Jaylen Brown, shown here in a game as a Wheeler High student, said a teacher at the school told him in 2014 that she’d visit him in jail in five years. It has now been five years and he’s a NBA star.
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/hshin@ajc.com
Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/hshin@ajc.com

Opinion: The racism Jaylen Brown experienced in Cobb Schools is real

Counselor says black students in district face inequalities

A school counselor in the Cobb County School District says the racism that former Wheeler High student and now NBA star Jaylen Brown encountered is not unique. 

In a guest column today, elementary school counselor Jennifer Susko says her attempts to prod the district and school board to examine racism in the schools has only yielded denials that a problem exists.

A 2017 AJC series on race described Cobb as the last core metro county in which more than 50 percent of residents are white. In 1990, one in 10 people in Cobb County was black. Now, it's more than one in four. And in less than 10 years, it will be close to one in three, according to projections from the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Susko is part of Stronger Together, a grassroots advocacy effort to raise awareness of and solutions for racism in the classroom.

I admire Susko for speaking up as this is an incendiary topic with some school leaders. She told me it was her ethical responsibility as a school counselor to speak up for the children of Cobb. 

“There is no time to waste in addressing this in terms of their mental health. One thing that confuses the board members sometimes is that kids and parents aren't lined up saying it. But, in some cases, they fear the retaliation. And, in other cases, particularly younger students, they don't know yet,” she said. “No 7-year-old is going to come up to you and say, ‘My teacher is demonstrating a racial bias toward me, and it is damaging my self-esteem and identity in a way that will harm me in the future.’” 

Susko said she is heartened by the many teachers who have expressed the desire for classroom training. “They'd like to know how to do better,” Susko said.

In reading her column, I thought about what educator and author Max Lerner once said: “In the end, as any successful teacher will tell you, you can only teach the things that you are. If we practice racism, then it is racism we teach.”

By Jennifer Susko

It is the end of the school year, and I am one exhausted school counselor. Not because of the hectic standardized testing schedule, child abuse reports, fun but time-consuming end-of-the-year events and celebrations or even the extensive documentation and collaboration required to support elementary students who have expressed suicidal thoughts. 

What’s draining me is the racism that black students face in some Cobb County School District classrooms. The reflexive denial by the school board and district leadership of the racism in their midst and their consistent refusal to heed expert recommendations zap my energy and break my heart. 

Inequalities in how black students are educated in Cobb do exist, as revealed in empirical data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and anecdotal evidence from those of us on the ground in schools. Examples even reach mainstream media before they’re quickly swept under the rug by the district’s effective public relations machine. 

Recently, Boston Celtics star and former Cobb student Jaylen Brown shined a light on the racism when a tweet he posted in 2014 resurfaced. A student at Wheeler High School at the time, Brown wrote, “My teacher said she will look me up in the Cobb county jail in 5 years …Wow.”

Many people were shocked by what the teacher said to Brown, but the news did not surprise me. My end-of-the-year fatigue stems from a sustained effort to bring attention and solutions to the discrimination and racism black students still face in CCSD.

That effort has been met with stonewalling by district leadership. To black parents and students who feel unheard, I recognize we’re letting you down and I am deeply sorry. 

CCSD has been alerted to the reality of the problem and the urgency of addressing it to ensure student safety and health. Despite entreaties by numerous stakeholders, including parents, students, employees and community members, to address this racism, district leaders and school board members have not only said it’s not happening, they counter with how great the district is in every way. 

Cobb County is a great district, but good leaders know being great does not mean there’s no room for improvement.

With the addition of Charisse Davis and JaHa Howard to the school board, many of us fighting for social justice in our classrooms are beginning to feel heard. It is vital the rest of the decision-makers understand the need to combat this issue because black students face heavy mental health consequences if embedded racism is not eliminated.

I want black families to know many of us are acting with urgency to move the school system toward racial justice and inclusivity; we recognize black students need our attention now -- not when it becomes more comfortable for white adults to talk about race and racism. 

We’ve spoken several times during the public comment section of school board meetings to inform leadership of the presence of racism in our schools and its harmful impact on students. The long-term physical, mental, and emotional effects of racism have been described in the literature by public health researcher Arline T. Geronimus as “weathering” (such as weathering a storm). 

The time, energy, and emotion black students use navigating racial stereotypes and discrimination may result in toxic stress and anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, accelerated aging, and could be a risk factor for suicide. Because such negative consequences necessitate immediate intervention, a colleague and I met with top-level district leaders and presented data on the disproportionality in discipline and academic achievement based on race in CCSD. Racist incidents in classrooms show our black students need more support and teachers need additional training to handle challenging topics in a culturally responsive way. 

In spite of the unfairness and inequity he encountered in CCSD, Jaylen Brown went on to great success in the NBA and life. None of us in Cobb Schools should rest until black students and students of color feel affirmed and safe in every classroom in the district. 

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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