Central Academy principal Donell McNeal was with some 150 West Ada School District administrators in a leadership meeting last June, when a comment from a district administrator stopped him cold.
The administrator, as McNeal remembers it, was talking about parents unhappy with a district decision. He said something along the lines of: “If they don’t like it, you can burn a cross in their yard.”
“I just remember it was like time had stopped. I was wanting to be really still, but I kind of looked around,” McNeal remembers.”I was so surprised at the fact that people laughed.”
McNeal was the only Black administrator in the district that year, according to data from the State Department of Education, and one of only six administrators of color. The comment was the latest in a handful of racially insensitive and disparaging remarks that he says have tainted an otherwise positive decade in Idaho’s largest school district.
He was hurt. And embarrassed.
“For it to be taken as a joke, where they laughed … to me was a lack of awareness that they were demonstrating,” he said.
As the Black Lives Matter movement dials up America’s conversation about racial justice, McNeal is asking the West Ada School District to better train staff on racial discrimination and harassment, keep track of such instances, and adopt a number of anti-racism policies that he believes will improve the district climate for students and staff members of color.
District officials met with McNeal in June to discuss his concerns and ideas. The district had already planned to address some of McNeal’s proposals, like increasing diversity training, district spokesman Eric Exline said. McNeal’s other ideas, Exline said, would be best addressed by the district’s committee on diversity.
“We don’t want any of our employees — Mr. McNeal or anybody — to feel like they’re working in an environment that makes them feel uncomfortable, or feel like they’re being embarrassed or insulted. That shouldn’t happen to anybody in any work environment,” Exline said. “And it shouldn’t happen in West Ada.”
Exline does not have a recording of the 2019 district leadership meeting, but said multiple district employees have reported hearing the same comment McNeal described, if with slightly different wording. Chief Human Resources Officer Dave Roberts was at the the meeting, and like McNeal, remembers administrators laughing at the comment. Roberts said he spoke with the staff member who made the “inappropriate” comment after the meeting, and the administrator sent an emailed apology.
The district declined to identify the employee who made the comment, except to say the administrator was in a “pretty high” position within the district.
Idaho’s k-12 educators don’t reflect an increasingly diverse student body
McNeal grew up in Southern California and moved to Idaho on a football scholarship to Idaho State University in 1997. He studied psychology and special education, earned a masters in counseling, and worked as a school counselor in Colorado, Southern California and Idaho.
He was excited to work in Idaho, in part because of the need for more diversity.
Nearly 96 percent of Idaho’s teachers and administrators were white in the 2019-2020 school year, according to data from the State Department of Education. Only 43 of 19,000 Idaho teachers and administrators were Black.
Those demographics are out of sync with Idaho’s student population. About one percent of Idaho’s students identify as Black, compared to .3 percent of teachers. Latino students are 18 percent of the student body, but only 2.7 percent of teachers and administrators identify as Hispanic or Latino.
The U.S. Department of Education stressed the need for more racial diversity in K-12 schools in a 2016 report. Educators of color serve as role models, prepare students to work in a diverse society and can help reduce gaps in academic performance between student groups, research suggests. “Improving teacher diversity can help all students,” the report says.
“I knew the landscape of education with the lack of diversity, and I was optimistic about my ability to make some significant changes to that,” McNeal said. “I was in no way naive enough to think there was never going to be any issues.”
He started in West Ada School District in 2010, first as an assistant principal at Eagle High school, and later as principal of Central Academy, an alternative high school with around 150 students.
McNeal believes he is the first Black principal in West Ada’s 70-year history. Exline wasn’t certain, but said that is entirely possible.
As McNeal transitioned into leadership, he wrote in a letter sent to Idaho media, he realized there was “a lot of work to do in breaking down the systematic oppression and ignorance” of the education system.
“My goal is to help the administration pivot from the inside out,” he wrote.
Idaho does not require schools to track instances of racial discrimination or harassment among staff members
McNeal says the comment he heard at the district leadership meeting was not an isolated incident of racial insensitivity.
In his letter, McNeal writes about times he’s heard students and staff use the n-word, including when students shouted it at other students during a social-studies game where “slave patrol officers” chased around students labeled as slaves. He’s asked students to take confederate flags down from their cars and weathered racial jokes made by his colleagues.
McNeal says he took these instances to his supervisor, and they were dealt with on an individual basis. One of his requests is that West Ada starts to track instances of racial harassment and discrimination in a more systematic way.
Consistently reviewing instances of racial bias, he said, can help the district answer the questions: “Do we have a problem? What are we doing to be deliberate about addressing these things? What are we doing to be able to support these individuals?” McNeal said.
State and federal laws prohibit discrimination based on race, color and national origin in the workplace. Idaho’s professional standards for educators also prohibit “any act of harassment” toward colleagues or students, as do district policies. That policy in West Ada reads:
“District employees are prohibited from engaging in any conduct which could reasonably be constituting harassment on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, age, religious beliefs, ethnic background or disability.”
The Idaho Department of Education requires schools to track and report instances of bullying, including racial bullying, among students. It does not have that same requirement for staff.
Staff complaints are handled on the local level, department spokeswoman Kris Rodine said. Complaints about racial harassment can be sent to the Idaho Professional Standards Commission, which adjudicates complaints of educator misconduct, but the PSC doesn’t tally or count those instances.
Roberts, West Ada’s Human Resources director, says he plans to change the district’s harassment reporting procedure following discussions with McNeal. Right now harassment complaints come up to four regional directors, Roberts said. Moving forward all instances of harassment will make their way to his office.
Roberts doesn’t think that racial insensitivity is a systemic problem within the district. But streamlining those reports will allow the the district to recognize any recurring issues, he said.
District officials said they appreciate McNeal’s suggestions.
“We believe in continuous improvement,” Roberts said. “We believe in always revisiting our practices and getting better at what we do every single day.”
West Ada is adding training, plans to survey staff
Among McNeals’ suggestions are that the district increases training on equity, diversity and sensitivity for employees and takes a public stance against individual and institutional racism.
West Ada is adding training on diversity awareness and workplace discrimination to the mandatory staff training, Exline said. Training videos, provided to EdNews, discuss harassment based on protected classes, how to recognize implicit bias and avoid discrimination in student and staff relationships.
The district also created a committee on inclusion and diversity in to discuss concerns regarding equity — though the committee has only met once. One of the group’s goals was to send a survey asking parents, students and staff about their “perceptions of equity” in the district. Exline said that survey wasn’t sent out last year because of the pandemic.
As the Black Lives Matter movement and discussions of racial justice have gained momentum, school districts from Milwaukee to Seattle have issued statements and resources in support of Black Lives Matter, or anti-racism efforts.
The Blaine County School District in Sun Valley published an anti-racism statement earlier this summer, pledging to investigate and confront racist behavior in schools.
McNeal would like to see West Ada follow suit.
“Taking a stance, I think is important,” he said. “…I know that would have been a great opportunity to reassure families and also staff members.”
Exline said the district has not issued a public response to Black Lives Matter “or any other political movement.”
He said the district plans to send out the diversity committee survey, “identify what issues we have and where, and address those issues directly.”