Reforming What Doesn’t Wish to be Reformed

In 2021, a Utah school district was found ripe with racism. A federal civil rights investigation released in October 2021 found widespread racial harassment of Black and Asian American students at the Davis School District, located in Farmington, UT, including hundreds of documented uses of the N-word and other racial epithets over the last five years:

“Black students throughout the district told investigators about similar experiences of white and non-Black students calling them the N-word, referring to them as monkeys or apes and saying that their skin was dirty or looked like feces, according to the department’s findings. Students also made monkey noises at their Black peers, repeatedly referenced slavery and lynching and told Black students to ‘go pick cotton’ and ‘you are my slave.’”

The investigation also found that Black students were disproportionately disciplined:

“The investigation found Black students were also disciplined more harshly than their white peers for similar behavior, and were denied the ability to form student groups while supporting similar requests by other students.”

On the heels of the results of the Department of Justice investigation, ten-year-old Isabella Tichenor, a Black and autistic fifth grader, died by suicide after her family said her classmates relentlessly bullied her at Foxboro Elementary School in North Salt Lake. According to the family attorney, Tichenor “was bullied by a small group of other students who called her the N-word, told her she was smelly, and made fun of her for being autistic.”

The family reported the harassment to school and district officials, yet nothing was done. Last year, the family and the school district reached a settlement concerning Tichenor’s suicide.

Dr. Joscelin Thomas, who worked in the district’s Equal Opportunity Office, led an investigation into racial harassment complaints. She was part of a wave of new hires in 2022 after the U.S. Department of Justice ordered the district in a settlement agreement to create an office tasked with investigating and addressing reports of racial harassment.

Now, Thomas is suing the school district for racial harassment. In her lawsuit, Thomas says that staff treated her “as if she were stupid.” The complaint continues that “from the beginning of her employment, Dr. Thomas was treated differently than her lighter-skinned and non-Black coworkers and was subject to a hostile work environment.” In addition, the complaint alleges that Thomas was:

  • Accused her of having a substandard work ethic
  • Denied her training and mentorship opportunities that were offered to her white colleagues.
  • Treated as a subordinate rather than an equal.
  • Handed her a pile of garbage and ordered her to clean up the trash during what was supposed to be an opportunity for Thomas to network with other administrators

Even when emboldened by a Justice Department investigation to do the job you’re hired for; a Black woman is still subject to racial harassment. Such harassment takes a toll on Black people, particularly Black women, who are doubly taxed for being Black and a woman—whether a K-12 administrator or a higher education administrator.

An example is Lincoln University of Missouri (an HBCU) VP of Student Affairs, Antoinette Candia-Bailey. She committed suicide in January of 2024 as a result of bullying and harassment by her boss, university president John Moseley.

El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz once said that the Black woman is the most disrespected, unprotected, and neglected person in America. He also said only a fool would let his enemy teach his children. That begs the question, Are Black educators, particularly Black women educators, foolish for working with those who hate us, in spaces that are possibly anti-Black?

What about what el-Shabazz said; should Black children attend schools with white teachers and white administrators, where they make up the majority of the leadership?

In an ideal world, there’d be sufficient Black-led schools with Black instructors for Black families who wanted them. But they became a relic post-Brown. In an ideal world, schools would be truly integrated, meaning not only the students, but the teacher population, administrator population, curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

But we don’t operate in an ideal or normative world; the world we desire it to be, although we strive for it. Rather we operate in a positivistic world; the world that is. Black children do attend schools that are traditionally white spaces and (we) Black educators must work there to teach them, affirm them, protect them, and equip them.

Yet we’re subject to the harm of these spaces as well; racial discrimination, the invisible tax, or threats from parents and politicians alike for teaching the truth. Thankfully, Dr. Thomas was able to leave that space to fight for a semblance of restitution. Dr. Candia-Bailey wasn’t as fortunate.

So, what does this tell us?

It says that many spaces in need of reform, have little to no desire to be reformed. Just because we need more Black teachers, or less disciplining of Black children, or more Black history, or less racial discrimination, doesn’t mean that school districts in need of reform in those areas have any intention of reforming.

Does that mean we stop trying to change these institutions? No. It means we aggravate them further. Because legally, they are obligated to ensure that the rights of all people, are defended and upheld. That means doing right by the victims of racism.

For white school and district leaders, the lesson here is that you too mustn’t avoid when racial discrimination happens on your watch. When a case comes across your desk, don’t ignore it. Act. Complete a thorough and independent investigation. Cooperate with the accuser while providing due process for the accused. Recognize the historical root of racism within your district when decision making. Proactively engage in reflection and exploration of racism found in policies, procedures, and postures to correct these.

No longer can anyone stand idly by and allow Black (women) educators to be harmed due to negligence. If you don’t want to be called, known as, or referred to as a racist individual or school district, then do your job.


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