PW special report – The battle for Alamance part 3: A school system in which racial divisions and inequities persist

By: - April 9, 2021 6:00 am
Yolanda Strickland attended Haw River Elementary in the early 1980s. She faced racism from her best friend’s parents, who would not let Strickland visit their home. (Photo: Greg Childress)

[Editor’s note: Read Parts One and Two of this series:  A look at the past and present of one of North Carolina’s most divided counties and The modern day struggle for political representation]

Nearly 40 years ago, Yolanda Strickland felt the sting of racism for the first time.

She was 10, a fourth-grader at Haw Elementary School in Alamance County. Her “best friend” rescinded an invitation to a sleepover after the friend’s parents learned that Strickland was Black.

One Black, the other white, the young girls were inseparable at school. And despite the friend’s racially regressive parents, the friendship flourished, hidden in plain sight. “I mean we were the best of friends all through elementary school,” explained Strickland, now 48. “After her dad found out that I was Black, we weren’t allowed to be friends anymore.”

After the canceled sleepover, the young girls stopped sharing lunches; they didn’t hang out on the playground anymore. “I got a card from her for my birthday, and it said; ‘from your mystery friend’ but I knew it was her handwriting,” Strickland recalled.

Strickland is now a mother of five with two children enrolled in the Alamance-Burlington School System. Her older children also completed their education there. “It’s a little better because they’re in a school that has more people in it that look like them,” Strickland said.

Strickland’s story is one of many that parents and students of color shared with Policy Watch about their experiences navigating the racial landscape of the Alamance-Burlington school district.

The district serves students in a county where racism is frequently overt. Last summer police pepper-sprayed protesters who demanded that a Confederate monument be removed from in front of the county courthouse in Graham. In 2010, the sheriff’s office reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over racial profiling during traffic stops.

The district was born of the 1996 merger of Alamance County Schools and Burlington City Schools, both of which were majority white. It is now among North Carolina’s larger districts, with roughly 21,700 students in 36 schools.

Children of color now outnumber whites, comprising more than half of the district’s enrollment. But they find few people in power who look like them. Most district administrators are white, and slightly more than 80% of teachers are also white, similar to the national average. 

Within the district, though, there is a stark racial divide. White students, who account for roughly 40% of enrollment, are concentrated in schools in rural parts of the county. Black and Latinx students primarily attend city schools, such as those in Burlington and Graham.

City schools, such as those in Graham and Burlington, are predominantly Black and Latinx. Rural schools enroll mostly white students. (Photo: Greg Childress)

Academically, Black students trailed their white peers by more than 30 percentage points on combined end-of-grade and end-of-course exam proficiency for the 2018-19 school year (65.1% v. 34.6%). The achievement gap for Latinx students was narrower, but still significant at 21.5 percentage points.

Former students who are Black or Latinx, like Strickland, who attended predominantly white schools in the racially charged county, recall feeling ignored or marginalized. Their spirits were sometimes crushed under the emotional weight of racism. Some of them, like Strickland, began to question their worth, while struggling to assimilate into schools they believed valued whiteness over achievement and character.

But the racism they endured is not merely a relic of an earlier time. 

In the late 1990s and early 2000s at the predominantly white Southern Alamance High School, Dayson Pasión’s classmates taunted him with racial slurs. The administration and teachers knew, but did nothing, said Pasión, who graduated in 2001.

“It made me lose my identity,” he said. “I felt like in order to survive school I had to run to and embrace whiteness.”

Pasión did more than survive. Despite experiencing an identity crisis, and feeling isolated, he graduated in the top 10 of his class. He enrolled in UNC Chapel Hill, where he graduated in 2010 with a biology degree.

Pasión worked in the Alamance-Burlington district as an instructional coach; he now serves as an equity specialist in the Office of Equity and Inclusion for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.

“I’m still dealing with the racial trauma [from high school],” Pasión said. “It’s probably why I’m doing the work that I’m doing today. It’s left a lasting impact for sure.”

Patsy Simpson is the only Black member of the Alamance-Burlington School System school board. (Courtesy photo)

Destiny Reid, the foster daughter of the lone Black school board member, Patsy Simpson, was one of two Black cheerleaders at Southern Alamance in the mid-2000s.

Some white parents would not allow their daughters to visit the Simpsons’ home. The experience emotionally damaged Destiny, who began doubting her worth and running from her heritage.

Destiny, who had previously lived with a white family in foster care, said the period was confusing, and made even more so by cheer mates who didn’t accept her because she is Black.

“There was a lot of racism,” Destiny said. “It was a shock because I had been taught that I was an equal, but after the experience with the cheerleaders, I found out that some people didn’t believe that’s true.”

Destiny transferred to Graham High School, which is majority Black and Latinx.

“We noticed a big change in her [Destiny] and we transferred her because she was trying to be, for the lack of a better term, white,” Patsy Simpson said. “She was losing her identity as an African American trying to assimilate.”

In public schools, Black boys are targets for harsh discipline

As is the case in many school districts across North Carolina and the nation, race plays a major factor in how discipline is handed down in Alamance-Burlington. 

The Southern Coalition for Social Justice’s annual Racial Equity Report Cards found that Black students in Alamance-Burlington schools were 2.9 times more likely to than white students to receive short-term suspensions — those lasting no more than 10 days. 

The report uses N.C. Department of Public Instruction data from the 2018-19 and 2019-20 school years.

Other racial disparities in school discipline revealed by the data include:

  • 31.1% of the county’s juvenile delinquency complaints in were school-related. Black students made up 50% of complaints.
  • Black students received 46.7% of short-term suspensions while making up only 23.3 % of the district’s enrollment. 
  • Black males were roughly 13% percent of district enrollment but received 30% of suspensions.

“There’s clearly an issue here,” said Tyler Whittenberg, chief counsel for Justice System Reform at the Southern Coalition. “There are practices, policies and maybe individuals who are collectively creating an atmosphere where Black students are being policed and pushed out of the classroom and into the justice system at disparate rates than their white peers.”

Hurtling students into an unforgiving school-to-prison pipeline can have devastating consequences, Whittenberg said.

“We know that children who are suspended are more likely to enter the juvenile justice system and if you’re in the juvenile justice system, you’re more likely to enter the system as an adult,” he said.

District Superintendent Bruce Benson rattles off the discipline data for Black males when asked about the challenges the district faces. “You really have to call attention to those kinds of things, then put strategies in place to bring about improvement,” Benson said.

Benson created the Equity, Diversity, and Opportunity Committee in 2019 in part to address disciplinary inequities and to ensure the district provides an “equitable and inclusive environment for all students, parents, and staff.”

But according to a sheriff’s office report shared with the school board in February, Black students, especially boys, are disproportionately disciplined.

The report documented the activities of school resource officers in 10 schools across the district. There were 92 misdemeanor charges and seven felony charges in three middle schools and three high schools during the 2019-2020 school year, which was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the previous year, there were 131 misdemeanor charges. All five felony charges were handed down at three middle schools. Common offenses include disorderly conduct, assault, sexual battery and possession of a controlled substance.

Pasión recently challenged a 2021-22 district budget proposal that would have spent $1.1 million to hire 17 additional SROs to ensure one was in every school. Instead, Benson’s request was reduced to $110,000, to pay for just two additional school resource officers. The district sees the move as a smaller but committed step toward placing an SRO at every elementary school.

“There are so many other things our students need,” Pasión said. “The district hasn’t shown that the SRO program is effective.”

Dayson Pasión is a graduate of Southern Alamance High School. He ran for school board last year, but did not win. Of the seven-member board, six are white and one is Black. (Photo: campaign website)

Benson, who is white, views SROs differently. “There’s an opportunity for us to help build a positive relationship with law enforcement in a school setting,” Benson said.

For its SROs, the school district partners with several law enforcement agencies, including two at the center of racial conflicts the Alamance County sheriff’s office and the Graham city police.

The former is the same office that pursued racial profiling of Latinx drivers, and whose long-time sheriff, Terry Johnson, called Latinx people “taco eaters”.

The latter is a force whose officers pepper-sprayed demonstrators last summer who had knelt in protest before the Confederate statue at the county courthouse. Several protesters were arrested, supposedly for illegally blocking the road, according to Graham police. Meanwhile, some officers high-fived neo-Confederates who were counter-protesting, according to court testimony.

Whittenberg of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice says school policing feeds a school-to-prison pipeline that has an insatiable appetite for Black boys.

“The SRO [school resource officer] is the first contact a young person has with law enforcement,” Whittenberg said. “Think about that, the place you go to learn, to feel safe, to feel secure, to learn social skills along with your peers, is the same building, same atmosphere in which you are criminalized.”

Predominantly white teachers, administrators, and elected officials, and mostly students of color

The student population in the Alamance-Burlington School System has become more diverse because of Latinx people who have moved to the county for better jobs and opportunities.

According to the most recent U.S. Census data, about 13% of Alamance residents are Latinx, above the state average, 22% are Black, nearly 72% are white.

To reflect those changing demographics, the school district is trying to improve teacher diversity with the district’s new Alamance Scholars program. Prospective teachers would attend Alamance County Community College for two years, transfer to Elon University for two years, and then take teaching assignments with the district after graduation. Research has shown that having even one Black teacher makes Black children more likely to graduate and significantly more likely to enroll in college.

Emphasis will be placed on recruiting students of color into the program, Benson said.

“Our notion here is to grow our own, and as such, the likelihood that they would want to stay with us because they’re already connected to our community is higher,” Benson said.

Despite the county’s changing demographics, winning local elections isn’t easy for Democrats or Blacks in the Republican stronghold. At-large elections are the main culprit. In the county’s at-large system, commissioner candidates and school board members can live anywhere in Alamance but they run countywide. As Policy Watch’s Lynn Bonner reported last month, the system can dilute the representation of non-white residents, who often live in concentrated areas of the county. Some county leaders have called for a district or ward system to help elect minority candidates.

The five-member Alamance County Board of Commissioners, which holds school district’s purse strings, is made up entirely of Republicans with no member of color. The last time a Black candidate was elected to the board was in 1980.

There’s a mix of Democrats and Republicans on the seven-member school board. Only one is Black. None is Latinx. Pasión unsuccessfully ran for school board last year, placing seventh among 11 candidates for a four-seat contest.

Simpson, who is Black, was elected in 2008. She often champions the causes of Black and Hispanic students.

“It feels like a really heavy weight on my shoulders,” Simpson said. “Some people, particularly white residents, think that I’m always advocating for Black students, and they’re absolutely right, because I can see the disparities and I can see the issues that have not been addressed in these schools.”

The Confederate monument at the Alamance County Courthouse has stoked protests by people who say the racist statue should be removed. In 2020, Sheriff’s Office Deputies and Graham Police arrested peaceful demonstrators. The school district hires personnel from these same law enforcement agencies to work as Resource Officers, many in predominantly Black and Latinx schools. (Photo: Greg Childress)

Simpson cited a recent example in which the district planned to use part of a $150 million bond package to improve safety at aging high schools by adding enclosures to secure open campuses.

The spending plan submitted by the administration included money for predominantly white Southern Alamance, Eastern Alamance and Western Alamance high schools but not for Graham, Cummings and Williams high schools, which are majority Black and Latinx, Simpson said.

“It was like, there she goes again, but those schools got added,” she said. “They [white colleagues] don’t see these issues from the same perspective or with the same eyes that I do.”

In 2020, the county’s changing demographics did help State Rep. Ricky Hurtado to catch lightning in a bottle. The UNC Chapel Hill and Princeton University graduate and son of Salvadoran immigrants won his District 63 race by a slim margin to become the first Democratic Latino elected to serve in the state House.

Hurtado, who grew up in Lee County, ran on a platform that emphasized public education.

“My dad stressed education because he had to forego his,” Hurtado said. “He was about to go to college when they [his parents] fled El Salvador to escape a Civil War. For him, it [not attending college] was almost like a dream deferred.”

Hurtado works as an instructor at UNC Chapel Hill and is co-executive director of an education initiative that helps first-generation college students and immigrant families break down barriers to educational opportunity.

Diverse representation in elected offices such as school board and county commissioner is critical to ensure the voices of nonwhite families are heard, Hurtado said.

“In a county that’s rapidly changing demographically, and also growing economically and also in terms of population,” Hurtado said, “it feels like the people who lead some of these efforts still have an Alamance County of the past in mind as opposed to the present and the future, which creates real challenges for where we go as a community.”

For Strickland, the proliferation of social media has opened new racial wounds. After a political disagreement between Strickland and a friend on Facebook, she said the friend’s teenage son called her the n-word in a private message.

“I was angry, and I was hurt,” she said. “I realized that he had to be taught that, and he was taught that by a person I thought was a friend.”

And Strickland is still haunted by the 40-year memory of the sleepover that never happened — purely because of her race. “It brought me to the realization that this is really the world that I live in and it hasn’t changed much for my children,” she said.

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.