When her 13-year-old daughter left the bathroom at Hunter Middle School in Ooltewah, Darnella Orr said, two boys attacked her with pencils, leaving a cut on her thumb and pencil marks on her black skin.
According to her daughter's recollection, at least one of the boys was white, Orr said in an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
Both were suspended for three days, she said, but Orr said her daughter will never return to Hunter Middle.
Orr said she believes the attack was racially motivated, as her daughter has been relentlessly bullied and harassed for the color of her skin by students at school.
In the past, she's been called a "black ape" while at school. And in text messages obtained by the Times Free Press, fellow students have called her a "N---" and a "black B--."
At Hamilton County Schools, the number of reported bullying incidents related to race, color and national origin has grown over the past seven years, according to district data, as other kinds of bullying have held steady or even fallen.
In 2015, there were 10 such reported incidents, while in 2022 there were 26. That's out of 205 incidents reported for the year.
But Orr said when she tries to talk about race and the experience of her Black daughter, she's been shut down or the topic's been avoided completely.
The incident occurred in March, and since, Orr said she's had meetings with school officials including Hunter Principal Robert Alford, Community Superintendent Larrie Reynolds and district Superintendent Justin Robertson.
But for her, meetings are no longer enough to address the racism experienced by Black students at school every day. She is demanding change and demanding the district address racial bullying by calling it for what it is: racism, she said.
"In a perfect world, I want my daughter, who is Black, to be able to go to these predominantly white schools and be safe," Orr said. "She shouldn't have to go to school and be ridiculed. She shouldn't have to go to school and be touched. She should be able to go to school just like the white children and get her education."
"SWEPT UNDER THE RUG"
Orr said when she received the text from her daughter saying that she had been stabbed with pencils, she hopped in her car and sped over to the school.
"She said that the student-teacher was trying to talk to her, basically trying to get her to agree that it was just a playful accident or a horseplay-type scenario, which it wasn't," Orr said.
When she arrived at the school, she said, her daughter was in tears.
"(My daughter) was saying 'I don't want to be here anymore. I don't feel safe,'" Orr said.
She said the school wanted her and her daughter to sign a no-contact order, a document that prohibits contact between students when there's a risk of physical or psychological harm.
"They tried to turn it around to make it seem like she had involvement. I said, 'We're not signing that, because she's the victim,'" Orr said.
Orr said this isn't the first time her daughter has been physically harassed.
Last year, two white boys sitting behind her on the bus spit chewed-up food into her hair, Orr said. She turned around and fought back, Orr said.
"The bus driver took the bus back to the school and told the school that it was her causing the issues. He said he did not see the two boys spitting and throwing the food at her. But there's cameras on the bus. So, I said I want the camera footage. They pulled camera footage and called back, and they said 'Well we couldn't see them, but we could see (your daughter),'" Orr said.
Her daughter admitted to defending herself and was suspended from the bus for three days. Upon her return, the boys were told they had to remain at the front of the bus, Orr said.
The Times Free Press reached out to school officials to confirm the events of the incident but did not receive a response.
Orr said there have been other incidents she's reported that have gone unaddressed as well. Once, a boy at school called her daughter a "pretty black ape," and said that he wanted to have "pretty black ape babies" with her, Orr said, and nothing was done.
Her son was also bullied for being Black during his time at Hunter Middle, she said.
"All children and all people of color deal with the issue," Orr said. "My issue is, when a Black child in a white school is bullied, it's swept under the rug. The children are gaslighted. The children feel intimidated, and they don't know that they can call their parents. They don't know how to reach out to their parents."
More recently, a social media group was created and included several Hunter Middle School students.
The Times Free Press obtained screenshots of the chat. One student sent a photo of a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken on top of a mouse trap with a black man caught underneath the hammer.
Another student said, "Kill the blacks" and "I hate N---." Others sent messages back and forth of shortened variations on the slur repeatedly.
ALL KINDS OF BULLYING
The district is expanding its Student Success and bullying advocacy programs once school starts this fall. Neither will include targeted messages about using racial slurs, racism or racial bullying, according to district officials.
"(Our strategies) are encompassing all different kinds of bullying. There may be all different kinds of bullying that occur," Chief Strategy Officer Shannon Moody said in a phone call. "And what's important to us is that we have strategies that can work across the board, regardless of how a student is experiencing that."
Bullying preventative practices and supports are multitiered, Director of Social Emotional Learning Patricia Russell said. They include classroom practices, school practices, training and district support, she said.
Expectation setting is the first tier of support.
"All schools have an expectation regarding behavior," Russell said. "So, say, for example, when you walk into a school, you should see signs that show how you are to behave in the building. So, if there's something as simple as voice volume or how to walk in hallways, or how to enter the cafeteria, or what to do when you leave the gym: These are expectations that we want to make sure that all students are aware of so we can hold our students accountable."
Teams are trained to address student behavior should there be an inappropriate student response to a situation, she said. The teams are also there to address student concerns, like bullying.
Tier two and tier three preventative supports are more involved. Depending on the situation, a student may be referred to a counselor or receive additional services.
"All of that is before anything occurs. That is truly where we believe that this prevention and these things will really be supported best in this kind of behavior-setting practices in the classroom, school and district," Moody said.
But incidents still occur, of course, she said.
"We typically have a process whereby an investigation happens at the school level, and where they're gathering the information to really determine what happened," Moody said.
In the fall, the district will launch a pilot program to hire four case managers with expertise in bullying. Their job will be to follow cases and work more closely with students and their parents, Moody said.
"We see it as a way this can model restorative behavior," Moody said. "It can model for our students how can we come to conflict resolution, as well as really track our students through and make sure that everyone's getting supported in a way that they need to be supported."
The Times Free Press asked Moody and Russell what tactics the district implements to specifically prevent racism, racial bullying and the use of racial slurs.
"For us, the tier-one bullying support, are supports that, across the board, help all students of all races in all schools," Moody said in a phone call.
On June 16, Orr went before the Hamilton County Schools Board of Education.
"I want to know what you're going to do to protect my daughter," she said.
According to Tennessee Law, schools are obligated to do so. Whether bullying or harassment happens on or off school grounds, schools are responsible to take action if the incident "has the effect of creating a hostile educational environment or otherwise creating a substantial disruption to the educational environment or learning process."
Orr said her daughter's treatment at school has affected her grades and her mental and physical health.
"She's not going back to Hunter. Because that's going to be even more detrimental," Orr said. "(The other students) are sending her little crazy messages and are basically telling her that she should have kept her mouth closed, she's getting people in trouble, all types of crazy things."
Orr said she was told school officials conducted a survey at Hunter Middle to address the concerns of Black and brown students. The Times Free Press asked to see the results of that survey and has not yet received a response.
For now, Orr's daughter will start school virtually this fall unless she secures a magnet seat in what Orr hopes will be a more diverse school.
In the coming weeks, Orr said she and her daughter will be meeting with Robertson, as he has asked her daughter to share her experience with him.
"I hope it makes a difference," Orr said.