OPINION: Druid Hills High video casts light on racial and regional debate

Townes Purdy, a senior at Druid Hills High School, describes conditions at the school in a recently released video. A group of students and parents there want to get a rebuild of the school.

Credit: Video screen shot

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Townes Purdy, a senior at Druid Hills High School, describes conditions at the school in a recently released video. A group of students and parents there want to get a rebuild of the school.

Credit: Video screen shot

The video of crumbling facilities at Druid Hills High School is a fine example of strategic guerilla marketing.

A group of students walked around the 95-year-old building, shot footage and described sewer leaks, rotting walls, deplorable bathrooms and other structural decay. The fact that those students giving the tour were multi-racial was critical in a county long split by racial, economic and regional differences.

The video’s aim was to draw attention to the dire situation and to shame the DeKalb County School Board into action. In February, Druid Hills High had been taken off a list of eight schools to be rebuilt. The video was put online last week, bringing thousands of eyeballs to it and causing Atlanta’s media to jump all over it. There’s something about a high school student squishing around in stinky water that seems to draw attention.

The school board placed Druid Hills on the agenda to be discussed at this Monday’s meeting. At first glance, it looked as if the video hit home.

“We did it after school; we knew of all the problem areas and then we (took the video) and talked about those areas,” said student Townes Purdy, who kicked off the video by wandering in sludge.

A senior, Purdy said conditions at the school have deteriorated during his time there. But the state of decrepitude is clear that this goes back years, if not decades. “It’s dirty and moldy and the walls are definitely falling apart,” he said. “We have a nickname for the school: Dusty Hills.”

Students had been complaining about the conditions and shooting iPhone videos but the effort became more focused, he said, after talking to a parent of a friend. The kids broke up into teams and had adult help editing the finished product, which ended up going viral.

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A students in a video shot at Druid Hills High School points out the deplorable conditions endemic in the school.

Credit: Druid Hills High School video

A students in a video shot at Druid Hills High School points out the deplorable conditions endemic in the school.

Credit: Druid Hills High School video

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A students in a video shot at Druid Hills High School points out the deplorable conditions endemic in the school.

Credit: Druid Hills High School video

Credit: Druid Hills High School video

School Board Chairwoman Vickie B. Turner told me she supports students “finding their voice and speaking up for injustice. But I think these students are being used as pawns in an adult game.

“We, as a board, have to have a panoramic view of the district; we have other schools that have many of those same challenges,” she said, mentioning McNair High, a school in South DeKalb whose population is almost entirely Black students. “One school is north, one is south. The squeaky wheel gets the oil. But that’s not how we operate as a board.”

McNair, with 580 students, has higher scores in the “facility condition assessment” and “educational suitability assessment” categories (as in it’s in better shape) than Druid Hills, which has 1,336 students — 40% Black, 30% white, 14% Hispanic and 13% Asian.

Druid Hills High is a stately brick building in a well-to-do neighborhood near Emory University. It was famously the backdrop of the movie, “Remember the Titans,” starring Denzel Washington.

It has drawn controversy in the past. About a decade ago, a group of parents tried to create the Druid Hills “charter cluster” that focused around the high school and several feeder schools. It was an effort to get better local control in a school district with a infamously unwieldy bureaucracy. The board voted 5-4 to turn down the effort, with its three white members on the losing side.

The cluster movement was often viewed in South DeKalb as an effort by white residents to gain control. It was the latest in the north/south, Black/white debate about who gets more resources, money and love from the district.

The most recent matter concerning Druid Hills High surfaced in a February board meeting when several school board members flagged the school when voting on a list of eight facilities needing substantial renovation. Board member Anna Hill, who represents North DeKalb, noted there were two figures concerning proposed work at the school — $6.4 million and $52 million.

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Druid Hills High School. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Credit: Curtis Compton

Druid Hills High School. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Druid Hills High School. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

As it turns out, one figure is for quick fixes and the larger one is for completely rebuilding the facility. It’s like the difference in repainting your kitchen and replacing the sink versus gutting it and bringing in an architect.

Board member Diijon DaCosta, who represents a Southeast DeKalb district, noted there weren’t early learning centers on the board’s renovation proposal. Chairwoman Turner said all sorts of schools are in “deplorable” condition in the district, many of them in South DeKalb.

Marshall Orson, who represents Central DeKalb, where the school sits, was incredulous at Druid Hills being taken off the list.

“I’m astounded that all this is being directed at Druid Hills and I’m not sure why,” said Orson, who told fellow board members that it is the district’s oldest school and “its problems have been identified for some time. And it serves the most diverse population that we have in DeKalb County.”

Later, in an interview, Orson said Druid Hills High has been singled out for where it is and for what it represents. “I often say that you should not confuse Druid Hills High School with Druid Hills Country Club,” he said. “This is not a case that these kids are more deserving than other kids. It’s just long overdue.”

Turner insists the board was not shamed by the students’ video to bring the matter back up for reconsideration. She said the board simply wanted to think more about what work needed to be done there.

“We will deal with the critical needs of the school,” she told me, noting that it will be more than the lower repairs estimate of $6.4 million.

“But we are not going to put $60 million into that building,” Turner said. “That school is nestled in the middle of affluence. I’m disappointed because people aren’t interested in all buildings.”

Should be an interesting meeting on Monday.

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