By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
The Greater Sacramento NAACP and leaders from other local Black organizations are demanding justice for a local Black school administrator after racially-motivated threats were made against her last week.
“The NAACP is calling for criminal charges,” said local NAACP President Betty Williams as she stood outside West Campus High School last Friday, speaking in support of Vice Principal Dr. Elysse Versher.
Dr. Versher was subjected to derogatory slurs and threatened after the recent suspension of a student in violation of the school’s dress code. Leaders say the recent incidents are indicative of a larger, ongoing problem.
“For the past three years (Dr. Versher) has been subjected to perverse racist and aggressive behavior from students and parents. This behavior has gone without recourse,” Williams said.
Last week the school removed the n-word, written five times on a wall near Dr. Versher’s designated parking space. Williams outlined other incidents at the school, including White students allegedly renaming African American students as “n***as” on Zoom sessions, without discipline, and adults threatening to wait for Dr. Versher in the parking lot, also without reprimand.
Leaders called the recent incidents “horrific” and “egregious.”
“The fact that the principal just sent out a notice of any kind this past week is despicable. The fact that he didn’t back her the past three years is unconscionable,” Williams said.
She also put the Sacramento City Unified School District on notice.
“Allowing such behavior to take place on campus sends a message to African American students and teachers that they are not equal and do not deserve the same protection that other races enjoy on the same campus,” Williams continued. “Ignoring the persistent problem of hate violence, and terroristic behavior against Blacks, and I consider this a terror crime against Black students and teachers, is dangerous, especially since codes are used to overcriminalize and disproportionately discipline Black kids”
Williams also cited what she described as the district’s refusal to implement any policy on campus and its choice to instead hide behind the education and penal code as a cover.
“This, in regards to the physical and mental health and safety of African American students on campus, erodes community trust,” she said.
Superintendent Jorge Aguilar and SCUSD Board member Chinua Rhodes were on campus Friday for a related issue but left prior to the press conference. While the school is not in his jurisdictional area, Rhodes has given it some thought. Racism within the district isn’t new, he admits, but says its response must be.
“These occurrences are happening way too often,” said Rhodes, one of two Black board trustees. “We put in place implicit bias training for our teachers and things like that, but what I think that we need to start doing looking forward is really having these cultural supports at school sites for our administrators, for our teachers, and for our students, especially in areas that don’t have a high African American population or person of color population,” he continued. “Racial reckoning, we feel like it’s broad and everybody feels it, but we still have enclaves in our city that are not touched by what a lot of other areas of the city feel.”
Toni Tinker-Loken, vice chair of the SCUSD’s African American Advisory Board (AAB), did address the West Campus incidents and others at campuses like Kit Carson International Academy, where a Spanish teacher was recently caught on tape using the n-word in class, and McClatchy High School, where in recent years students have gone online in blackface and in 2018 a student was allowed to include racist statements about the intellect of Blacks, or the perceived lack of, in a publicly displayed project. The AAB was born out of the fervor over the latter, coupled with the release of the Greater Sacramento NAACP’s Capital of Suspensions report, showing that local Black students are punished disproportionately.
“The African American Advisory Board at Sacramento City Unified School District was created to advise the superintendent on issues such as this,” Tinker-Loken said.
The board, she says, isn’t a mouthpiece for Superintendent Aguilar, nor is it his chance to say he’s doing something, if he’s not.
“Although there have been public statements standing against race and hate by this district, the racist culture persists,” Tinker-Loken said.
Dr. Versher says her authority is constantly undermined by non-Black parents who go to the school’s Principal John McMeekin to reverse her disciplinary actions. Black Parallel School Board President Darryl White said such behavior dates back to when West Campus was a satellite campus to Hiram Johnson High School, before breaking off to become its own, standalone campus in 2000.
“White parents of this community have always negotiated their discipline,” White said. “If they didn’t like the suspension, if they did not like the possible expulsion, regardless of what their kids did, they have routinely pushed back on the principal and the VP in charge of that discipline, and negotiated it down to something different than suspension. That’s an attitude. That’s a belief. that’s a system that this community has embraced,” White said.
They’ve also embraced their privilege, he says, and believe they “can do anything they want.”
“White parents of this community are going to have to, for the first time, take some responsibility for what their kids say and do,” White continued. “Too often, parents in this community are silent on the actions of their kids, and their use of racist language that’s been expanded and multiplied on social media.
“Telling a White person that they’re racist is probably one of the worst things you can do. They do not want to hear that term. That’s why Dr. Versher can suspend someone for using inappropriate language and the parents push back on it in this community and simply say, ‘Oh, well, yeah, he said it. She said it, but they’re not racist.’ “
Denial exacerbates the problem, White said. “How in the heck can somebody tell someone that they’re not racist when they don’t have any education or understanding of the subject? We can’t run a household without some kind of conversation about race. After Trump’s four years, there’s no way we can run any system and promote diversity or equity without some discussions with race. This community is going to have to come to grips for what it is they have not done.”
California Black Chamber of Commerce President Jay King agrees. King also spoke at last Friday’s press conference.
“We have to finally get to a place where we can be honest, honest enough to have a conversation about the fear we have of each other, about the things we like and dislike about each other,” he said.
Tinker-Loken said statements of non-tolerance without action are not enough.
“We as a community cannot rest and do not feel assured that the district has provided a safe learning environment for Black scholars, families, teachers, administrators, staff, or boards. What happened (at West Campus) can happen to me, can happen to my child in the blink of an eye and nobody will do anything. Why? Because nobody wants to do anything because of the color of the skin.”
Tinker-Loken added it’s time to clean house. “We, a board assembled by the superintendent himself, are demanding for change and severe consequences including but not limited to the resignation of the West Campus principal who continued this for three years, the school board members who knew and turned their heads, to the superintendent because he needs to conform and provide safety, as he stated for all of his students, that means the ones that the color of their skin doesn’t necessarily fall into line with who we think should be protected.”
Williams says Dr. Versher was “brave” to report the treatment she’s received to the NAACP. Her speaking out has empowered more people to do the same.
“We are now finding that others are feeling brave enough to say something right now,” Williams shared.
“The African American students are scared. African American students have been called the n-word. Some individuals have already graduated, knowing this has happened to them and nothing has happened, even when it’s been brought to the administration’s attention,” she continued.
Class of 2021 graduates Ashlee Jennings and Karina Vasquez stopped by the press conference to speak up for Dr. Versher. Jennings said Dr. Versher was the only Black teacher or school leader she had until she got to Sacramento State, where both girls are now freshmen.
Both say they were “shocked, but not surprised” to hear that Dr. Versher had been called the n-word.
“My teacher, Mr. Pantages, I had my senior year when we were still doing quarantine. He was the only teacher that I actually had where we were actually talking about race consistently,” Jennings shared. “And not just race, but sexism, and just equality in general, and I really appreciated that. But it was my senior year. So I was like, ‘we’re just now talking about it?’ “
Vasquez echoed her friend’s sentiments. “They brought in the ethnic studies course our sophomore year and we had to take it our senior year. It was the only time we could talk about race or anything like that, and that was only half the semester,” she said.
Moving forward, Rhodes says, includes true acknowledgement and healing for all.
“It’s really about building relationships on the shared values of what the school represents and what the expectations of our students and our teachers are,” Rhodes said. Changes and discussions that Rhodes believes need to be implemented throughout the system and across the board. “Now what that looks like concretely, I can’t say right now, because these are all things that I’m having conversations around. Do we do this? How do we do this? What partners do we bring in and how do we support this idea of equity throughout our system without making it novel, without making it a thing that’s popular, or trendy now, but where it becomes something that we can say that ‘OK, we are doing this or we are doing that?’
“Obviously the district and this process is not perfect. Obviously what went on with Vice Principal (Versher), is not OK. It doesn’t just hurt her, it hurts the community, it hurts students—Black, White, Asian, Mexican, Latino. It hurts students in ways that we have to be cognizant of.”
Those who are unwilling to take action are impeding change, Williams said. She doesn’t trust West Campus’ principal to take further action and has her Legal Redress team on the matter and the NAACP, she said, is also consulting with a national firm as well.
“We are demanding changes in policy when it comes to this, but I don’t trust the school to do that. That’s why we’re asking Chief Hahn to look into a full investigation on the criminal level, based on hate crimes,” Williams said.
Leaders are also calling for the immediate expulsion of students who were responsible for the racial slur on the wall and the other threats.
SACPD Spokesperson Sgt. Sabrina Briggs issued a statement: “Detectives have been assigned to the case and are conducting follow-up on this investigation. An incident like this is concerning and the department is following up on the circumstances of this report as a hate-related crime. There have been no suspects identified at this time.”
The Sacramento Police Department urges anybody with information regarding the incident at West Campus or the threats against its vice principal to contact the police department at (916) 808-5471.