DeKalb school board member denies making racist comments

Joyce Morley said her words were misheard and not racial

A DeKalb County school board member says those accusing her of making racially charged comments during a recent meeting are mishearing what she said.

In a Friday afternoon interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Joyce Morley contended that video from the tense board meeting shows her saying the word “rights” — and not “whites” — when discussing the school district’s re-opening plan.

“If I had ever said anything different I would take responsibility,” said Morley, who is Black. She called suggestions otherwise slanderous.

But many others — including fellow board members and a number of outraged parents — say the video clearly shows her suggesting that resuming in-person classes would be difficult in part because “whites” would defy COVID-19 safety protocols.

“That is the interpretation of what I heard and many others in the community, including two of the board members that were on the call with her,” said Beth Goetz, administrator of a Facebook page called "DCSD Parents who want in-person learning option.”

Video of the meeting can be seen here. The comments in question are around the 1:42:30 mark.

During the Monday afternoon meeting in question, DeKalb schools superintendent Cheryl Watson-Harris pitched a plan that could bring students and staff back for part-time in-person learning as early as next month. That would be contingent on COVID-19 cases in the county dropping significantly and staying that way.

The plan drew strong criticism from several board members, including Morley. During a 20-minute monologue, she said the district should not even consider bringing students back into buildings until 2021.

At one point, Morley said many of the same parents pushing for re-opening would be the ones to defy things like mask requirements if they were put in place, citing their “right” not to wear one.

That part is not in contention.

But several minutes later, Morley again expressed doubt about the ability to enforce safety protocols should classes resume.

“Because I guarantee you there’s going to be those who are gonna be defiant. You give an inch, they’re gonna take a yard," she said.

From there, Morley contends she said, “And their rights. And we know that.”

Others say it’s obvious that she ended her statement with the following: “And they’re whites. And we know that.”

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Board member Stan Jester, who represents DeKalb’s northern tip, said he was disappointed and disturbed and has been flooded with emails from parents. Another board member, Allyson Gevertz, wrote on Facebook that she was “deeply troubled."

Goetz and the 850 or so members of her Facebook group also zeroed in on the comments.

“In this climate, where people are wanting to find a bridge, this is no way to go about it,” Goetz said. “Nothing about whether our kids go back to school should be political or racial. It should be based on common sense judgement and numbers.”

The DeKalb County School District has nearly 100,000 students. Last school year, about 60% were Black. Another 19% were Hispanic and 12% were white. Roughly 7% were Asian.

In the school system and DeKalb County in general, there has long been a political and racial divide between the north, where more conservative white residents live, and the south, which is predominantly Black.

That has added an additional source of tension as DeKalb faces the same tough decisions schools across America are confronting. Morley’s Monday afternoon comments also referenced higher COVID-19 infection and mortality rates for Black people compared to whites.

Leisa Stillman, a parent of two from Brookhaven and member of Goetz’s Facebook group, said Morley’s commentary shouldn’t distract from the bigger discussion at hand.

“The focus," she said, "should be on whether the plan takes into consideration the medical facts, public health risk and social, emotional, mental, and academic well-being of the children and adults involved. Not on one distasteful board member’s rant.”

In an interview prior to Morley saying she was misheard, school board vice chair Vickie Turner declined to address the comments directly but did not refute that she’d said “whites."

Turner said everyone has the best interests of students at heart but emotions are high.

“I see us going back into the brick and mortar,” Turner said. “But I don’t see that happening as soon as some people would like it.”