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Decatur Schools to remain mostly silent on discipline to students

This past spring has seen the release of several racist-related phone videos posted by Decatur High School students. Bill Banks file photo for the AJC
This past spring has seen the release of several racist-related phone videos posted by Decatur High School students. Bill Banks file photo for the AJC

Though a long spring of anguish and anger finally turned to summer on Sunday, Decatur residents white and black remain enraged over a series of racist videos posted by Decatur High students in April and May.

The two most recent Decatur school board meetings, June 9 and 16, opened with, combined, close to 30 separate public comments alluding to the videos. One commentator demanded “clear repercussions” while another asked if City Schools of Decatur “values the humanity of black students?”

Three years ago Civil Rights Attorney Mawuli Davis co-founded The Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights. The name refers to Decatur’s longtime African-American business and residential community that was largely dismantled by the so-called “urban renewal” of the 1940s through 1960s. During the June 9 board meeting Davis issued a public comment that was as unflinching as it was direct.

“[The Beacon Hill Alliance] has been concerned our white citizens didn’t understand the level of anger and frustration that many African Americans in America, generally, but in Decatur in particular feel at this moment. We try our very best to continue to sound the alarm that we are fed up as a community and people are ready to explode. I will echo that same sentiment again as it relates to issues that are occurring at CSD. If there is no action taken, again, I can only imagine what the response will be from those who are fed up to the point of frustration … [with] the blatant acts of racism and white supremacy occurring by students that go to Decatur High … [and all actions need] to be as transparent as possible as soon as possible …”

But during an interview with the AJC last week Assistant Superintendent Dr. Maggie Fehrman explained there are extreme limitations on what can be released regarding student discipline. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) states that school systems can’t provide discipline-related details except to the parent or student.

“In every investigation we will interview witnesses, gather information and follow the student code of conduct,” Fehrman said. “But once an investigation is complete, all we can tell you is that it is complete. We can confirm whether a student is in the system or not. But if they aren’t in the system, we can’t confirm [that a student’s leaving] is related to discipline.”

The first two controversial videos started circulating in April with one showing a white Decatur High teen delivering a racial epithet twice. Another showed a different white student lip-synching a profanity-infused pop song while loudly exaggerating a racial slur every time it was repeated in the lyric.

Fehrman said both those cases have been “resolved.”

An eight-minute video that surfaced in May shows a white 18-year-old Decatur High male knocking on the door of an Oakhurst home apparently owned by an African American (who is heard but not seen on the video). The eight minutes are full of the student uttering repetitious and condescending phrases while confidently assuring the unseen homeowner several times, “I am not going to jail (he didn’t).”

“We didn’t open an investigation on that one,” Fehrman said. “It didn’t disrupt school discipline, it was off campus, after hours and didn’t involve the school day. Given all that there’s not much we can do.”

The most recent video released has been the most incendiary, a five-second clip showing the son of a longtime Decatur High administrator holding what appears to be a toy gun. Although this student is a rising 11th grader, the video may have been shot when he was in the eighth grade and was posted only recently by other students. In the clip he says he uses the gun to kill blacks, utters the N-word and imitates the sound of three gunshots.

“This one is still under investigation,” said Fehrman, who was recently named assistant superintendent after two years at CSD and 21 years in public education. “We’re still trying to figure out when it happened. But in any case once the case is resolved we will not share specifics or make an announcement.

“I understand why there are raw feeling in the community,” she added. “[CSD has] completed three years of putting an equity lens on all our decision making across the district, and that makes this clustering of incidents particularly frustrating. But discipline is one of the most protected sections under Georgia and [national] privacy laws.”