In early March, an 8th grader at a J.S. Waters School in Goldston was subjected to a mock “slave auction” after class. The incident angered and frustrated much of the Chatham County community and led to a series of community meetings to address that and other discriminatory behaviors within Chatham County Schools.
Work in response to what happened at J.S. Waters continues within CCS and the community. Last week, for the latest edition of The Chatcast, the podcast of the News + Record and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Carolina, hosts Bill Horner III and Daniel Simmons spoke with Chris Poston, the executive director for excellence and opportunity for Chatham County Schools, about what’s happened in the months since the slave auction incident. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity; the full interview can be found on all podcast platforms by searching for “The Chatcast.”
Poston is a Chatham County native and a part of the CCS system since 1996, working as an elementary school teacher, assistant principal and principal. He was named the 2015 Wells Fargo Region V Principal of the Year and was selected as Chatham County Schools Principal of the Year in 2015 and 2017.
We know that there are systems and barriers in our society. We also know there are places as a community where we need to become better. So no, I wasn’t totally surprised. We want our kids to feel safe at school, be good citizens and be responsible and respectful. Through what has happened, we see we have an opportunity, and a calling to support our students and make them better citizens.
CCS Superintendent Dr. Anthony Jackson’s leadership has been stellar. And we’re thankful that he’s leading our community and our schools. We’ve always had a bullying and harassment policy, as a school district, and Dr. Jackson made sure that policy is clear to our communities, principals and students.
This incident gave us an opportunity to really focus on our equity commitment. When we say equity, we talk about making sure we reduce the predictability of who succeeds in our district. So regardless of your zip code or your level of poverty, our district’s commitment is to make sure every student is successful — interrupting those barriers that prevent students from being successful. We also talk about cultivating unique gifts for every student.
We also made sure that there is support. Dr. Jackson approved with the school board a family engagement position we hope to hire soon and also additional excellence and opportunity with me and our team. It’s a vision to support this equity commitment in our district.
Language is important; language matters. We have to make sure we are teaching kids and adults about stereotypes and persistent, historical context so they can understand why words are inappropriate or hurtful.
We have made a commitment to make sure we do some consistent training and have a measure of training for our principals and teachers. We also want to support students — making sure they have a voice in how our school is run, and how they can give input. So we ask ourselves, are there things that we’re missing? Are there some things that we need to address?
I do think I’m just having crucial and honest conversations. I feel like this event did give us a moment to pause and really lean in and listen to students to think about how we can allow them to help make the change. We have a lot of focus groups around our district.
Our students have given us feedback about ways they want to get involved in their schools, not just the traditional ways like student council. We want to also make sure that we partner with different organizations in the communities where we can have the opportunity to make sure we’re connecting with families and connecting with students. Because this is a community effort. This commitment that the school district has is beyond the walls of the school. It connects to families that connect to community organizations. This is an effort that we’re committed to, but we’ll need everyone’s support.
We want our families to feel connected to our school system; we want parents to feel welcome. In the doors of our schools, we want them to feel as though they can reach out to their child’s teacher, their child’s principal, that they’re a part of the community and that their voice matters in our schools.
In addition to like traditional ways like P.T.A., many of our schools do community and school events.
We have an event planned in August, at the Mosaic in Pittsboro, where we’re inviting all families to learn about all the programs we offer in Chatham County Schools and also programs in our community that support families and students.
We have a partnership with Renaissance and Dr. Karen Barbee. They have therapists many of our schools use and that’s been a really powerful partnership. We also have talked about a student advisory committee or a board — student leaders who think about how they can advocate for change in our community. We want to make sure that not only are we listening to students, but we’re giving them the tools to really advocate for change.
We have welcomed conversation, for families, staff members and students. We shared a guidebook with teachers on how to respond to biases and stereotypes, and how to have those crucial conversations about race. And we gave our teachers an opportunity to have a discussion using the book. They said it was powerful to see feedback in the comments. It empowers teachers with tools, to better facilitate and handle conversations that are not appropriate.
We also had equity focus groups around our district in April. We had more than 120 teachers sign up and attend all across our district. So just a small group of teachers coming together, responding to the pain and trauma that some of our teachers felt, that had happened in our community and also giving them a voice. It was a really powerful time, we’re going to take those suggestions, and integrate them into the strategic planning process that we’re undergoing now.
There’s been an update to disciplinary consequences for students involved racist, homophobic or xenophobic incidents. This includes comments as well as actions.
Effective March 23, confirmed use of a racial, homophobic or xenophobic epithets, or bullying or harassment that was racial, homophobic or xenophobic and occurred at school or on school grounds, will have the following consequences for students in grades K-5:
• 1st offense will result in a 3-day suspension and required participation in restorative circles upon return
• 2nd offense will result in a 5-day suspension, administrative school reassignment and required participation in restorative circles upon return
• 3rd offense will result in a 10-day suspension, recommendation for long-term suspension and required participation in restorative circles upon return
Disciplinary consequences for students in grades 6-12 who commit confirmed acts of bullying or harassment that include racist, homophobic or xenophobic speech will receive:
• 1st offense: 10-day suspension/required participation in restorative circles upon return
• 2nd offense: 10-day suspension/administrative school reassignment/required participation in restorative circles upon return
• 3rd offense: 10-day suspension/recommendation for long-term suspension/required participation in restorative circles upon return
All administrators, social workers, counselors, behavior specialist and psychologist were trained prior to 2020. School social workers and behavior specialist received additional training so they could help train school staff. School staff was being trained during the 2019-2020 school year. We will be providing training for new student service staff and administrators in the fall and moving forward with our training model for schools.
Absolutely. We have a commitment to our students. Our guidance counselors and our school social workers are already planning and putting things in place for next year, to make sure are ready. We are doing training with our principals this summer. We are also doing a book study with them also on a book called “Courageous Conversations About Race.” We are making sure we are equipping everyone to do this work.
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