Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Community Comes Out Against Racism

“Now Dr. V has backup.”

Community leaders, activists and parents stood in solidarity at West Campus High School Tuesday afternoon, demanding accountability and real change in the wake of racist acts against the Black vice principal there.

The rally was organized by Berry Accius, founder of Voice of the Youth, in support of Dr. Elysse Versher. Dr. Versher was the target of hate speech last week, including the discovery of the n-word painted on a wall multiple times near her assigned campus parking spot and physical threats made against her and her family both in person and via the internet. 

At a previous press conference at the school site last Friday, Greater Sacramento NAACP President Betty Williams said Dr. Versher’s home address was shared on social media. Community advocate Rashid Sidqe of Lift Up Love Always also revealed that Dr. Versher has had to stay at a hotel in fear for her safety and that her tires were slashed on campus two years ago.

Lorreen Pryor, President of the Black Youth Leadership Project, started off the rally sending prayers and well wishes to Dr. Versher and her family after the vice principal suffered a number of seizures in the wake of the racially-charged incidents. 

“That’s what happens when things are not taken seriously and we expose people to racist individuals; they’re stressed out to the point where they have medical conditions,” Pryor said. “Because she’s been ignored, now it’s escalated to a point where physically she can’t be here. She is worried. She has anxiety. She has blood pressure issues and all of this has been compounded by the inaction of the administration here. There has to be accountability.”

West Campus’ principal, John McMeekin and the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) Superintendent Jorge Aguilar both put out statements denouncing racism and hate, but rally speakers say such statements are wearing thin. Aguilar attended the rally and was put on the hot seat, answering direct questions from students and stakeholders. The district chief revealed that his own children attend the school and that he wasn’t made aware of the wall defacement until parents were notified via Principal McMeekin’s letter. 

Sacramento City Unified School District Superintendent Jorge Aguilar was already on the hot seat even before taking the microphone, but was given credit for actually showing up for the rally. Aguilar revealed that his own children attend West Campus and called the racially motivated incidents against Dr. Versher “abhorrent” and “heinous.” (Photo, Robert Maryland)

“We will continue to put every single resource at our disposal to address this issue,” Superintendent Aguilar said.  “It’s a reminder to all of us as community members, yes, me as a superintendent, of course, and the buck stops with me, but also as a parent of students at this very school, as a parent of another student at another Sac City school, that every aspect of this organization is going to have to deal with racial reckoning. Not some parts of our organization, not some of our units or departments, and not just some of our schools, but every single aspect of this organization.”

Accius outlined demands that include Principal McMeekin being fired, jail time for any students involved, those students being charged with hate crimes and district expulsion. Black students, he said, are often kicked off campuses for less. He encouraged the West Campus community, including teachers, who know who the guilty parties are to speak up. “Bring them out,” Accius implored. “Don’t hide them, y’all. Because what ends up happening is they get encouraged by this behavior. They become politicians, police officers, judges, principals, and teachers, because we empower them to think that what they did was OK. Today we say to this district, to West Campus, ‘enough is enough.’ ”

While Superintendent Aguilar said the West Campus incidents “meet the threshold of a hate crime,” he declined to comment on specifics of any investigation into those responsible.  

“In acts like these, it is critical that the district is not leading the investigation, so this is an investigation that will be done independently, so that all of those facts are considered and an unbiased finding of those facts are brought forward to us,” he said.

Fellow Black educator Steph Sanders was among those speaking at the rally.

“I’m a proud African American administrator, a fellow colleague,” said Sanders, whose stints as a principal include six years at the helm of Capitol Heights Academy, an Aspire charter school located in Oak Park.

“Dr. Elysse Versher is a new name, but it’s an old story. I’ve stood by and watched and experienced as my fellow administrators and myself, and educators of color who have come to serve our community and kids, are not supported. We’ve been demoted, we’ve been marginalized and pushed out. This happens over and over and over again,” he declared.

SCUSD is one of the largest school districts in the country, Sanders says, and change requires a large-scale effort. 

“There must be systemic, competent, laser-focused and district wide initiatives around equity, anti-racism, culturally responsive practices in all areas of education and critical race theory. Nothing less will suffice,” said Sanders, who is now a leader at Elite Public Schools, a charter school system in Vallejo co-founded by Black former SCUSD assistant superintendent Dr. Ramona Bishop.

Speakers and visible media presence attracted plenty of attention as the final bell rang and students and staff began to file out of the school. A large crowd assembled and a handful of students were encouraged to speak for themselves.

A student who didn’t give her name, but identified herself as Chinese, talked about racism she’s experienced at the school and lack of representation about school leaders.

“I’ve previously gone to middle schools and elementary schools that have a history of racism,” the young lady shared. “No Black teachers. All of my teachers, from the time I was probably four to the time I was 15, all White. I didn’t have one person of color teaching me. Having even one Asian teacher would have been nice. To have someone that I could relate to, someone who’s been through the same struggles, the same racism of being called slurs or when Coronavirus came around, it was all our fault,” she said.

Speaking directly to Superintendent Aguilar, the student asked,  “Where was this energy when people needed it here? When the students needed it, when Dr. Versher needed it?  Where was this energy from the teachers from our friends until a protest showed up? This support should have been there a long time ago.”

Adina Aaron, president of the West Campus Black Student Union (BSU), also addressed the crowd.  Aaron said she came to the school because it was advertised as one of the best places in Sacramento to learn. “I just wanted to be challenged academically,” said the teen, who previously attended Sutter Middle School, a feeder campus located in East Sacramento. 

Adina Aaron, left, and Nevaeh Turk, right, leaders with the school’s Black Student Union, said Black students need more resources and backup. (Photo, Robert Maryland)

Sutter’s student population is predominantly Hispanic, White and Asian.

“Coming here, it was a bit different because there’s even less Black students here,” Aaron said. “And I noticed they didn’t really prioritize the Black Student Union. My sophomore year, Black Student Union was on the verge of not existing, so I stepped up with a couple of my friends to make sure the BSU continued to happen.”

They’ve been asking the school administration for help, she says.

“We need more money and they should definitely pay more attention to the Black students, especially now.”

The BSU met with Dr. Versher last Wednesday to discuss race, racism and healing. It was less than 30 minutes after that session that Dr. Versher had the first of several seizures. 

“Students don’t feel comfortable and haven’t felt comfortable since they stepped on this campus,” shared Nevaeh Turk, a BSU member who was at that meeting. “This is coming from our freshmen and our sophomores. I’ve been here three years and [out] the gate, you get the stares, you get people looking at you like you’re less than them, like you don’t deserve to be here. But today, we talked to a Black female from the district and one thing that she really said, that I felt like everybody at West Campus, especially our Black students, needs to hear, is that we are enough and that we deserve to be here. Nobody’s going to drive our Black students out of West Campus.”