Gwinnett schools, a diverse district, battles rash of racist incidents

Several recent racial incidents at Gwinnett schools have officials at the state’s largest school system scrambling to find answers.

The recent national protests highlighting the racial divide in the country have ramped up officials’ sense of urgency to handle these difficult matters. The county’s issues also mirror incidents at other metro Atlanta school districts.

Just this week, it was discovered that a student-submitted photo with racist imagery and language was published in a Gwinnett high school yearbook. And at other two other high schools, social media posts of students using racial slurs have circulated.

Leaders in this diverse county are saying enough is enough, however, and are calling for more than letters of apology from administrators and slaps on the wrists of offenders.

A photo with racist imagery and a racial slur was not caught by the Collins Hill High yearbook staff or school administration before the Suwanee school began distributing the keepsakes this week. The edited image shows a teen posed alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The teen is holding a sheet of paper that is supposed to be hall pass from King allowing the student to use racist language.

RELATED STORY: Gwinnett schools appoint new leaders

Principal Kerensa Wing announced Thursday a recall of all annuals that had already been issued. The books will be reprinted and reissued at a considerable cost to the school. An earlier remedy was to print a new photo to place over the offending page.

That solution didn’t set well with some. A petition on circulated shortly after that announcement stated:

“The 2020 yearbook that was handed out to students at Collins Hill High School is a symbol of racism by the placement of a single photoshopped photo that displays the exact problem with society today. We have received a email that a sticker will be made to cover the photograph, I am not sure how placing a “Band-Aid“ will cover this up.”

With nearly 1,000 supporters, that was enough to push the school toward a different resolution.

“Although we were presented with other options initially, we decided this was the right thing to do. As a result, we are calling for an immediate recall of all 2020 yearbooks that have been distributed,” Wing said in a statement. “Once I review and approve the new revised yearbook, it will be printed and copies should arrive for distribution the week of July 5.”

Although Collins Hill isn’t in his area, District 4 school board member Everton Blair issued a statement on Thursday addressing this racial episode and others that have surfaced at Gwinnett County schools recently.

“I have seen the racist photo in the Collins Hill yearbook. I have also seen the racist videos from Brookwood and Parkview students using the n-word. They are evil, ignorant and repulsive. I appreciate how principals at every school where this occurs have chosen to immediately respond: writing to the entire school community, naming the incident and reaffirming the commitment to our values and beliefs,” wrote Blair. “However, when we fail to confront racism or teach its deep, historical pervasiveness and instead treat incidents like these as isolated, it is easy to be more focused on the individual perpetrator(s) than the root cause.

RELATED STORY: Longest-serving board member defeated in primary

Blair said the problem with this approach is that these actions do not exist in a vacuum, and they rely on “complicitness, denial or (even worse) insidious encouragement to continue.”

As the youngest and one of the newest, and only black member of the board, Blair said residents throughout the county reach out to him on issues of race.

“Black teachers, black students, black parents and black community activists have been saying persistently that structural racism exists and needs to be systematically addressed,” he said. “We routinely ignore them. I have asked repeatedly to see data (instructional, staffing, student discipline, etc) that breaks down every metric by race, by school or by level. I too have been ignored.”

Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said the school district is committed to working through the challenge.

“Mr. Blair has expressed his opinion on several things and that is certainly his right,” Wilbanks said. “As I shared last week in a communication to our families and employees, the members of the Gwinnett County Board of Education and I already are committed to focusing on the issues raised by Mr. Blair in his letter—speaking to and addressing racism and expanding the work already underway in the areas of equity and inclusion.”

As one of the most racially diverse counties in the nation, Gwinnett is comprised of 36% whites, 29% blacks, 22% Hispanics, 12% Asians, and about 1% American Indians, Native Hawaiians and Alaskans and other Pacific Islanders.

Students’ racist posts

Racist Snapchat videos from a Brookwood High student who is set to attend the University of Alabama in the fall recently hit social media. The university’s student newspaper identified him, but said details on how the university will address the issue are still unclear. There has been a slew of posts from Alabama students to rescind his acceptance.

A letter from Brookwood Principal William “Bo” Ford assured the community that “appropriate disciplinary action” was taken. Details on what action was taken is unavailable as student records are protected by federal privacy laws.

Similarly, former and current student athletes at Parkview High posted social media messages that included “racial and derogatory language,” according to a message from Principal David Smith shortly after the incident was brought to his attention this spring. Preliminary findings show that the post was created last year and several of the students involved no longer attend Parkview.

Gwinnett schools spokeswoman Sloan Roach said that incident is still under investigation.

These types of racial incidents aren’t unique to Gwinnett County.

  • DeKalb County school administration issued a statement earlier this month about several racist posts involving students at Lakeside and Chamblee high schools. They showed white students, among other things, using the n-word. District officials are still reviewing the situations and determining appropriate punishments.
  • A video, posted a day after George Floyd's death at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, shows a student at Decatur High School waving what appears to be a gun and using a racial slur. The video had been viewed as many as 5 million times on social media and has parents upset. Decatur City Schools Superintendent David Dude offered apologies to black families and demanded students stop racist behavior.
  • Two Carrollton High students were expelled in April for posting a racially offensive video on Tik Tok where they were mimicking a cooking show.

Although he didn’t address the specific incidents at Gwinnett schools, Wilbanks sent a letter to parents and other county residents in light of the protests and rallies after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.

“Out of many, one… we must come together to speak out and address racism. In addition to what must be done in the home and by the faith community to mend our fractured world, our schools must be welcoming places of unity, acceptance, understanding, tolerance, and hope,” Wilbanks wrote. “Schools alone cannot solve society’s problems and eradicate its ills. But schools can do a lot to counter the ignorance, disrespect, prejudice, and fear that allow a community to become a fertile field for hatred and divisiveness.”

Former Shiloh High student Ali Salcedo still lives and works in Gwinnett and agreed with Blair and others who say it’s time to address racism. As a Latina, she’s experienced racism and knows first-hand how slurs and taunts can cut deep.

“With all that’s been happening now, more people feel emboldened to stand up for what they know is right,” she said. “There’s a quote that goes, ‘If you remain neutral, you stand with the oppressor.’ Institutional racism is bigger than most people imagine. It takes all of us to defeat it.”

Lydia Melka is a recent Brookwood High graduate whose family immigrated from Ethiopia. She said she tries to feel compassion for everyone, but she can’t understand why someone would use a vile word to belittle people they don’t even know.

“I think the consequences should fit the crime,” said the rising freshman at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “Instead of suspension, they should be required to learn about black history and volunteer with a civil rights organization. That kind of behavior is grown from ignorance and knowledge can be more powerful than punishment.”