This past week, both the Forsyth and Guilford County Boards of Education swore in their new members. In Forsyth, the result was historic.
On Dec. 13, Malishai Woodbury, Barbara Burke, Deanna Kaplan, Andrea Bramer and Leah Crowley were all sworn in at the start of the meeting. These five new members — along with incumbents Dana Jones, Elisabeth Motsinger, Lida Calvert Hayes and Lori Clark — resulted in the first Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board made up entirely of women. With a majority vote, the only two women of color on the historic board, Woodbury and Burke, were elected chair and vice chair of the board respectively despite opposition from Motsinger and Clark, who nominated Jones instead.
“I believe the district is best served by a chair that knows the district,” Motsinger said.
The election of new leadership drew loud cheers of support from those in the room, including many who stood in applause.
As the time for public comments began, those in the audience expressed their profound relief and excitement at the makeup and leadership of the new board.
“It’s a pleasure for me to stand before this historic board,” said community member Al Jabbar. “We have waited a long time for this.”
Before the meeting, local organization Action4Equity held a press conference outside the building. They listed their recommendations for the new board including ensuring equity for all students, closing the achievement gap and providing healthy and safe school environments. Many of the asks had racial components, including comprehensive racial-equity training for all of the board members, and the formation of a racial-equity task force for the county.
“Here in Winston-Salem, only a quarter of black students in elementary and middle school are considered college and career ready,” said Peggy Nicholson, the co-director of the Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “Compare that to almost 70 percent of white students. The same goes for suspension. If you are a black student in Winston-Salem, you are six times more likely to receive a short-term suspension than one of your white classmates. These inequities don’t exist because black students are less capable or are misbehaving more frequently, they exist because of our history with race.”
Just four days later in Greensboro, similar asks arose during the board of education meeting on Dec. 17.
After new members Deena Hayes, Khem Irby, Winston McGregor, Anita Sharpe and Linda Welborn were sworn in and Hayes and T. Dianne Bellamy Small were voted for chair and vice chair respectively, many in the audience quickly took on the hot topic at hand during the public comments section. Most spoke out with regards to the recent viral video of two white, male Northwest Guilford High School students spewing hateful and racist comments towards black people.
“By now we’re all very well aware about the racist video that came out from Northwest Guilford High School,” said Todd Warren, the president of the Guilford County Association of Educators and the first to speak. “It was truly troubling to see a video like that go viral for any number of reasons. It was very clear that this wasn’t something in isolation. It was too well put together and the racism was too fluent.”
Warren, like many who spoke after him, called for fully funding the county’s Diversity Office which currently has only five staff members for the county’s 126 schools and 73,000 students.
“There wasn’t enough staff at the diversity office to handle this one incident,” Warren said.
Carla Council, a concerned parent, called for tougher punishment for racism in schools much like if someone were to come in with a gun.
“There needs to be no tolerance and they need to be expelled from school,” Council said.
While officials at Northwest have said that they have taken appropriate actions against the students involved in the incident, they have not disclosed to the public what the punishment was.
Council also called for teaching students more about the role that people of color have played in the country’s history.
“When the minority people are no longer victimized, then I think it will help the majority people realize how we all come together and work together as humans,” she said.
Others who spoke also echoed the idea that the incident wasn’t an isolated one and is one that the county has been dealing with for decades.
Annabelle Fisher, a senior from High Point Central High School spoke on behalf of the students at her school.
“Racism is not something that just occurs at Northwest,” Fisher said. “It plagues schools all over our county often times in ways that go unnoticed. Due to fact that the components of racism are within all of our schools, we strongly encourage the board to implement the steps that are being taken at Northwest on a county wide level.”
She also noted the recent event in which an armed individual walked into Smith High School. She and others called for an increase in mental health professionals in the school system as well as an increase in security measures.
Still, parents and other members of the community including Samuel Hawkins, spoke of the threat that white supremacy and racism play in the daily lives of students of color.
“This type of action presents a clear and present danger,” said Hawkins. “It has the ability to act as recruitment to those who are not students but certainly those who have issues with the subject of color and what it represents. The risk is our posterity.”
Boardmember Tillman, whose district includes Northwest Guilford High School, thanked the parents and community members for speaking out and stated that “the good and the light will always outshine the dark.”
Parent Carla Bluitt spoke about how she felt that there was a lack of a sense of urgency to fix the situation.
“It’s time to make a change,” she said. “How can we enact this change? It’s not enough to just recognize Black History Month. We have allowed abhorrent acts to continue for too long.”