By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Dr. Elysse Versher, the former assistant principal of West Campus High School, was flanked by members of her legal team and area activists last week as she announced a lawsuit she has filed against Sacramento City Unified School District, its superintendent and the school principal.
Dr. Versher has resigned and accuses SCUSD, Superintendent Jorge Aguilar and Principal John McMeekin of failing to take action in a campaign of hate and harassment she says was waged against her over the past three years. The latest incidents included racial grafitti written near her on-campus parking spot, online threats against Dr. Versher’s family and relatives of students coming onto campus to allegedly fight her over a disciplinary action she’d enforced.
The lawsuit was made public during a Rally Against Black Hate, organized outside the Capitol by the Greater Sacramento NAACP.
“She couldn’t continue to fight this by herself; the school wasn’t helping,” said one of Dr. Versher’s attorneys, Rodney S. Diggs of IMW Law.
“That’s why we filed this lawsuit, to prevent harassment, discrimination, and retaliation based on race and based on gender for anyone else,” Diggs continued.
IMW Law, or Ivie McNeill Wyatt Purcell & Diggs, bills itself as “the largest Black-owned law firm in California.”
Dr. Versher is also represented by James Bryant of the Cochran Firm. The firm, also based in Los Angeles, was founded by the late Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., of “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” fame. According to its website, law partners have secured clients more than $30 billion in verdicts, settlements and judgments. Dr. Versher’s lawsuit seeks an undetermined amount on the grounds of discrimination, harassment and retaliation based on race and gender, and emotional distress.
“Unfortunately, Dr. Versher was subjected to some of the worst racism any individual could ever imagine,” Bryant said. “Things that happened when you saw the first students integrating schools. She was spat on, she was called the n-word on a regular basis by parents, by students, and in front of leadership. She complained every single day.”
Time For Some Action
The Rally Against Black Hate addressed local and national incidents. There have been a number of mass shootings of late. The local K Street shooting in April drew national headlines and a comment from President Joe Biden, which some argued was due to the use of automatic rifles and its proximity to the Capitol. Most of the shooting victims were Black or Latino. While the Sacramento Police Department has issued updates on the capture of several Black suspects, talk of the incident has largely gone cold, outside of being referenced when other mass shootings have occured in its wake.
Greater Sacramento NAACP President Betty Williams said that similarly, the 10 victims of the recent mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, being Black has factored in a lack of attention.
“Buffalo seems to have been silenced through everything else,” Williams said. “What happened with African American lives matter, Black Lives Matter? What happened with the hate against Blacks?
“It’s been happening for decades. The fact that we have to stand here and ask our legislator and our local politicians and everyone to get involved against this hate (is shameful).”
Assemblymember Jim Cooper was among the current and would-be politicians participating in last week’s rally.
“An attack on one is an attack on all,” said Cooper, a former deputy who is running for Sacramento County Sheriff.
“Look at hate crimes right now in the state and we’re up from [between] 50% to 300%,” he said. “The shooting in Buffalo has kind of been drowned out, you don’t hear a lot about it anymore. The fact that they took those African American lives back there, it is an issue that continues to fester. The hate in this country, the hate in this state cannot be tolerated.”
Cooper also touched on Dr. Versher’s accusations.
“Schools should be safe environments for students and teachers. If this happened in Sacramento, it saddens me and it should not happen. We’ve all got to stand up and fight against this.”
Decarcerate Sacramento co-founder Courtney Hanson addressed systemic and institutional racism that has resulted in seemingly acceptable violence against Black Americans.
“The only explanation for this is a long history of racist policies and defunding of Black communities and Black futures,” Hanson said. “Decarcerate Sacramento fights for everyone stuck in our jails or taken too soon by them because we know the root of our criminal legal system is a culture that tells us who is worthy of life and who is not.
“Shooters like the one in Buffalo, or those who pushed out a Black woman from her well deserved leadership role in this school district, do not act alone, but with hate and racism. They unfortunately learn from some of America’s oldest and most well-funded institutions,” the local organizer continued.
Local law professor Alana Mathews said the nation can honor the Buffalo victims with a “renewed commitment to fight for justice.”
“The fight for justice must begin first with acknowledging the injustice,” said Mathews, currently a candidate for Sacramento County District Attorney. “Not just in the act that took those lives, but also in allowing or ignoring the racist rhetoric that fueled it.
“It’s important in times like this that we don’t just express our anger and our frustration. We don’t need any more ‘thoughts and prayers.’ It’s about action. The long-term safety of any community requires leadership that identifies, understands, and builds strategic responses to this type of hate.”
Lorreen Pryor, a former legislative staffer and youth advocate, agreed.
“I want some legislation on the table,” said Pryor, president of the Black Youth Leadership Project. “I want amendments taken for those bills that died in committee … and [for] some real substance to come out of this.
“We’re tired of being sad. We’re tired of hearing about folks who look like us being treated like dogs. We’re tired of it. I don’t want to pray and be peaceful. I know the God that I serve, he flipped over tables. I’m ready to flip tables.”
Berry Accius, a local activist and founder of Voice of the Youth, frequently collaborates with Pryor. Accius thanked those standing in solidarity with Dr. Versher, but challenged “their privilege.”
“In order to create change, we must dismantle White supremacy in all systems, especially in our school districts,” Accius said.
“It’s easy today to say the words,” he added. “But it’s harder tomorrow to enact the words to become actions, where we don’t continue to be at these podiums screaming, begging, putting pressure on a system that we did not create, a system that has abused us, beaten us and killed our own.”
Dr. Versher said she lost a job she’d secured with Carmichael-based charter school Visions in Education because she spoke out against “a culture of hate.”
“When Dr. Versher’s resignation later became public, Visions in Education rescinded their offer,” Diggs shared. “They said specifically, based upon unsolicited reports from current staff members and leadership, ‘Visions has determined that your future employment in a leadership position would cause harmful disruption, harmful distraction based upon the high visibility of this position and publicly contentious reports in the media.’”
“I’ve been blackballed and blacklisted because of the failure of the district to keep me safe,” Dr. Versher said.
Speakers called for SCUSD to terminate Principal McMeekin and for an independent investigation into incidents at West Campus.
According to a district statement dated May 27, “a neutral outside investigator spent six months looking into the complaints about West Campus” and found that “no student, staff member, or other individual has been identified to have written the graffiti” that was aimed at Dr. Versher and that “no identifiable District staff, student, or other individual wrote or created the derogatory statements or images” aimed at Dr. Versher online. The investigator’s report also found that West Campus administration “took appropriate preliminary steps upon learning of the November 2021 racial slur incidents.”
Mark T. Harris, the district’s diversity, equity, and inclusion monitor, addressed the inconclusive finding in the same statement.
“No one is satisfied with this outcome,” Harris wrote. “Someone knows who committed this crime. The investigator spent months following the evidence and it’s unfortunate this is where we ended up. Now we must call upon and work with the Sacramento Police Department to bring its resources to the investigation of this heinous crime as expeditiously as possible.”
Support for this Sacramento OBSERVER article was provided to Word In Black (WIB) by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. WIB is a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media that includes print and digital partners.