs and looking at how to give more support to teachers, students and families, she said.

The district will hold “constructive dialogue on these and other matters that have been experienced over time” with the public after the winter break, Hamlett said. She said a local radio station’s interviews do not depict “a fair or entirely accurate picture of our ongoing efforts.”

“We are committed to anti-racist actions and supporting school environments that are free from discrimination in all forms while cultivating welcoming, affirming and high-quality learning environments for all,” Hamlett said.

The family at the center of the allegations has not been publicly identified, but The News & Observer spoke with them off the record Friday and obtained a copy of their email to the student’s teacher at East Chapel Hill High. The email describes the family’s concerns with their child’s classroom situation, but does not mention race or gender.

Over 40 students, parents and residents attended Thursday’s school board meeting. Several spoke about the district’s lack of Black educators, the racism allegations, and ongoing racial issues in the community.

Some called for a thorough investigation and a zero-tolerance policy for racism and bigotry.

“Until you as the board, you as district leadership, and we as a community address the racial elephant in the room with the intent of dismantling [it], we as a district will continue to be less than our best,” said Dianne Jackson, a retired district employee.

East Chapel Hill High School students, parents and residents asked the CHCCS school board on Dec. 2, 2021, to establish a zero-tolerance policy for racism in the district.
East Chapel Hill High School students, parents and residents asked the CHCCS school board on Dec. 2, 2021, to establish a zero-tolerance policy for racism in the district.

Educators asked to change classrooms

Last week, an East Chapel Hill High teacher and a teaching assistant spoke with WCHL radio station, citing efforts this school year to move two longtime Black male teaching assistants to other exceptional children’s classrooms.

Adam Watkins, a teaching assistant who left the district Nov. 4, confirmed in an interview with The N&O that he was asked to change rooms because of a parent’s concern their female student could have a Black male teaching assistant.

Efforts to reach Watkins on Friday to talk about the parent’s email were unsuccessful.

The other teaching assistant, Darrell Parker, who has a nearly 20-year career, spoke with Chapelboro, the radio station’s website, but did not respond to The N&O’s calls seeking comment.

EC teaching assistants work under an EC resource teacher, helping students one-on-one and in group settings with their classwork and behavioral challenges. TAs help special needs students in general education and exceptional children’s classes, and also travel with them to the job site as part of the Occupational Course of Study program.

Parker and East Chapel Hill EC teacher Tonya Stanley did not identify the family involved in the situation in their interview with Chapelboro, but they provided emails related to their allegations.

Emails written in September by Proulx and Assistant Principal Ileana Herrera Lobo confirm there was a plan to move some TAs to different classrooms, but don’t explain the reason.

Proulx, in a Sept. 20 email, advised the school’s EC teachers that Watkins would move into the Occupational Course of Study program and a substitute teaching assistant would move into the adaptive curriculum program.

Stanley, after consulting with both men, filed a complaint with the district and sent a letter on Oct. 7 to senior human resource director Erika Newkirk. The letter also noted a problem at the school, but did not specify the nature of the problem.

As of Nov. 24, she had not received an update on the investigation, Stanley told Chapelboro. No TAs have been assigned to new classrooms at this time, Parker said.

Efforts to reach Stanley and independently obtain the letter and emails were unsuccessful.

CHCCS administrators are investigating allegations that two Black male teaching assistants at East Chapel Hill High School were asked to move to different classrooms because of a parent’s concerns. Students could hold a walkout Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.
CHCCS administrators are investigating allegations that two Black male teaching assistants at East Chapel Hill High School were asked to move to different classrooms because of a parent’s concerns. Students could hold a walkout Friday, Dec. 3, 2021.

Daily concerns

The district issued two statements to the radio station in response to the story, both of which cited the privacy of students, parents and employees in declining to address the specific allegations.

“We encourage, respect and appreciate when employees share their concerns and feedback, particularly when raising issues about how to best serve our students,” the statement noted.

“However, students are not well served when staff do not work through those issues with their colleagues, or when aspects of those issues are inaccurately described in a local news report. Unfortunately, in this instance, we feel some of the quoted interview statements do not present a fair or entirely accurate picture of ongoing efforts to best meet the needs of our students, and wrongly mischaracterize the actions of some, as well as the timeline of events.”

But Thursday, Jackson, the retired employee, said she has “concern for employees who daily face the advantage on display in this district and support for our leadership teams and our district leadership teams who have to navigate these waters of advantage.”

The district has a reputation that deters people of color from wanting to work in its schools, she said.

Kendall Lytle, an East Chapel Hill student and member of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP Youth Council, spoke Thursday night at the meeting. She joined seven other students in recounting how few teachers of color they had during their years in the district and the lack of support that students of color feel. They also noted the district’s continuing struggle with its racial achievement gap.

There is an “extreme lack of representation of people of color as members of faculty and staff,” Lytle said. “The continuous loss of these members, especially Black faculty and staff, has become a norm in this district. A majority of the Youth Council consists of students at East, and we have seen firsthand the detrimental impacts of these losses.”

East Chapel Hill High School students protest after learning that two exceptional children’s teaching assistants reported being asked to move from their classrooms after a parent raised concerns that a student could have Black male teachers.
East Chapel Hill High School students protest after learning that two exceptional children’s teaching assistants reported being asked to move from their classrooms after a parent raised concerns that a student could have Black male teachers.

Questions about the allegations

Watkins told The N&O that he and Parker both worked in Stanley’s classroom before being reassigned, at different times, to another teacher’s class. The female student also was transferred from Stanley’s classroom to that class, he said.

He’s concerned about how much say parents get in CHCCS classrooms and doesn’t think teaching assistants are getting any support, Watkins said. He said he’s had no interactions with any other parents concerned about their children’s education, and he noted his belief that Herrera Lobo didn’t have all the facts before making her decision.

“In particular, one parent didn’t want Black males in their classroom, and so we were being juggled around in positions,” he said. “I’ve been in that classroom since I’ve been there, but we’re being moved — alongside Parker — we’re being placed into different classrooms to accommodate that particular parent.”

He chose to resign after 10 years, because the stress was affecting his health, Watkins said. He now works in the Alamance-Burlington schools, closer to his home.

He said he hasn’t talked with an attorney about the situation, but that could happen.

The Chapelboro story also sparked a backlash among some parents in the district claiming to have direct knowledge of the situation.

“It’s just preposterous that anyone could accuse them of saying such a thing. It’s just ludicrous, and I’m the first one to point out racism,” said Kat Abernathy, a well-known anti-racist activist whose daughter is friends with the female student.

“As an anti-racist activist, it’s infuriating, because it does exist in a lot of places, and it probably exists in a lot of places in Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools, maybe in the EC department, but not here,” Abernathy said.

Teaching assistants have to be patient, flexible, and willing to help where needed when working with exceptional students, said Abernathy, who previously worked as an EC teaching assistant in the district’s McDougle Middle School.

Her experiences have always been positive, she said, but this year, the district started without substitutes for the EC classes, on top of the always “critical” teaching shortage. The TAs were asked to help where needed, instead of being in the same class all day, she said.

Watkins agreed reassignment can be hard on teaching assistants, but she noted it’s also hard on students in the exceptional children’s program.

“Change is very hard for this population of kids,” he said. “They’re used to structure and the same people and schedules, but when you move people and things change, they have a hard time adapting to it and you have behaviors and other stuff that will pop up from that.”

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