Sunday, March 23, 2014
AMHERST — Amherst Regional High School Principal Mark Jackson said he and other school administrators are investigating the discovery of racist graffiti in the school targeting a teacher of color.
The incident drew outrage from members of the town and school community; about 60 of whom turned out at a quickly called forum at Amherst’s Jones Library Friday evening.
Jackson said a student confided in a teacher Thursday around 1:30 p.m. that she had found racist graffiti targeting math teacher Carolyn Gardner in a girls’ bathroom. Gardner, who is new to the school this year, was also the victim of two racist messages scrawled in a bathroom and on her classroom door in October.
Jackson said the graffiti found Thursday did not threaten violence, but school officials still contacted police to be involved in the investigation.
“I and the school have an obligation to everyone who works here and comes to school here to keep them safe and make sure no harm comes to them. We didn’t do so well on that front with Ms. Gardner,” he said in a telephone interview Friday. “We owe her a debt and we really need to rally around her.”
Jackson and Superintendent Maria Geryk met with Gardner Thursday afternoon.
Jackson also spoke to faculty and students at separate assemblies Friday morning, and alerted parents in an email sent early Friday morning.
He said school officials photographed the graffiti and then removed it.
“The deans of students are trying to figure out who is responsible. That is a critical part of our response,” but not the only part, Jackson said. He said he and administrators are still discussing their next steps to address this and other racist incidents involving students. He asked students at an assembly to do their part to change the culture of the school.
“One of the ways we can do that going forward is to be more vigilant about the use of language, symbols and gestures that shouldn’t be used,” he said. “They have no place in our culture. It’s here we’ve fallen short.”
This latest racist incident comes on the heels of several other revelations about racial harassment at Amherst Regional High School. On Jan. 25, the school was closed as a safety precaution after a student allegedly posted on Facebook that he had been bringing a gun to school to protect himself from bullying. Officials eventually acknowledged that racial antagonism played a role in the incident.
Reportedly, the white boy who wrote the Facebook threat had been involved in confrontations at school and on social media after he angered other students by using the N-word when congratulating a black friend in a public Facebook post.
When the school held “Warrior Week” in February to encourage bystander intervention and discourage name calling, Gardner shared with students how racist graffiti back in October left her “broken” and afraid.
In a written statement, Gardner said that in her second month as an Amherst Regional High School teacher, a “threatening note” toward her was found in a bathroom.
“This experience has left me feeling very unsafe in this building. That day, it was most difficult for me to teach through to the end of E-period. As soon as school ended, at 2:20 p.m., I locked my door in fear. ... It was Mr. Jackson who unlocked my door that afternoon and escorted me to the parking lot,” she wrote.
When she nervously returned to school the next morning, Jackson informed her that the sign on her classroom door with her name on it had been “defaced with a racially motivated derogatory slur.”
“In tears I left the school premises that morning unable to work, unable to perform my duties,” she wrote. “The insidious effects of the racism that I have endured are psychological, they are emotional, they are social and they are physical.”
Jackson said Friday that deans identified and punished the perpetrator of one of two October acts of graffiti. He said he could not reveal details or whether the perpetrator was a student.
Officials suspect that a student acting alone is responsible for the graffiti found Thursday, Jackson said, but he wants all faculty and students to feel obliged to respond.
At Friday’s forum, the president of the Amherst branch of the NAACP, Kathleen Anderson, said this latest incident needs to be taken seriously and should be addressed immediately and not swept under the rug.
Sonji Johnson said Gardner, a friend, was so upset and fearful after the discovery of the graffiti that she couldn’t drive herself home. Gardner did not attend the forum.
“She thanks us all for the support,” Johnson said. “She would like us to not forget this is not really about her, but it is really about people who look like her.”
Johnson said the racially motivated incidents in the school feel like a form of terrorism.
“It’s deeply concerning that our children would be subject to this level of vitriol and hatred,” she said.
Johnson said the graffiti is only the latest in a string of incidents targeting Gardner, who also has had her tire flattened and screws removed from her desk chair, causing it to collapse under her when she sat on it.
Camila Carpio, a senior at AHRS, said this latest incident points to a lack of racial sensitivity endemic at the school, belying the town’s reputation for progressive thinking and tolerance.
Carpio wondered what the school’s reaction to the graffiti would have been if the victim were a white woman and a suspect was a male of color; which elicited applause from many in the room.
Several at the forum said the continued incidents have created a climate of fear and anxiety among students of color, making it more difficult to succeed and thrive in an already difficult academic environment.
Every incident like the one that happened Thursday not only hurts the victim, Jackson said, but also makes a statement about the school’s culture and reminds everyone that there is work to be done.
“This morning, it was about a clear demonstration of our support for Ms. Gardner and to make students understand that things they might be casual about — whether it’s the N-word, or the B-word directed at a female or the F-word at someone who is gay or lesbian — there is nothing casual about them,” he said. “They affect people, they wound people and they need to disappear.”
After the revelations about racial harassment related to the January Facebook threat, administrators have talked with students, staff, parents, community members and consultants about how to address racist attitudes that persist in the school hallways.
Geryk, the superintendent, said the administration is working to develop an online system for reporting incidents and forming an Equity Committee to head the efforts for change.
Gardner did not respond to a request for comment Friday, but in her written statement from Warrior Week, she described not only racist attitudes among students, but also institutional racism.
She said students of color were not being well-prepared for life after school, were “systematically left out” of honors math classes, and suffered as a result of teachers who had lower expectation for them compared to white students.
“Let us please use this opportunity to address this specific issue — that of racial inequity as practiced in this school and wider community,” she wrote. She said that a welcoming and equitable school environment was possible. “The first step in achieving this has to be the robust desire to see it done.”
Jackson said that while the incident Thursday is “disheartening” after the efforts of many to improve the culture of the school, he is not demoralized.
“We have to go forward and learn from this and embrace the hard reality of this,” he said.
Rebecca Everett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.