Henrico County parents continue to have questions about bullying, racism and aggressive behavior in the district’s schools. This follows the recent locker room incident students distributed via social media at Short Pump Middle School. WCVE’s Catherine Komp and Megan Pauly have more for Learning Curve.
Catherine Komp: The Snapchat video angered people across the country, after national news outlets picked up the story. Filmed in a locker room at Short Pump Middle School, it showed some members of the football team pretending to engage in sexual acts with black players and included racial slurs and obscenities. After the story went viral, the Henrico School Board held a special meeting and WCVE’s Megan Pauly was there. She joins us to share what she heard. One of those who spoke was Melanie Oliver, she's the aunt of two students.
WCVE Reporter Megan Pauly: Yes, her niece is an eighth grader at Short Pump now and her nephew will be a sixth grader there next year. And she was just very concerned about the climate of the school.
“The display of what I saw was just mortifying, beyond mortifying and I don't want it to be brushed over.“
And she told you that her neice and nephew saw the video as a “joke” but Oliver didn’t agree.
“The way I looked at it on the video it didn't look like a joke to me and if it was it was a very, very bad one.”
Pauly: And most of the comments revolved around two themes: anger and confusion. Many parents shared pent up emotions about how their own kids have been victims of racial and sexual abuse and they called for stricter punishment for those offenses. But there were others like University of Richmond Education Law Professor Kimberly Robinson who warned that more discipline isn't always the answer and can even lead to what's widely known as the school to prison pipeline disproportionately doling out harsher punishment to African-American students.
Komp: Megan you also heard from the mother of an African-American student who is on the football team.
Pauly: Yes. Both parents of that boy were there. They did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation. But she did say the family had moved from New Jersey to the Richmond area and had experienced many more issues involving race since they've been in Virginia. And two of her children have been subject to racial slurs from other students one at Colonial Trail elementary and another at Deep Run high school and she suspects that her son at Short Pump might have been a victim too although he wasn't involved with the locker room video.
“Every day myself and my husband would come up to the school and we would bring up pads and or a mouthpiece and cleats, something that he mysteriously forgot at home every day. I'm not sure if, you know, he didn't want to be in a locker room-- that's something that we've been talking to him about. He did tell us that he never saw anything that was out of the norm in the locker room.”
Pauly: So this mom or her husband has to bring her son's gear to school regularly because their son doesn't want to go into the locker room and she says it's possible that her son's definition of normal isn't really normal.
What's also interesting about my conversation with this mother was that she and other parents were told verbally on Monday October 16th by one of the football coaches that there'd been an incident in the locker room involving "horseplay" and "dry humping." That was the communication from this mom of what he said. But according to an e-mail sent to several parents of football team members from one of the school's coaches dated October 6, we've obtained a copy of that e-mail, it paints a different picture showing that this video wasn't an isolated incident for this football team.
Email: “After the game this week, the team ran into a little internal issue. As a coach, I was hoping that I would not have to deal with anything like this ever. Unfortunately, I am now. There was a complaint from a player that somebody on the team was using derogatory and completely unacceptable words. As for any complaint I receive, an investigation needs to be conducted to obtain all of the facts. Like you, I want this to go as quickly as possible and corrected on the same day. Unfortunately, that cannot always be done. Any incident of this nature, needs to be reported to the school. Myself or any member of the coaching staff cannot make the decision regarding the team and its players. We have to follow school and Henrico County policies. I have made the coaching staff’s recommendation to the school regarding the discipline of this player. We are awaiting the school’s decision once they have concluded their own investigation of the incident.
At the beginning of the year, I made it very clear I would not tolerate any disrespect from any player towards anyone. It is completely unacceptable and I am very disappointed.”
Now that email wasn’t sent directly to this particular mom whose sound you just heard. Since her son wasn’t immediately involved in the incident, she didn’t receive any communication from the school district that something much more serious was underfoot.
That gets to the other big theme of confusion. Many parents like another mom of a football player Kelly Taylor say the school hasn’t done enough to communicate with parents about what’s going on in the school, and what’s being done about it. She has been leading communication efforts to try to engage with Short Pump’s principal and is trying to get more answers. She sat in on part of the sensitivity training during the team’s practice on Thursday, and here’s what she had to say about it:
“It is great, we should be giving all of our kids these tools. Today they were talking about mindfulness and how to step away. How to pull yourself out of a situation and breathe, and help collect your thoughts. That’s great information for everybody. But to say it’s mandatory: it’s not. It’s only mandatory if you want to come to football practice.”
Komp: WCVE requested an interview with Superintendent Patrick Kinlaw to find out answers to some of the questions parents like Kelly Taylor had including how long the sensitivity training would last. Spokesperson Andrew Jenks says "division leadership is taking the time to pause and reflect” on what the community is telling them which will factor into the district's next steps.
Now we turn to Jonathan Zur, CEO and President of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities. I asked him, how should an individual school respond to something like what happened at Short Pump Middle School. What should it do immediately and what should it do in the weeks/months to come?
Jonathan Zur: “I think in the ideal there is work being done before this incident ever happens. So there needs to be a foundation of trust built at the school and a foundation where students are with educators having ongoing conversations about values such as respect and communication, sensitivity for difference. When that happens it often prevents these incidents from taking place. But then if and when they do take place there at least is something to build upon. When the first time you're having a conversation around these issues is after a major incident that makes the news, you're already playing catch up. So that's the first thing that I would say in terms of what a school needs to think about and do. Once the incident happens I think there needs to be clear communication about the school's values and about how all of the stakeholders need to work together to learn and heal and prevent incidents like this from happening in the future and that can show up in a few different ways. So certainly clear communication, but also bringing together influencers across the school so that might be your parents and families that are involved in PTA, it might be some student leadership groups, your educators, and to invite them to be part of figuring out what the solution on a sustainable level might be.”
Komp: And what can teachers be doing in the classroom on a daily basis?
Jonathan Zur: “I think teachers need to be making sure that students know that the words and actions like what we saw in the Snapchat video are not acceptable and why. So one of the questions that I've asked quite a bit since seeing this video is what led these students to think that this was acceptable to do. And certainly our understanding is that there was not an adult around at that time but they seemed OK with this behavior, even with the possibility of an adult walking into the locker room. And so there's clearly some sort of message that has said that this is OK for students to do. So I think teachers need to be having these conversations, not just saying don't say that but also the education as to why. We need to spend time helping students to build empathy, to build respect for difference, to understand how these words and actions can be hurtful to others. And then also build skills in the bystander so that they move from simply watching something like this happening to really being folks who can stand up when they see incidents taking place.”
Komp: As we heard, the school board held a special meeting so parents and teachers could express their concerns. What is the school board's responsibility now?
Jonathan Zur: “I think the board's responsibility is to honestly and authentically listen and to figure out then what are actions that they can co-create with community stakeholders to be able to build trust with the community that is feeling especially harmed. So it's one thing to hold a town hall and I applaud them for creating space for people to share their very deep and emotional feelings. Now there is an opportunity to say, based on what we've heard, we will work with you to identify these priorities and we're committed to following through over the long term. I was pleased to hear that the district is committed to creating a task force of some kind to work on issues of equity. And one of the things we've seen is that this incident has been the most recent, but for many people reinforces other negative feelings or experiences they may have had within the school district. And so an ongoing task force that has very clear objectives, that has a budget, that has high profile is going to be the type of thing that engages the district in really moving forward in effective ways from the situation.”
Komp: Parents have expressed concerns that this isn't isolated to Short Pump Middle school. And you've done work in Henrico schools in the past. Are schools doing enough to teach about racism and consent.
Jonathan Zur: “I don't think schools are doing nearly enough and some of that is a structural challenge, that when they are required to meet certain benchmarks and teach towards certain big outcomes, issues around race and issues around bullying and sexism and consent become the add ons - when we have time. When in fact they need to be centered in schools that are preparing students to be responsible citizens in our society. And so we really need to rethink how our education system prioritizes the time that students are spending in the classroom and we need to prepare teachers to be able to effectively engage these conversations. We hear often from educators saying I want to talk about these things but I don't know the right thing to say and I'm not sure what I'm allowed to say or not and I'm not sure what will get parent pushback or not, so I don't say anything at all. And that communicates a whole lot when these issues are coming up in our news and sometimes even in schools and teachers aren't saying anything. We need to give them the skills and the permission to be able to effectively navigate these issues.”
Jonathan Zur is CEO and president of the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities. And earlier you heard WCVE's new education and city government reporter Megan Pauly. For Learning Curve, I'm Catherine Komp, WCVE news.