Safe and Sound: Tackling racism in schools

Coffee Co. School Race Issues

COFFEE CO., Ga. (WALB) - As schools work to reopen for the fall amidst a global pandemic, the Coffee County School District is also dealing with concerns of racial inequalities.

Parents, teachers, clergymen, and people from across the Coffee County community expressed their concerns of racial inequalities within the school district.

They said they want change before school starts.

“We must move towards being anti-racist because not being racist is not enough, there is a lack of black and brown teachers inside the school system, that is a problem. Our children are not represented,” an educator said.

Board Member Tonya Wilkerson of District 1, said one of the concerns is a lack of diversity when it comes to teachers and administrators.

Coffee County Superintendent Dr. Morris Leis tells me they want to improve in that area.

Dr. Morris Leis. Coffee County Superintendent
Dr. Morris Leis. Coffee County Superintendent (Source: Coffee County School District)

“We want a diverse teaching force. We want our teaching force to reflect our community. And we can keep working at it, I believe we can keep improving,” Dr. Leis said.

Tabitha Paulk is not only an educator within the district but she also serves several roles in the community.

As the NAACP President for the Coffee County chapter, as well as the education chair, she thinks so much can be done but the solution starts with hiring more black educators.

“You have 30 percent African American students and 17 percent Hispanic, but some schools you have no black teachers, no Hispanic teachers, no administrators at all, not even one,” Paulk said.

Tabitha Paulk
Tabitha Paulk (Source: WALB)

Dr. Leis said they formed several committees to address the concerns of racial bias and minority recruitment within the school district. He says they will implement those before the school year starts.

“There is nationwide, a problem with racial balance and racial justice and we need to be concerned about that and I think locally, like most places across the country, we are addressing that,” he said.

But Dr. Leis also said they’re on track when it comes to the number of minority teachers compared to their other districts in their area.

“Out of the eight systems, we actually had the most diverse teachers in our system RESA district so that made me feel pretty good in comparison to the counties in our district,” he said.

Dr. Leis says they do want to do better but it’s hard to recruit in rural areas.

Paulk said the diverse teachers are there, but she said the problem is the African American teachers are not being interviewed.

Paulk says there’s an issue when it comes to discipline calling it the “school to prison pipeline.”

“They’re punishing alarming higher rates and that time that they are missing while being out of the classroom is critical,” she said.

Dr. Leis says they also formed a committee to address this to look at the issues that were brought forward concerning discipline and practices involving discipline.

Paulk also said teachers should be held accountable for inappropriate behavior and that includes what’s posted on social media.

“They shouldn’t be allowed because of the racism and the bias of their behaviors that spills over into the classroom,” Paulk said.

Dr. Leis said they look at each case individually.

“We like to make it everybody would always make good judgment calls and everybody would always make good decisions, but the reality of it is that doesn’t always happen and we just deal with it in the way that it is the most proper way to do it,” he added.

The next board meeting is Thursday.

Students in Coffee county are heading back to school on August 7.

Copyright 2020 WALB. All rights reserved.