GOP lawmaker targets Gwinnett school board chair over views on racism

Tarece Johnson speaks after being sworn in as a member of the Gwinnett County Board of Education on Dec. 17, 2020. Johnson has been outspoken about equity and justice in schools and recently drew attention from a Republican lawmaker over comments about race and racism she made online. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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Tarece Johnson speaks after being sworn in as a member of the Gwinnett County Board of Education on Dec. 17, 2020. Johnson has been outspoken about equity and justice in schools and recently drew attention from a Republican lawmaker over comments about race and racism she made online. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Sen. Burt Jones, a candidate for lieutenant governor, has called for an investigation

Tarece Johnson has long used various platforms to speak about diversity, inclusion, justice and race.

As a member of the Gwinnett County Board of Education, she’s pressed administrators on equity in hiring, discipline and other matters. As an activist, she spoke at Black Lives Matter demonstrations about overcoming oppression.

And as a TikTok creator, she’s posted videos discussing racism.

Some of those videos recently caught the attention of a state Republican lawmaker, who called them inflammatory and divisive.

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State Sen. Burt Jones speaks at a meeting in Rome on July 13, 2021. More recently, Jones called for an investigation of the Gwinnett County Board of Education chair. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

State Sen. Burt Jones speaks at a meeting in Rome on July 13, 2021. More recently, Jones called for an investigation of the Gwinnett County Board of Education chair. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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State Sen. Burt Jones speaks at a meeting in Rome on July 13, 2021. More recently, Jones called for an investigation of the Gwinnett County Board of Education chair. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Sen. Burt Jones, who is running for lieutenant governor, in a recent letter called on the Georgia Board of Education to investigate whether Johnson’s “statements, implemented policies, and administrative actions” violate code of conduct policies on a county or statewide level.

Jason Downey, chair of the Georgia Board of Education, declined to comment on Jones’ letter, saying it was still under review.

ExploreGwinnett school board elects Tarece Johnson as next chair

Johnson is a Democrat and the first Black woman to lead Gwinnett’s school board. She was recently elected chair after being nominated by fellow board member Everton Blair, who is running for state school superintendent.

“We have real issues impacting students in our public schools that Sen. Jones could be focusing on,” Blair said in a text message. He said an investigation would be a waste of time.

With about 180,000 students, Gwinnett County Public Schools is the state’s largest district.

“As a multicultural educational leader, I advocate for the representation of all races, ethnicities, religions and cultures,” Johnson said in a statement. “Every child, regardless of race, must know they are seen, heard, respected, valued and celebrated. All children must learn historical facts and understand that their stories and lives matter.”

ExploreGeorgia Senate OKs making Gwinnett school board elections nonpartisan

Since joining the school board last year, Johnson has faced vitriol in meetings and online. In October, she said she contacted law enforcement about disturbing comments, but was told nothing could be done since there were no explicit death threats. She said she then purchased a home security system and a gun.

Penny Poole, president of the Gwinnett NAACP, said calling for an investigation of Johnson was an attempt to diminish her power as an elected official.

“The harassment needs to stop,” she said.

ExploreGOP efforts to limit how race is taught in Georgia schools increase

Jones’ comments about Johnson come at a time when state Republican lawmakers have filed four bills that would limit how race is discussed in schools. The Georgia Senate recently passed a bill making Gwinnett school board elections nonpartisan — just over a year after Democrats became the board’s majority.

In his criticism, Jones highlights videos of Johnson. In one, she says white children “will grow up and they will perpetuate the racist systems that my children have to live in.”

The video is part of a series that Johnson posted about the importance of teaching children not to be racist and the challenges people of color face. She posted the series in 2020 after George Floyd died while in the custody of Minneapolis police.

ExploreGeorgia lawmakers try to identify critical race theory in schools

Jones also raised concern about a Gwinnett school district document that lists critical race theory as a concept that may be used in research. Critical race theory is a decades-old concept used typically in higher education to examine how racism has shaped society.

School district spokeswoman Sloan Roach said an Advanced Placement language and research teacher wrote the document years ago as part of an audit for the organization that provides AP curriculum. She said critical race theory was not taught in that class.

Superintendent Calvin Watts recently posted a statement that also said critical race theory is not in the district’s curriculum.

“Some state leaders are seeking to legislate the curriculum, rather than allowing the educators and families who live in communities to lead that effort,” the statement said.

Staff writer Ty Tagami contributed to this report.