Fiery School Board Meeting Brings Out Black Panthers in Virginia

Powhatan County Public Schools
Powhatan County Public Schools

Tension between a Virginia school board and members of the public was a match-stroke away from flames this week as parents lambasted the district administration for not doing enough to combat violent hate speech—which many considered to be an overt death threat.

Hundreds of people turned out for the heated three-hour meeting with the Powhatan County Public School Board, just outside of Richmond, on Monday. Roughly 50 people took to the dais to share their concerns about the inaction of district with regards to bullying, with the majority of the complaints focusing on blatant racism.

The Original Black Panther Party National General Mike Pain told The Daily Beast that the group felt compelled to come out and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with concerned residents.

“The Original Black Panther Party has heard the cries of the Powhatan community. When the community hurts, we hurt. Our initial step was to confront the school board and allow them the opportunity to do right by the victims of not just this one terroristic threat but all the accusations that had been presented at the school board meeting,” Pain said.

“If the Powhatan School Board continues to ignore these racially charged situations, we must move forward in protecting the students ourselves, by mentally arming them and their parents with new strategies to combat a racist environment.”

Richmond ABC affiliate WRIC reported that in February, a photo of a white student at Powhatan High School surfaced online. In the photo, “I KILL N----R” is scribbled on the student’s arm. However, the mother of the Black student who took the photo said that the white student also wrote the phrase on another white classmate’s arm.

“Without this picture, we wouldn’t be here now because it would have been their word against [my son’s],” Miki Owens told WRIC. “So, I’m proud that he took the picture. I’m proud that he was brave enough to take the picture and come forward with it.”

Social media posts from members of the Powhatan community were livid that the white student in the photo allegedly only received three days’ suspension.

The Powhatan chapter of the NAACP organized a meeting with over a hundred attendees on March 7, WRIC reported. Powhatan Public Schools Superintendent Beth Teigen finally addressed the manner in an email to school district families on March 10.

“Hateful speech and actions will not be tolerated. Period,” Teigan wrote in the email.

The district planned a board meeting for March 12, but it was interrupted by the fire marshal who said the gathering was over capacity. The board rescheduled the meeting for March 18.

During Monday’s meeting, dozens of people addressed the incident and overall racist culture within the district. Speakers who did not focus on racism within the district still addressed its pervasive bullying culture.

“Ever since I moved to Powhatan… I felt out of place because of the color of my skin. … Kids have said the N-word right to my face,” said Powhatan Middle School 8th grader Yasmine Smith, who is Black. “I feel as if I can’t report anything because y’all will keep it on the low, give it little investigation and consequences.”

Linda Carr Kraft, a woman who claimed to be a white descendent of President Thomas Jefferson, said she was a “concerned citizen, saddened and horrified by the recent incident.”

“Make no mistake: These were death threats, and they should’ve been treated as such,” Carr Kraft said. “Racial bullying has not been directed at me, but just because one does not experience something does not mean that it does not exist.

“Make no mistake: Racism is real,” she continued. “My ancestors included a president, governor, and statesman, but they were also something else: Enslavers. Every single one of them, and I refuse to be part of the great white silence. … This is your canary in the coal mine.”

But attendees didn’t just speak on the recent issue; they slammed the school board for ignoring other racist acts that have permeated the district.

Members of the public railed against the “all-white, cis-gendered, above 45 age-group” school board for its lack of diversity. Students who spoke shared their experiences seeing classmates wearing Confederate flag paraphernalia and bragging that they were members of the Ku Klux Klan. Plenty of parents shared stories from their children being called the N-word, monkey, and slave.

“We’ve failed to acknowledge that our school system reflects our community. This is not just a school problem; this is a county problem. This is a society problem. This is a Virginia problem. This is a United States problem,” said Rick Cole, a former Powhatan School Board member who acknowledged his own racial biases.

“Don’t stack committees with people who look just like you,” he directed the board.

Smith said she has begged her mother to let her be homeschooled in order to avoid “racially motivated jokes and comments,” like how she was allegedly told she should be picking cotton instead of learning, at school.

“I now have to take the time out of my day to ask adults to do their job,” Smith said with a wave of applause.

Powhatan School Board Chair Dr. James Taylor also had two attendees escorted out by police after they repeatedly accused the board of maintaining white supremacy.

Justin Frye, a Black father of students in the district, said he graduated from the district 20 years before and dealt with the same racist bullying that his kids endure now.

“Until you look like me and get dressed in the morning like me, wake up and wash your face and see that you’re Black…how you gotta move in public is different…you’re not going to understand what these people in here are arguing about,” Frye said. “You don’t move with caution like we do.

“Do your damn job!” he demanded the board.

The Original Black Panther Party in Powhatan County also made an appearance and explained to the board how they considered the threat to be a form of terrorism.

“This threat was to kill,” said Mike Pain, national general of the Black Panther Party. “When will you realize you have a gigantic racial problem in your school and community?… Those that don’t see it don’t want to see it.”

In the organization’s statement to The Daily Beast, it said that the community needs to organize and “get new individuals” on the board “if positive change does not take place.”

“We need people in these positions who will do right by all the children. Sweeping racial activity under the rug and ignoring the pain placed upon the students can not continue. The Original Black Panther Party will offer mediation to assist in bringing unity back to Powhatan County Public Schools. We also will offer a class on race relations for all the kids, parents, faculty, and staff,” the statement read.

“Our goal is to heal and create a space that is safe for children that are being racially attacked, and an environment of understanding and compassion. We listened to reports from Black, Mexican, White, Asian and Arab students and parents alike while at the school board meeting. Children need to be re-educated and heard and we are here to provide that to them if Powhatan County Public Schools can’t.”

In a statement to The Daily Beast, Powhatan Branch NAACP President Gail Hairston and Education Committee Chair Chiara Hoyt said their organization had attempted to work with the district for years over similar incidents.

“We have no faith that they will make any of the necessary changes without sustained pressure and accountability. Many of them still have not responded formally to our organization, even after multiple emails, some of which included direct policy suggestions,” the statement read, adding that board members were allegedly part of organizations that were against cultural learning and understanding.

“Many of their final (and myriad other) comments indicate to the community that they are not equipped to lead in this moment, they do not understand the depth and complexity of the issues our marginalized children are facing, and they desire to remain willfully ignorant so that they do not have to go against their politically-motivated policy positions, even if that means continued harm to our children,” the statement continued.

“Our NAACP Education Committee routinely meets with the Superintendent. … We intend to continue to meet with administrators at all levels, and to continue organizing within the community, because we believe that the majority of Powhatan residents do not feel comfortable knowing that racist death threats and daily discrimination are tolerated widely within their children’s schools.”

The administration from Powhatan Public Schools did not immediately return requests for comment from The Daily Beast.

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