Tensions are high at an Atlanta elementary school after a Black parent filed a federal civil rights complaint alleging students were assigned to classes based on race.
Kila Posey’s daughter attends the predominantly white Mary Lin Elementary School in Candler Park, one of Atlanta’s top performing schools.
In a discrimination complaint filed recently with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Posey said the school’s principal, who is also Black, split about a dozen Black second graders into two “Black classes” last year and filled the remainder of the class roster with other students.
The class placement practice restricted Black students to only a couple classes that the principal deemed appropriate while white students could be placed in any of the school’s six second-grade classes, according to the complaint.
“I just want the same access as everyone,” Posey said.
The complaint, first reported by Channel 2 Action News, has stirred controversy. In the days since, Atlanta Public Schools increased police presence on campus and other parents have rallied behind Principal Sharyn Briscoe.
Briscoe’s attorney, Regina Molden, issued a statement on her behalf to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday.
“Sharyn Briscoe has dedicated her life to educating our youth, and is extremely concerned about the recent allegations of wrongdoing. Given that this is an active investigation, however, Ms. Briscoe is limited in what information she can share right now, but is looking forward to telling her side of the story at the appropriate time and place,” the statement said.
APS also issued a statement that said, in part: “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 district did not detail how it responded to the situation. It said it is “committed to identifying and removing barriers to success for all our students, including our students of color.”
About three quarters of the school’s 634 students are white, and 10% are Black, according to district data from last school year.
Other parents say Posey’s allegations do not match their children’s experiences at Mary Lin.
The AJC interviewed six Black parents in six phone interviews, none of whom wanted to be publicly identified out of fear that their families could be targeted. They described a campus on edge after the school received a barrage of calls and messages in response to the allegations.
“I trust Ms. Briscoe and her administration explicitly in putting my children in the appropriate classrooms,” said Nicole, a Black mother.
Another parent said her time at the school has been nothing but positive and that if some students were grouped together she’s confident “there was deeper intentionality behind it.”
Parents who spoke to the AJC said the racial makeup of their children’s classes has varied, and they haven’t heard school leaders cite race as a factor in class placements.
Several said they also don’t want their child to be the only Black student in a room. One mother recalled being a “lonely, only” when she was in school and how her classmates looked at her when their teacher discussed slavery in history class.
“I would dread those lessons,” Sabrina said.
Posey runs an after-school program at Mary Lin. Her husband is a school psychologist who also works there. She said she filed the complaint because her family faced retaliation, including attempts to transfer her husband to another school. APS declined to comment on that allegation.
“They had multiple opportunities to correct the issue,” Posey said. “I think what’s concerning me [is], people in that building knew that was going on and nobody said anything.”
Her complaint stems from a situation that unfolded last year when the family requested a specific teacher for their daughter. She said the school has allowed employees with enrolled children to make such requests.
In response, Posey said the school informed them that her daughter would be the only Black child in that class because the other Black students had been placed in two different classrooms. Posey said they were told that the class placement practices were meant to “build community” among Black students.
Posey said they opted to stay with the teacher who they deemed the best fit. Another Black student joined her daughter’s class after they raised concerns, she said.
In a recording of a March call provided to the AJC by Posey’s attorney, a person identified in the complaint as an APS administrator states that the district found the allegation about how Black students were assigned to classes “to be true” and states that the district made it clear that the practice cannot happen.
APS said it cannot confirm the recording.
A spokesman for the federal education department said it does not confirm complaints before opening an investigation.
In an email to Mary Lin parents after the complaint became public, APS said it is aware of “derogatory comments made toward the school administration.”
“While there have not been any threats of harm in these messages, we have ensured there is a protocol in place with the school administration to continuously review this situation and we have ensured high police visibility on campus,” the email said.