Buford school system superintendent Geye Hamby has been placed on administrative leave amid allegations he made racist comments that were captured on audio recordings.
“The board anticipates further action on this matter at a specially called meeting in the next several days,” the school system said in a statement. “The district will continue to focus on the mission of empowering our students to reach their full potential.”
The next regular monthly meeting is at 7 p.m. on Aug. 27. The board hasn’t said when the specially called meeting will be.
Hamby's leave was effective on Tuesday, the day The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Hamby is accused in a federal lawsuit of using racist slurs. The complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, includes recordings in which a person identified as Hamby used racial epithets repeatedly when referring to African-American workers at a construction site.
“(Expletive) that (n-word). I’ll kill these (expletive) — shoot that (expletive) if they let me,” the person identified as Hamby can be heard saying. The person speaking repeatedly refers to blacks as “deadbeat (n-word).”
Walt Britt, a Buford attorney representing the five-member school board, said the board has “been unable to determine its veracity and authenticity and whether the recording was altered and was at the consent of at least one party or the product of illegal surveillance. Our investigation continues into this matter, but we are hamstrung in that the plaintiff has failed or refused to produce the original recording for testing or provide any information concerning the background or foundation of the recording.”
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Hamby said in an email to the AJC, “This is a personnel and legal matter pertaining to a disgruntled employee.” And he wrote that he’d been instructed “not to comment.”
An employee working the front desk at the Buford City Schools central office said no one was available for comment on Wednesday, while the tight-knit community struggled to reconcile the image of the popular schools superintendent with the disturbing allegations.
“He was always nice and kind,” said Buford High School senior Arieonna Vaker, 17. “He was always supersweet to all the kids. He was never mean to anyone.”
She has experienced racism during her years in the city’s school system, but never dreamed the district’s top administrator would be accused of discrimination.
“When I was younger and was wearing my hair natural, another kid said I should go back to the cotton fields where I belong,” said Vaker, who is African-American. “I used to get mad. Now I just ignore it. People are going to be ignorant.”
She isn’t surprised to hear of racism accusations in general — “We live in the South. Everyone says (the n-word) all the time” — but was stunned to hear of the claims lodged against Hamby.
“I’m very disappointed,” she said. “Everyone’s saying he should just quit.”
Penny Poole, president of the Gwinnett County chapter of the NAACP, said the school board must fire Hamby if that is indeed his voice on the recordings: “It’s the only right thing to do.”
Buford High School freshman Gary Winthorpe, 14, said the lawsuit and recordings were all the buzz on Wednesday.
“He should apologize. It’s not acceptable,” he said of Hamby’s alleged comments. Like other past and present students the AJC interviewed, Winthorpe said Hamby is known as a genial administrator on friendly terms with the school community.
“He says ‘hey’ to everyone,” Winthorpe said.
The lawsuit was filed in June against the Buford school system by Mary Ingram, 66, who worked as a paraprofessional. She was fired in 2017 after two years of being written up, which she said started only after she circulated a petition calling for a change to the school system’s emblem. She had always received sterling evaluations before pressing the emblem change, the lawsuit states.
Ingram wanted the color gold, representing the city’s black school district before the system was integrated in 1969, added to the district’s green and white color scheme.
“I was afraid we were about to lose our heritage,” Ingram said in a recent interview with the AJC. “I wanted them to know it was important to the community.”
Jenipher Rea, a 2012 Buford High School graduate, recalled Ingram as a kind and caring employee.
“She was like everybody’s grandma,” Rea said. “She was really sweet and always in a great, positive mood.”
Soon after learning of the lawsuit and recordings, Rea thought Hamby should hold a meeting and discuss the matter with students and parents.
“Buford is a tight-knit community,” she said. “We refer to each other as family. He definitely owes the students and community an answer. He needs to hold a meeting and just apologize.”
That was before the controversy started dominating her social media feeds.
“Everybody is saying they want to see him step down,” she said.
One comment from a fellow student struck her as particularly poignant: “Well, dang. I thought we were cool. I thought he liked us.”