By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Summer break can’t come fast enough for a Rosemont High School teacher who said he’s forced to endure racism daily at the area campus.
Michael Reed, who teaches English at Rosemont, told The OBSERVER working for the school as a Black educator is “a constant struggle.”
Faculty, students and activists of color in recent months have talked about a “culture” of racism they say pervades the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD). Reed agreed with that assessment.
“I’ve been there for freaking 16 years and there’s never a day that I haven’t heard some form of a racial slur,” he shared.
“Predominantly, you get the n-word. A couple of years ago, I just decided, ‘You know what? It’s not even worth it to call parents.’”
He may not call home anymore, but using the n-word in his class earns students an automatic exit.
“I explain it to them loud and clear from day one. They already know,” Reed said.
“Realistically, I can only control B 210. That’s my class, that’s the room number. … All the craziness that goes on out there, I can’t control that and that’s not my job.”
At first Reed wondered why other teachers didn’t have the same zero-tolerance policy for when they heard the word in their rooms or in the halls.
“It dawned on me, ‘Well, Michael, no, that word doesn’t really bother them the way it bothers you because that word is attached to people ‘other than them,’” he said.
“But I’m one of those people.”
“It was basically teaching and training,” he said of transitioning from one career to the other.
Reed has worked at Rosemont since 2006, previously having taught elementary and middle school. His first teaching job was at Albert Einstein Middle. He came to education from the U.S. Air Force. He’d been stationed at McClellan Air Force Base, serving as a staff assist officer with his squadron.
At the time, Reed was a single dad with twins who were entering kindergarten. He wanted a job with the same hours as his children and took a long-term position at Einstein.
“Those people were pretty wonderful there and so it gave me the false sense of hope that the teaching profession was for me,” he said. “But I’ve since learned it is not really like that.”
Not The Only One
Rosemont High, located between Sacramento and Rancho Cordova, opened in 2003.
“It’s changed a lot since I first started working there,” Reed said.
The school’s ethnic makeup is 35.3% Hispanic, 28.6% White, 15.1% African American and 11.1% Asian. The White student population has dwindled over the years, Reed said. While there is a mix of students, the same isn’t true of the teaching staff.
“Traditionally, every school that I’ve taught at, I’ve been the only Black person there,” Reed said.
Other Black teachers, he said, have left with “fire under their feet.”
“I read an article that came out of the San Francisco Chronicle. The article asked, ‘Where have all the Black teachers gone?’ Whoever wrote it, they were dead on the money.”
It’s not so that he has gotten used to it, but more so accepting that it’s just “the way it is.”
“There were Black and brown hall monitors, but as far as educators, no,” Reed said.
Reed has recently found solidarity with Dr. Elysse Versher, a former English teacher-turned-assistant principal at another SCUSD site, West Campus High. Dr. Versher recently retired after what she and others called a “campaign of hate,” that included threats against her and her family, slashed tires and racist graffiti scrawled on a wall at her assigned parking spot. When Reed saw Dr. Versher’s story in the media, he reached out. They met at the recent Rally Against Black Hate, organized by the Greater Sacramento NAACP. Reed said most Black educators he has talked to have similar experiences.
“My story is the same as Dr. Versher’s,” he said. “No matter the educational level you have, no matter the experience that you have, it’s a fight every day for the basic things that should be equitable.”
Reed’s southern upbringing gave him a different perspective.
“I went to some very good schools, came from a nice family and had a mama who didn’t play, so school was a big deal,” he shared. “You went to school to learn and you behaved yourself.”
When it came time for things like back-to-school night, his parents attended and were fully engaged, he said.
“It was just a big deal, so when I became a teacher, I carried that tradition on. I always dress nice. I always implored the kids to tell their parents what a big deal it is. I’ve always had a huge turnout. My first year there, I was pretty excited about it.”
Reed recalled an eye-opening experience that year with the parent of a White student who often acted out in class. The student’s mother knocked on the door to Reed’s class. She was a bit early for her time slot, but he answered anyway.
“She said, ‘I see what the problem is. You’re Black.’ She said, ‘I don’t necessarily share their beliefs, but you’re Black. They don’t have to deal with you. They don’t want to deal with you.’ She turned around and walked out the door. That was my first introduction to it.”
Reed said he has reported incidents to Principal Elizabeth Vigil and has broached the subject at school site council meetings, to no avail.
“She’s said ‘Oh, that’s everywhere. We need to just move on and not talk about it,’” Reed said.
“That’s not everywhere. We need to do something about it. It’s an important issue.”
Reed often is asked why he stays.
“Everybody else ran away,” he said. “Maybe I’m a little bit more stubborn than most. I thought about it too, because I’ve had plenty of occasions where I could have left.”
When a non-Black staffer left and encouraged him to apply for a position at the school she relocated to, he did. When he was called in for the interview, however, he declined. He did so, he said, because of the bigger picture.
“What’s gonna happen to the next Black or brown person who comes through? They’re gonna do the same thing to them.”
The issue goes beyond slurs, Reed said.
“I have two graduate degrees,” Reed shared. “I have plenty of certifications in [teaching advanced placement classes] and all the other training that one should have if you’re an English teacher, or any teacher for that matter. But I’ve been denied the same opportunities as my White colleagues. There’s a problem, and that’s been consistently done since I’ve been at Rosemont High School. The rules aren’t followed. We have a contract that outlines different things, but the rules have never been followed, not only by this present administration.”
Equitable treatment will help address issues, but that’s just the beginning, Reed said.
“Do you think bad actors are going to change just because someone says, ‘Oh, my goodness, you haven’t behaved appropriately?’ Absolutely not,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that unless there’s some sort of painful consequence attached, people don’t change. They just don’t.”
Rosemont’s website states that part of its goal is to graduate “critical thinkers with intellectual curiosity who can solve complex, real-world problems” and “culturally aware and empathetic individuals who can embrace diversity.” The school’s mission statement is followed by its equity statement, which speaks of a commitment to “embrace and celebrate our diversity and strive for equity and inclusion for all students.” There’s also a recognition “that people of color face systemic barriers in our society and in our school” and a declaration that “We as staff, teachers and students commit to examining how our practices contribute to and exacerbate these systemic problems” and a vow to “work diligently to foster an antiracist community of learners and educators that interrupts racism to promote inclusion, safety, collaboration, and open-mindedness.” District officials, including Superintendent Jorge Aguilar, repeatedly have denounced racism.
Reed is calling B.S.
“It is disingenuous, if not hypocritical, for anyone within our district to say that ‘racist incidents will not be tolerated in our schools,’ when incidents of this nature have been tolerated for as long as I have taught at Rosemont High School,” Reed said. He called comments by district leaders “fake outrage.”
Reed also accused school administrators of retaliatory character defamation. He shared with The OBSERVER an email addressed to Vigil and fellow English teacher Rebecca Siegert, coordinator of the school’s honors program, Leadership and Enrichment through Academic Development (LEAD). In the email, Reed accuses Siegert of trying to solicit false statements about him from former students.
Mark T. Harris, the district’s race and equity liaison, said he’s not aware of any incidents or complaints involving Rosemont faculty. Harris recently investigated an incident at Rosemont in late March after the words “All n___ers must die” were written in pencil on a hallway wall. An African American girl was found to have been responsible. A similar incident happened at McClatchy High School in February. The words “Whites” and “Colored” were written above two adjacent water fountains at the school. The district and the Sacramento Police Department announced that an African American female student was found to have written the words.
Greater Sacramento NAACP President Betty Williams urged school officials to be as diligent in rooting out non-Black suspects in similar incidents.
“I want you to put that same energy into every school district that’s dealing with these issues,” Williams said.
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.