Two Jasper Middle School families say their concerns about a student they say has made racist comments to their children and threatened to kill them have been ignored in Marion County.
Parents Samantha Robinson and Alison Rich - both Marion County natives and previous students in the system - said the male student who threatened their children and other Black children last school year received only five days of suspension, which they contend he spent at home rather than alternative school.
Robinson and Rich say the same student was then allowed to return to school for the first day of fall term despite Marion County Director of Schools Mark Griffith's assurances he would be going to another school. Rich's daughter moved to another school over the issue, while Robinson's daughter stayed at Jasper Middle, where she assumed she would be safe, Robinson said Tuesday in a phone interview.
Robinson, 34, said leadership at the school has changed this academic year, so she's thankful for that, but she's cautious about what to expect from the school system.
"Our children were threatened to be shot and killed three times, three separate occasions, three different settings," Robinson told school board members during a meeting this month.
The first incident was in early February, she said.
"They were all playing a football game, and most of the Black kids were on one team, and there was another team," Robinson said. "This student decided to let the kids know because he was losing his game, 'Back in my day, you would have been shot for that,' winning the game. After recess on the way back to class, another student said to them, 'Since it's Black History Month, y'all should just go back to Africa.'"
The students targeted by the comments told their teachers and their parents, she said.
"When these students were sent to the office by the teachers, the two came out of the office yelling and holding their fists up, 'We told you we weren't going to get in trouble! White power! White power!'" Robinson said. "Then they started singing the national anthem."
"Mark, Mr. Griffith, he told us this kid would be expelled and he should receive 365 (days suspension) for his three death threats on our children," Robinson told board members. "I later found out that none of that even happened."
Robinson said her daughter's tormentor was back at Jasper Middle for the first day of classes last week.
"He was actually behind me when I dropped my child off," Robinson said. "The last thing she (her daughter) heard me say, basically, before she got out of the car to go to school for her first day of school is that, 'The boy who is threatening to kill you is right behind us, and he's walking into the building with you.'"
Rich, 33, said during a phone interview Tuesday she decided to transfer her child to the school in South Pittsburg to avoid any ongoing problems, but she's angry that the student who is accused in the incidents was allowed to return to school, sports and extracurricular activities when the school system's policy states otherwise for students who have been suspended.
During the recent school board meeting, board member Linda Hooper asked whether the matter had gone before the system's disciplinary hearing authority and was told it had not.
"That's what I thought," Hooper said.
The authority hears disciplinary matters, and the elected board members serve as an appeal panel.
Griffith said Robinson accurately quoted him about a yearlong suspension being typical for deadly threats, but school administrators didn't pass the matter to his office or the authority.
During the discussion, the school board's attorney, Mark Rains, warned Griffith and board members against making comments on the record because he had been contacted by a law firm about the matter.
"I think we've been silent long enough," Robinson retorted.
Griffith issued a statement Tuesday.
"The Board of Education and I are very concerned about the allegations of a racially hostile environment at Jasper Middle School," the statement said. "Of course, because students are involved, there is a limit to what we can share publicly, but we can emphasize that it is our upmost priority to provide a safe, secure learning environment for all our students. Discrimination on the basis of race or color will not be tolerated.
"The central office will be investigating the allegations of race-based harassment at Jasper Middle School, and we will also conduct a school climate survey to identify any additional issues we must address," Griffith wrote in the statement.
"We are committed to taking whatever steps are necessary to be certain that every student is treated with respect and dignity," he wrote. "We are also confident that the new leadership at Jasper Middle School will take whatever lessons we learn through this process and use them to improve the learning environment for all students."