Racism in Texas Schools

Parents of this Black student (pictured), filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging school administrators at a Pearland junior high school colored in the student’s scalp with a permanent marker for violating dress code with his hair

On the eve of one of the most important presidential elections of our lifetime, many Americans are justifiably focused on the Congressional hearings to impeach President Donald Trump. But while we’re watching the drama in Washington, it’s also important that we pay attention to the failures of local government.

Case in point is the Pearland Independent School District (ISD) in Pearland, Texas. It is a bellwether of swiftly changing demographics and attitudes on diversity and inclusion. Pearland ISD is overwhelmingly non-White. About 11 percent of its students are Asian American; 15 percent are African American; 35 percent are Latino. There’s diversity in religious practices and sexual orientation as well. But while the students are diverse, in the last 180 days, we have had at least four instances of racial, religious and LGBTQ+ intolerance hit the local, national and even international press.

That’s why we’re asking the city’s elected officials to modernize our student and employee codes of conduct, paying specific attention to the most vulnerable students. They are not safe in our schools.

In one egregious case, parents of a Black student filed a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging school administrators at a Pearland junior high school colored in the student’s scalp with a permanent marker for violating dress code with his hair style. Their son, the parents noted, was humiliated.

Risking retaliation, current and former teachers from Pearland ISD have publicly testified that the district has taken no action on two instances: In one case, [White] colleagues allegedly told a Black educator that she was “too dark to blush.” In another, a White teacher referred to a Black student as a “hood monkey.” Pearland, however, isn’t the only city in Brazoria County that has had problems with racial intolerance in schools. For example, in nearby Sweeny ISD, White students — one reportedly wielding a machete — hurled racial epithets, as they threatened a Black student. Local police took no action and allegedly convinced the Black student to concede that the White students were “just playing.”

Pearland ISD has responded to racial incidents with lip service. On three occasions when the school board could have passed a resolution denouncing White supremacy, it refused. We all know that declarations against racism are empty unless backed up by policy with accountability measures.

The leadership of Pearland ISD should address the following:

1) Why doesn’t the district’s student code of conduct mention the word “discrimination” in its 44 pages?

2) Why does its employee handbook use the term “discrimination” only to proclaim that they do not discriminate against teachers?

3) Why is there no [concrete] plan to prevent discrimination or no path of action for when discrimination inevitably occurs?

4) Why do teachers who oppose bigoted acts face retaliation from certain district officials?

It’s not like the district hasn’t been here before.

In 2010, the NAACP worked with a mother and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) to get Pearland ISD to sign an OCR Agreement to resolve a racial discrimination complaint. The agreement required the district to specifically prohibit racial harassment in board policies and procedures and to provide professional employees with training on Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (which prohibits entities that receive federal financial assistance from discriminating against the beneficiaries of that assistance based on race, national origin or color).

In addition, it specified that Pearland ISD provide students information on behaviors that constitute racial harassment and that the district prohibit such conduct. It specified the content of required training for employees. The OCR agreement also required the district to keep records of alleged victims and perpetrators of racial harassment, by race, grade and age, the investigation report and a description of sanctions imposed, if any.

Pearland ISD was also obliged to evaluate whether prompt and equitable resolution of the complaints was achieved, whether actions taken were reasonably calculated to prevent the reoccurrence of racial harassment, and whether the remedies afforded the victims were tailored to redress the specific problems experienced by the victim.

But despite the OCR agreement, racism and insensitive language continue to permeate throughout the Pearland school district.

For example, a young Asian student was subjected to public ridicule by a teacher who addressed her with “Hey, Asian Girl” and insisted she did not fit the stereotype of smart Asians when the girl, flummoxed by the teacher’s bigotry, failed to answer a question.

Earlier this year the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement on the impact of racism on child and adolescent health — on not just victims but also bystanders. In Pearland, more than 1,000 national physicians signed a petition in late summer to condemn a toxic climate of intolerance in the school district.

This is a school district that refuses to reconcile its diversity with true inclusion, which requires incorporating critical dissent from all stakeholders. Harassment of all students (and teachers) must be eliminated, and those who stand up against bigotry deserve support, not retaliation.

On a positive note, Pearland ISD has created a “Culturally Responsive Council,” which includes Black administrators unafraid to speak truth to power. But the council needs to be more inclusive. There is no critical input from Asian-Americans, Latinos, religious minorities or members of the LGBTQ+ community. Without their perspectives, we cannot know how and on what timeline to meet the urgent needs of all students and teachers in Pearland.

During the last three years, the Texas State NAACP has received numerous complaints, similar to the recent incidents in Pearland, from other Texas public high schools and institutions of higher education.

Beyond the district-wide agreement with OCR made in 2010, we also have excellent guiding principles on this subject matter in the 2014 Guidance on School Climate and Student Discipline, jointly published by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice. We ask that Pearland ISD adopt these already established best practices — no need to reinvent the wheel. It is time to take swift, corrective action — to stop being the bad local actors obstructing justice and to start standing up for all of our families.

Dona Kim Murphey is a physician, parent and community organizer in Pearland ISD. Gary Bledsoe is president of the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches and a board member of the national NAACP. Eugene Howard is president of the Brazoria County NAACP. Victor Goode is interim education director and assistant general counsel of the national NAACP.

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