York County School Division officials responded Friday to allegations of bullying at one of their schools that became part of a national conversation on race, saying individual student matters are taken seriously and bullying concerns are being addressed.
As racial tensions continue to bubble up on college campuses and in cities across the U.S., a letter from 13-year-old eighth-grader Za'Khari Waddy detailing racist bullying at Tabb Middle School was the subject of a New York Daily News social justice column Thursday.
It contained a copy of a letter Waddy sent to the newspaper and to his school. The letter described another student saying "he does not like blacks" and "he told me 200 years ago my ancestors hung from a tree and after he said that I should hang from a tree."
The story also said Waddy had been called a racist slur and "called a criminal, rapist and more by white classmates" and had been experiencing harassment for three years of school.
The letter describing racist taunts was accompanied by comments by Waddy's mother, Zettrona Powell, about how she feels York school officials have not acted quickly enough or done enough about harassment of her son. She has met with them numerous times, according to the Daily News.
The Powells did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.
The school division issued a statement in response to the article, saying that privacy laws prevent it from sharing additional information on the actions taken by staff. It reiterated the range of consequences for bullying behavior outlined in its student code of conduct.
"We would like to assure our community that the school administration took immediate steps to investigate the report and that appropriate disciplinary actions were taken in accordance with the division's student conduct code, division policies and procedures," read part of the statement.
Schools spokeswoman Katherine Goff added that the Waddys' complaint was received in October and investigated.
York County School Board Chairman Mark Medford and Vice Chairman Robert George, who represents the Tabb area, did not return phone calls.
Barbara Haywood, who was the first black elected official in York County and has been on the School Board since 1989, referred questions to Goff and the assistant county attorney.
The York County schools student population is 63.3 percent white, 13.2 percent black, 9 percent Hispanic, 8.4 percent two or more races, 5.6 percent Asian, 0.3 percent American Indian and 0.2 percent Hawaiian Pacific, according to the school district's website.
Is bullying a problem at Tabb Middle School?
Depends who you ask.
When Stacey Holland, whose daughter goes to Tabb High School, read Waddy's letter online, she believed every word of it.
"I believe all the things he said," Holland said. "I believe that he was seriously hurt."
Holland's daughter was bullied so bad at Grafton High School, also in York County, that the School Board allowed her to attend Tabb instead after they saw the text messages and notes she was receiving from her softball teammates, Holland said.
In her daughter's case, the bullying was not racial, said Holland, who is white, but because she was a good player who listened to the coach. Her daughter has not had issues with bullying at Tabb, but Holland believes it's still happening.
"Unfortunately, it's happening in the county," she said. "Kids are learning things at home and bringing them to school."
Alexis Guye, an African-American student at Tabb Middle School, said she has seen racial bullying take place there.
"I've heard the n-word being said a lot, especially with the eighth-graders," Guye said.
Although she has never been called the word herself, it makes her uncomfortable, she said.
Emma Kelly, a younger Tabb student who is white, said she has never heard a racist comment in the school.
Randy Wojcik said his daughter, who attends Tabb, has not talked about bullying being an issue this year.
A few months ago, the students put on a play about bullying, that his daughter was in, he said. It was well-attended and likely raised awareness about the issue, he said.
Russ Skiba is the director of the Equity Project and a psychology professor in the School of Education at Indiana University.
"I think if indeed it's true that the mother has brought this to the attention of the administration multiple times, only to be told they would look into it, I think that's troubling," Skiba said.
He said best practices show that if bullying and harassment are not strongly dealt with, the harassment will just continue. He said that may apply "even more so in the case of racial harassment."
"If putting our racialized and racist past behind us is one of our values, and it should be as much of a value just as academic excellence is a value, just as a safe and productive school is a value … then (bullying and harassment) should be treated in the same way that any other threat to the achievement and safety to our schools (would be)," Skiba said.
Staff writer Jane Hammond contributed to this report. Clift can be reached by phone at 757-247-7870 and Williams at 757-247-4644.