The mother of a black Mason Middle School student blasted school officials Tuesday night for “trying to silence me” in her response to the incident involving a white teacher who told her son his classmates would “lynch” him.
Tanisha Agee-Bell was among the speakers in a standing-room-only crowd of mostly black residents at the first Mason school board meeting since the racial incident that drew national attention was unveiled this month.
“What has shocked me is the cavalier way those racist statements were shared and the lack of urgency in which the district responded,” said Agee-Bell, who teared up at times during the meeting as other black residents voiced their complaints about the racial climate in Warren County’s largest school system.
She told the board her early efforts in following district procedures for complaining about the teacher’s remark were largely ignored.
After three weeks, Agee-Bell said, she came to the board in late December and asked for its help in mediating her complaints against veteran teacher Renee Thole.
Thole was initially reprimanded. Then -- after public outcries about leniency, led by Agee-Bell – Thole was ordered on paid administrative leave that includes racial sensitivity training.
“Instead you tried to silence me, to save your image, under the guise of a personnel issue,” she told the board.
“I had no choice but to engage the (news) media,” she said of her choice to go public.
“Your refusal to listen and the superintendent’s refusal to acknowledge the racist nature of the incident made clear you had no intention of living up to your mission of providing a safe and nurturing environment for all students.”
“You broke a sacred trust between us. While I appreciate that you finally did the right thing in my case, we will all forever wonder if it was because you recognized it was right to do, or if you were forced by a greater community that knows that right is always right,” said Agee-Bell.
She told the five-member board she hoped the members too would participate in the district’s ongoing and new racial sensitivity programs “so you can examine your own implicit bias and its impact on how you govern the district.”
Mason Superintendent Gail Kist-Kline and Board President Matthew Steele started the meeting with apologizes on how Agee-Bell’s complaint and the teacher’s initial punishment were handled.
Mason officials had earlier vowed to boost existing racial and cultural education programs as well as create new diversity outreach efforts in the 10,400-student district.
Black students comprise 4 percent of Mason’s enrollment with 23.5 percent Asian, Pacific Islander the largest minority group of students. White, non-Hispanic students total 63 percent of enrollment.
Fellow African-American school parent Andrea King called on the board to measure its policies regarding racial sensitivity and determine “if they are implemented fairly.”
Jill Gorley, also a black resident, told the all-white board “we always talk about student diversity and inclusion but I think we have to talk about what our school board looks like. What do our teachers look like and who are we hiring?”
Board members said they heard the messages delivered.
Connie Yingling, in a reference to long-standing board policy not to address personnel issues during public meetings, said, “my intention was never to silence anyone.”
Fellow board member Courtney Allen said, “I appreciate those who spoke here tonight. It’s hard to hear of the difficulties some have had in the district.”
District Spokeswoman Tracey Carson was part of a board presentation at the meeting on how district officials are “accelerating” and adding to required racial and cultural sensitivity training for teachers and school staffers.
New programs will be installed with “an increased sense of urgency,” Carson said.
After the meeting, Agee-Bell said, “I was very pleased with the community support” from African American residents, whites and Asians in attendance
As for the district’s response so far, it “still has a lot of work to do.”
“A plan is great right, but we need to have the right people implementing the plan. It’s not that I expect them to not make mistakes but I expect them to handle them better,” she said.
“There’s this misconception that if you call out a racist behavior, you are calling somebody a racist and that’s not true. We’re saying racism exists … and we have to get rid of the systems that allow racism to exist,” she said.