Feds to investigate if Atlanta school grouped students by race

A federal civil rights agency will investigate allegations that one of Atlanta’s highest performing elementary schools assigned students to classes based on race and then retaliated against the family that filed a complaint.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights notified Atlanta Public Schools’ Superintendent Lisa Herring on Nov. 14 that it will open an investigation into a racial discrimination and retaliation complaint filed in July 2021.

The agency will look into whether APS subjected students at Mary Lin Elementary School “to different treatment based on race” and whether the district retaliated against Kila and Jason Posey and their daughter, according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open records request and provided by the Poseys’ attorney.

The agency confirmed to the AJC that it is investigating if the district had violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits school systems that receive federal money from discrimination based on race.

An APS spokesman declined to answer questions about the case. The district issued a written statement saying it is following the civil rights office’s process.

”Given that this matter is pending before a federal administrative agency for consideration, APS has no further comment,” the statement said.

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In the 2021 complaint, Kila Posey, who is Black, alleged that Principal Sharyn Briscoe, who is also Black, designated “Black classes” at the predominantly white Mary Lin Elementary in Candler Park. Only about 10% of Mary Lin’s more than 600 students are Black.

Kila Posey on Friday said she had raised concerns to APS even before the family filed the federal complaint. The agency’s decision to take on the case is one step in what she described as a marathon.

“I finally felt like, OK, somebody is stepping in to hopefully look at the preponderance of the evidence and give a sound judgement call,” she said. “Somebody’s coming to check their homework.”

The Poseys’ attorney, Sharese Shields, said she doesn’t know specifically why it took more than a year for the civil rights office to open the case but the process can take time.

Credit: courtesy of Kila Posey

Credit: courtesy of Kila Posey

In the 2021 complaint, Posey stated that she and her husband, who at the time worked at Mary Lin as a school psychologist, requested that their daughter be placed in a specific classroom during the 2020-2021 school year. But the school informed them that their daughter would be the only Black student in that class because other Black children had been placed in different classrooms, Kila Posey previously told the AJC.

In the second grade, about 13 Black students were divided between just two classrooms, according to the complaint. The remainder of those class rosters were allegedly filled out by other students. White students, meanwhile, could be placed in any of the school’s six second grade classrooms, the complaint stated.

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An APS administrator acknowledged in a March 2021 recorded call with the Poseys that the principal admitted that she designated Black classes, according to the complaint. In that recording, previously provided to the AJC by the Poseys’ attorney, the district administrator stated that the principal said she “was trying to create community” by grouping Black students together.

APS previously said it cannot confirm the recording. The district issued a statement last year that said: “Using race as a method for assigning students to classrooms is unacceptable. When the district learned of this allegation, we addressed it and the matter was closed.”

The Poseys have two children who currently attend Mary Lin.

Kila Posey said Friday that she hasn’t been able to determine if the practice is ongoing but her understanding is that the school was stopping the practice and that there would be additional supervision in the creation of class lists.

When the allegations first surfaced, several Black parents told the AJC that their experiences at Mary Lin has been positive and that race had not been cited as a factor in class placements.

The civil rights office also will investigate whether APS retaliated against the Poseys. The allegations include that APS removed Jason Posey from Mary Lin in 2021 and assigned him to work remotely as the district investigated a complaint that he recorded a phone conversation with a Mary Lin employee. Kila Posey said she is the one who recorded the call.

Jason Posey received a promotion in another school district and no longer works for APS.

The federal investigation also will look into an allegation that Kila Posey, who runs after-school programs, was the target of retaliation when Springdale Park Elementary School in Atlanta told her it would not renew her contract for the 2021-2022 school year.

Kila Posey’s company also had provided after-school programs at Mary Lin since 2018. She alleges that APS assured her that Mary Lin’s principal could not terminate her contract out of retaliation.

But Kila Posey said she learned in the spring that she had lost her Mary Lin contract for this current school year. That prompted her to file another retaliation complaint with the federal civil rights office in August. Shields said the federal agency has not said if it also will investigate that more recent complaint.