Carolyn Gardner, teacher targeted by racial slurs at Amherst Regional, calls response ‘anemic’ and ‘sluggish’

Last modified: Wednesday, March 26, 2014
AMHERST — Carolyn Gardner, a mathematics teacher at Amherst Regional High School who has been targeted by racial slurs three times since last fall, accused administrators Tuesday night of mounting an “anemic” and “sluggish” response to incidents she said are “attempts to dehumanize all people of color.”

Gardner emotionally addressed the School Committee as more than 100 community members turned out to support her.

Committee Chairman Kip Fonsh, of Leverett, opened the meeting with a statement calling the graffiti discovered last week in a bathroom at the high school “a ferocious body blow to our community, to our neighborhood and to our school,” before inviting Gardner to take the microphone.

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With her voice shaking at times, Gardner, who is African-American, chided administrators for suggesting that the use of the “n-word” in a note she received earlier in the school year was something less than an assault on her sense of physical safety.

“How could you even think the use of this word does not threaten violence?” Gardner asked. “My attacks were met with equivocations, indecision, sanitized statements to address them. It told me my person, my sense of security, my safety were not this administration’s top concerns.”

School Committee member Amilcar Shabazz, of Amherst, echoed Gardner’s assessment that the response to racism in the Amherst school system has long been “sluggish and anemic.”

That is what motivated him to seek a seat on the School Committee, he said, adding, “I try to channel Nelson Mandela to stay in this for the long haul, to continue to be patient and to continue to work at this day after day.”

Speaking later in the meeting, after Gardner had left, Amherst Regional High School Principal Mark Jackson said police are investigating the latest incident and that school personnel have gone to every classroom to encourage students with information on who wrote the graffiti to come forward. He said there will also be a way to leave anonymous tips.

Jackson also addressed Gardner’s accusation that his administration’s response to racial attacks on her has been inadequate. “If that’s what her experience has been then what I need to do as principal of the building is to quickly reassess and reevaluate,” he said.

Jackson added, “This is not about a few bad apples who we can easily write off, this is reflective of something much deeper.”

Kathleen Anderson, a former member of the Amherst School Committee and president of the Amherst branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, delivered a list of demands to the School Committee in the wake of the latest incident. They include bringing in an independent investigator, providing Gardner with escorts to ensure her safety and mandatory anti-racism training for all school employees.

Jackson said he did not know how to immediately respond to the demand for an independent investigator, adding, “If that’s what it takes then that is where we will go.”

Committee member Rick Hood of Amherst read a statement he drafted which calls for immediate expulsion or termination of any student or staff member found to perpetrate or condone language that is racist, homophobic or derogatory towards women.

The majority of the students in the school “get that racism is real, and wrong and that it must be called out when they encounter it,” according to the statement. “There will also be a minority of students — and staff — who don’t get it. ... With those people the answer has to be unequivocal: ‘Get with the program or get out’.”

Hood and the other committee members signed a letter to Gardner apologizing to her for what she has endured and pledging their support. "As a community, the Amherst-Pelham School District will not stand for these blatant acts," the letter said.

Pat Ononibaku, whose daughter attends the high school and who helped organize the large turnout at the School Committee meeting, said in an interview that students of color have been “very stressed” by incidents of racism at the school.

Ononibaku said, “Talk is cheap, I would like to see some action,” adding that she was encouraged by some of the things she heard at Tuesday’s meeting. “It’s a start,” she said.

Committee member Trevor Baptiste, of Pelham, encouraged activists to keep pressuring the school administration to meet the challenges posed by racist incidents. “There has to be some friction between the rubber and the road for the car to move,” he said.