Cobb school board members split on how to address racism

Cobb County School Board members are struggling to agree on the language of a resolution to condemn racism.

Credit: Cobb County School District

Credit: Cobb County School District

Cobb County School Board members are struggling to agree on the language of a resolution to condemn racism.

Cobb County School District, the only large school system in metro Atlanta that has not formally addressed systemic racism in the wake of recent racial protests, will vote Thursday on a resolution denouncing racism. But the school board, divided by party and race, is already struggling to agree on what the resolution should say.

Cobb County schools, the second largest district in Georgia, will hold a virtual meeting at 10 a.m. Thursday that is scheduled to include a vote on the resolution. Viewers can watch on the school district's website.

School systems for GwinnettFultonDeKalb and Cherokee counties, and the cities of Atlanta and Marietta have either issued proclamations or written letters to their students, faculty, staff and parents following protests around the nation that began following the deaths of two Black men.

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In Minnesota, George Floyd died May 25 after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for more than eight minutes. In Georgia, Ahmaud Arbery was fatally shot Feb. 23 after he was confronted by two white men over alleged burglaries in their Glynn County neighborhood. Three white men have been charged with murder in connection with Arbery's death.

Cobb’s proposed resolution, written by white board member Randy Scamihorn, begins by saying the district, board, system employees and Superintendent Chris Ragsdale are “deeply saddened by the tragic events that have recently occurred across the country.” It makes no mention of Arbery or Floyd’s deaths or the protests that have erupted in major cities around the country, including Atlanta.

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Scamihorn said he believes his resolution is a good starting point to acknowledge the problems facing the school district and society. Board Chairman Brad Wheeler said Scamihorn’s resolution “is in line” with the other proclamations approved by the Cobb County Commission and its cities. Wheeler also said he’s willing to listen and agree to a resolution that all board members that can support.

“We need to be united in fighting racism,” he said. “It’s very important that we aren’t divided, for the kids and the community,” Wheeler said.

This latest issue is also another example of how racial and political divisions on the Cobb County School Board have come to light over the past 18 months. The board consists of four white Republicans: Wheeler, Scamihorn, David Chastain and David Banks. Charisse Davis, Dr. Jaha Howard and David Morgan are all Black Democrats.

Board members split along racial and political lines when they rejected Davis’ nomination to serve as vice chair for 2020; did not take action on a proposal by Morgan that would change how the board elects its chair; and chose to remove board member comments at the end of the meeting agendas.

Howard said his colleague’s resolution “failed to acknowledge the systemic, institutional problem of racism and its devastating, complicated and stubborn history in Cobb County.”

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Davis added Scamihorn’s resolution is equivalent to an “all lives matter” response to Black Lives Matter, “which is not the moment we are in right now.” Davis said she believes people now expect school boards and other governing bodies to not only reject racism, but to follow up with actions that promote anti-racist policies.

“We are in no way acknowledging the racism in this county that I know I hear about and that my colleagues have heard about,” she said of Scamihorn’s resolution.

Howard said he plans to propose an alternate resolution that mentions systemic racism and mentions the names of Floyd and Arbery, as well as Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks. Taylor, 26, was killed when police in Louisville, Kentucky, executed a no-knock search warrant for illegal drugs at her home on March 13. No drugs were found. Brooks, 27, died after being shot by a police officer June 12 in the parking lot of a downtown Atlanta Wendy’s restaurant. Two Atlanta officers have been charged in connection with his death.

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Scamihorn said he takes issue with the phrase “systemic racism” in Howard’s resolution because he does not believe the Cobb County School District has that problem. Systemic racism has been defined as a form of racism that is embedded as normal practice within an organization or society.

Students have spoken about incidents of racism to board members over the years, and Scamihorn said the district has policies and procedures in place to address those issues as they arise.

“For the Cobb County School System, we haven’t seen a pattern of behavior to substantiate that,” he said.

David Morgan said he’s communicated his thoughts on both resolutions to board members and will make his opinions known during Thursday’s meeting. Board members David Banks and David Chastain did not return calls for comment.

Howard said it doesn’t appear the school board will have a unanimous approval on either resolution unless it can agree on some fundamental things. For him, mentioning systemic racism and clearly stating that the school system will “actively battle against racism” are two points that have to be in any resolution approved by the board.

“There’s a desire for unity, but unity can not come at the expense of silenced minority voices,” he said.