The chairman of Atlanta’s Board of Education launched an investigation into allegations of racism against staff members at North Atlanta High School weeks before officials removed the school’s leadership team, emails show.
The Buckhead Reporter obtained copies of the emails showing Chairman Reuben McDaniel delved into the matter. These records illustrate a behind-the-scenes power struggle between McDaniel and District 4 Board of Education member Nancy Meister over North Atlanta High’s future.
McDaniel told board members he would not succumb to what he described as “scared negro disease,” a reference to a speech by former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson about black elected officials being reluctant to act on behalf of other blacks out of fear of losing power. McDaniel told board members it was his moral duty as a black elected official to root out racism at the school. He also accused Meister of being part of the problem.
“My position means nothing if I look at a group of fragile kids who are being oppressed by a racist environment and look the other way,” McDaniel wrote to board members on Aug. 21, according to copies of the emails provided to the Reporter.
Meister said she could not comment directly on any investigations, but said she was caught off guard by the contents of the emails between herself and McDaniel.
“The exchange you’re referring to began around a principal selection process and it morphed into a situation that I didn’t realize existed,” Meister said. “I wasn’t aware that it existed and that there were issues out there because no one had approached me on them. That was a very hurtful exchange.”
McDaniel responded to messages left by The Reporter with a brief statement that did not address the particulars of the emails he sent to Meister.
“Parents and community members often bring issues to board members, and we have a responsibility to alert the appropriate staff members so that they can address concerns, using the proper channels,” he said in an email. “Our students and teachers have endured a lot of attention and change over the past 30 days. It’s time to move beyond issues of the past and focus on supporting our new principal, the students and faculty of North Atlanta High School.”
Here is a relevant portion of the email McDaniel sent to Meister and other board members on Aug. 21:
“I have been meeting with parents all summer about the racial problems at North Atlanta and am appalled by what I am hearing. As an African American elected official, I have a responsibility to not look the other way when I see racial problems in our system that are effecting the opportunity of any of our minority students. I have a personal and moral responsibility to address the issue and do whatever I can to change it. I will not ignore the problem or act like it doesn’t exist. I invite any of my fellow board members to assist in this but I am prepared to pursue it alone. As with this type of racism there are a lot of intentional and unintentional contributing factors that make it difficult to solve, but the first step is to admit we have a problem. In Maynard Jackson’s last speech the Friday before he died on a Monday he talked passionately about the “Scared Negro” disease, where African Americans get into a position of power where they can impact the lives of African Americans, but are scared to do it because they might lose their position. My position means nothing if I look at a group of fragile kids who are being oppressed by a racist environment and look the other way.” — Reuben McDaniel
These records tell a different story than the one provided by Superintendent Erroll Davis, who has said his decision to reassign the North Atlanta High leadership team centered on academics. While academics may have played a role in Davis’ decision, and dropout rates were discussed in the emails, the record shows he was well aware that McDaniel was zeroing in on allegations of racism at the school and wanted changes.
The records also may add more credibility to former principal Mark MyGrant’s claims. He has said that APS officials were reacting to the allegations of racism when they showed up at school on Oct. 5, a late Friday afternoon, told him to leave and reassigned the school’s academy leaders. MyGrant has asked for a public hearing on anonymous allegations that he planned to hire a racist teacher.
In one of the emails sent Aug. 21, McDaniel asked for information about employees MyGrant planned to hire.
Also, McDaniel had requested information about the race of students pursuing International Baccalaureate diplomas through the school. In February, a group of parents sent a letter to school officials alleging racism within the school’s IB program.
The parents’ names were not on the February letter. According to emails sent months later, McDaniel claimed to be in constant contact with the anonymous people alleging racism at North Atlanta.
MyGrant says APS ignored his questions about the allegations.
On Aug. 18, MyGrant sent Davis a letter asking for more information. Davis didn’t provide any, MyGrant said. While MyGrant searched for answers, McDaniel and Meister were discussing charges of racism via emails that also were copied to Davis. One email from McDaniel shows the board chairman wanted to know the qualifications of employees MyGrant planned to hire.
In an Aug. 20 email exchange, Meister asked to work with McDaniel to find the truth, saying she was having a hard time believing the allegations. McDaniel rebuffed her efforts and told her she was part of the problem at North Atlanta.
“I find it hard to believe you have not at least heard (the allegations) even if you don’t believe it,” McDaniel wrote. “However, one of the classic elements of institutional racism is that members of the empowered class that are not participating in the actions sometimes don’t realize it is happening.”
In the email he suggested the board hold a roundtable discussion about institutional racism.
“This has nothing to do with me and you being representatives of the North Atlanta cluster,” McDaniel wrote. “It is about fixing a situation that is wrong. All of our students deserve better.”
McDaniel also said black parents wouldn’t feel comfortable talking to Meister because MyGrant planned to go into business with her selling real estate after he retired. These parents, whom McDaniel does not name, feared retaliation from Meister and other school officials, he wrote.
“Fortunately, through the internal audit department and other areas in the system we can create safe places to get to the bottom of these most serious issues,” McDaniel wrote to Meister.
McDaniel wrote he was confident the racism allegations had merit but nothing in the emails show why he believed this. In the emails, McDaniel said other parents told him they were not happy with the way an interview panel treated Reginald Richardson, APS’ initial choice to replace MyGrant. Richardson works in New York. APS offered Richardson the job in June, but he turned it down days later.
McDaniel wrote that he received information that some parents on the panel were giving internal candidates higher scores than external ones.
“I have received significant feedback from a large number of African-American parents that felt an email sent by a panelist after the administration recommendation of Mr. Richardson had racist undertones that were offensive to them,” McDaniel wrote to Meister on Aug. 18.
Meister, in a reply, pledged to meet with community members about the matter, writing to McDaniel that “alleged agendas and racial undertone should not be tolerated.”
It’s hard to say what impact the new information will have on North Atlanta. The school’s new principal, Gene Taylor, is interviewing candidates for his leadership team and life there appears to be returning to normal. Superintendent Davis on Oct. 9 said he couldn’t talk about investigations concerning racism, but implied there weren’t any ongoing inquiries.
The Board of Education delayed a vote to consider extending Davis’ contract until December after Meister asked for more time to investigate what happened at North Atlanta.
McDaniel’s emails show he believed institutional racism exists at the high school.
“I will not ignore the problem or act like it doesn’t exist,” he wrote on Aug. 21. “I invite any of my fellow board members to assist in this, but I am prepared to pursue it alone. As with this type of racism there are a lot of intentional and unintentional contributing factors that make it difficult to solve, but the first step is to admit we have a problem.”