Buford High School senior Arieonna Vaker 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, 17, who is African-American. “I used to get mad. Now I just ignore it. People are going to be ignorant.”
She was shocked to learn of a racial discrimination lawsuit alleging Superintendent Geye Hambry used racially offensive slurs.
“He was always nice and kind,” Vaker said. “He was always supersweet to all the kids. He was never mean to anyone.”
She isn’t surprised to hear of racism allegations 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 the leader of her school district.
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“I’m very disappointed,” she said, adding that it was all the talk at school on Wednesday. “Everyone’s saying he should just quit.”
BREAKING: Geye Hambry has been put on leave
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Tuesday on the lawsuit filed against the Buford School system by Mary Ingram, a 66-year-old paraprofressional. In recordings attached as exhibits to the lawsuit, a man uses the n-word repeatedly as he demeans black construction workers.
Ingram’s lawyer, Ed Buckley, says the man on the recording is Hamby.
The 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 of Buford was struggling to reconcile the image of the popular school superintendent with the disturbing recording.
Jenipher Rea’s family moved away for a year while she was in grade school, and she still remembers Hamby’s warm welcome back when she returned.
“He said it was nice to have me back and called me by name,” she said. “I was like, oh, wow, he really does know me.”
In fact, he seemed to know everyone.
“He always seemed really genuine and nice,” said Rea, who started in the system in third grade and graduated in 2012. “He always acknowledged every single person by name. He said hi to everybody — all the custodians, every single person.”
She said the recording has left her shaken.
“It’s definitely his voice,” she said. “It was really disappointing.”
Hamby declined to address the allegations, saying in a statement emailed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “This is a personnel and legal matter pertaining to a disgruntled employee. District council has advised not to comment.”
Mary Ingram filed suit against Hamby and the school district in late June. 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’d always received sterling evaluations before pressing the emblem change, the lawsuit says.
Ingram wanted 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.”
Rea recalled Ingram as a kind and caring employee.
“She was like everybody's grandma,” she said. “She was really sweet and always in a great, positive mood.”
Most everyone she interacted with was similarly dedicated. Most everyone.
“I don’t think I had a single teacher who was racist toward me. The teachers were wonderful,” she said. “Administrators, for sure.”
She recalls front office staff helping other students before attending to her needs, she said.
“I’m Latina. They helped every single white person before they helped me,” she said. “It was little things, it wasn’t blatant. It’s always a little more subtle, more disguised.”
Soon after processing news 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.’