‘Witch hunt’? ‘Lynch mob’? How a fight for equal education fractured this KC suburb

Before her second-grade son had been spit on and punched by his white classmates. Before a white parent told her that black kids get into trouble more often because they are “more aggressive” than white kids. Before learning her children’s school barely acknowledged Black History Month, Tahmeka Thompson says she had a feeling the Lee’s Summit school district wasn’t doing enough for its black students.

Then she saw the data.

In virtually every measurable category, black Lee’s Summit students were being outperformed by their white counterparts, according to an extensive study commissioned by the district. And while black students accounted for 12 percent of the district’s enrollment, they represented nearly 36 percent of the district’s suspensions.

The numbers mirror trends in suburban districts across America, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education.

But while some districts shrug at the disparity, Lee’s Summit sought out dynamic, new leadership to address it. Two years ago, the district hired its first black superintendent, Dennis Carpenter, who had been leading the Hickman Mills district. The Atlanta-born educator so tethers the importance of racial equity in education to his identity that he chose @EquitySupt1 (shorthand for Equity Superintendent) as his Twitter handle.

“The findings were undeniable,” Carpenter said. “There are children who are being put at risk in this district, and that had to change.”

Superintendent Dennis Carpenter joined Lee’s Summit schools in 2017 after leaving Hickman Mills. File photo

The Star spoke with several black and white students, alumni, parents and administrators who say they experienced or witnessed explicit racism and implicit bias.

Several black Lee’s Summit North students said they tried to work with teachers to improve D and C grades but were told they were doing well enough because the grades were passing. “I just don’t feel like they would say that to their white students,” said one student, who asked for anonymity.

In 2011 a pair of white Lee’s Summit twins were found to be running a website filled with racist blog posts about their black classmates, some of which called them lazy and “your typical trash of the world.”

Jackie Helms, a white mother of a Lee’s Summit biracial student, overheard some white students working at an area grocery store. They called Lee’s Summit North “the ghetto” because of its larger population of black students.

“That kids can casually stand at their job and say that a school is ghetto because it’s too many black people,” Helms said. “That tells you how comfortable they are with racism.”

Last fall, after more than a year and a half on the job, Carpenter offered what he believed to be a mild suggestion to address bias and build equity: spend $7,000 for diversity training with the Pacific Educational Group, consultants who have spent decades working with educational institutions to erase racial disparity.

But in the ensuing months, the plan has erupted into a volcano of controversy that has cracked a seismic chasm in the Lee’s Summit community.

On one side were those who saw the training for teachers and staff as a needed jumping-off point.

On the other, those who vehemently opposed the initiative. And even after the school board scuttled the plan, they kept up their attack on Carpenter and the consultant.

Parents spoke out at meetings. On social media, white students openly questioned the superintendent’s resume and wondered if he had the skill set to lead. In January, a teachers union leader wrote a letter to the school board calling for Carpenter’s ouster. That same day, a white parent questioned his integrity while posting a photo he’d unearthed of Carpenter raising his middle finger.

In January, one day after the photo and letter were made public, the Lee’s Summit Tribune published a letter to the school board from Jeff Grisamore, a conservative former state legislator: “The rush by a few in our community to seek to influence all of you to force his ouster looks like a good old fashioned lynch mob with the modern trappings of social media.”

The ordeal has forced residents of the mostly white and affluent suburb to engage one another uncomfortably and unflinchingly on issues of race, policy and privilege.

“The proposal,” one parent told the Star, “it’s become a powder keg.”

“A witch hunt”

Glenn Singleton, the founder of the Pacific Educational Group in San Francisco, teaches school districts, local and state governments, universities and major corporations around the world how to overcome systemic inequality. His book “Courageous Conversations About Race: A Field Guide for Achieving Equity Across Schools” is a top recommended book by the Missouri School Boards’ Association.

Glenn Singleton is the founder of the Pacific Educational Group, consultants who specialize in teaching governments, school districts and major companies how to provide racially equitable environments. Pacific Educational Group

He bristles at the criticism in Lee’s Summit.

“I have spent my entire life studying, learning, training, facilitating and becoming an expert on how to move people humanely to the next level so that we don’t practice the same ills of our fore parents,” Singleton told The Star by phone this month. “And what I’m sitting with are people who have never thought about these issues, who feel a little bit uncomfortable about race and dealing with a racial achievement gap, and all of a sudden their voice is more significant than mine? That doesn’t work. I’m the expert here.”

The critics aren’t buying it. The gripes against Singleton and Carpenter erupted anew Jan. 21 when a teacher, speaking on behalf of the Lee’s Summit chapter of the Missouri National Education Association, wrote a letter requesting the school board either delay the decision to extend Carpenter’s contract until a new board was elected or oppose the extension altogether.

“An extension of the contract demonstrates support for the direction and actions of Dr. Carpenter,” the letter read. “A no vote on the contract extension sends a clear message that the board wants to change the direction and focus of our district.”

The letter laid out grievances in bullet points: Teachers decried the consultant’s focus on “white privilege” — the built-in advantages white people enjoy, often unconsciously. It argued that the appointment of an assistant superintendent of equity and student services was a frivolous expenditure, and it called the search that led to Carpenter’s hiring “lackluster,” rushed and lacking transparency.

The teachers union did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Tahmeka Thompson, the mother of two black students in Lee’s Summit, supports Superintendent Dennis Carpenter’s efforts to close the performance gap between white and black students. Shelly Yang syang@kcstar.com

“I was floored,” Thompson, a mother of two elementary schoolchildren in the district, says of the letter. “It made me concerned, like, who am I sending my kids to every day? If they’re bold enough to do this publicly, imagine what’s being done and said privately. Imagine what’s being done and said to our kids. …

“It didn’t bother me that they had an issue with Dr. Carpenter. It was that they had an issue with trying to make things more equitable in the district.”

Thompson says the letter is just the latest example of white people telling black people how to remedy racism, often by placing white feelings before black lives. “There’s always a reason,” she said. “It’s never the right time, or the chosen method is never the right way.”

The same day the letter went public, a Lee’s Summit man shared a photo on Facebook that he had found online of Carpenter giving the finger. The accompanying comment: “If a student or teacher did the same, they would be suspended for their actions. Shouldn’t the Superintendent be held to the same standards?”

The post elicited more than 1,000 comments, a split between parents castigating Carpenter and those accusing the man who had posted the photo of trying to find any reason to discredit Carpenter or kick him while he was down.

“It was a witch hunt,” Carpenter said.

“Tough on issues, soft on people”

One former Lee’s Summit teacher says she understands the frustration from both sides.

“In my personal journey, I have accepted my white privilege,” the teacher said. The Star agreed to keep the woman’s identity anonymous due to her concerns for her personal and professional safety. “I started to see how much I had benefited from it in small ways, and I definitely agree that Lee’s Summit needs some type of training related to that white privilege to get to the point of equity.”

The challenge, the teacher says, is how to communicate the concept of white privilege and show teachers how a phenomenon they benefit from, whether they’re aware of it or not, does in fact exist and likely provides a disservice to children who don’t look like them.

“We need to meet the teachers where they’re at,” she said. “You have those who understand concepts of white privilege and racism but then you have those who have no concept of those things. And for those who don’t know about that, an aggressive method of addressing it is going to create more pushback than not. I’m not against what PEG is trying to accomplish. I think it’s a noble pursuit. But I do wonder if their message is most effective from a methodology standpoint.”

Singleton can’t understand how teachers, particularly white ones, could question the efficacy of his work. “How is it that a curriculum from a black man could be taught to hundreds of thousands of people around the world for 25 years and it not be successful?”

The teacher says the root of the anxiety for her white colleagues was learning how much emphasis Singleton’s program places on whiteness as the root issue of racism and racial inequality.

“I for sure think there are some teachers that consider the word ‘white privilege’ and having to confront their white privilege as very uncomfortable. They don’t even want to think about it. And there are just as many people who understand the concept of white privilege but they don’t want to be made to feel bad for something that’s outside of their control. … It’s one thing to accept your white privilege and see how it benefits you. It’s very different to be made to feel bad. I don’t think making teachers feel bad is going to help the equity situation.”

John Beaudoin, a father of an 8-year-old white student in Lee’s Summit, says the equity issue must be addressed but in a way that allows all sides to have their voices considered. Shelly Yang syang@kcstar.com

John Beaudoin, a white parent of a young Lee’s Summit student and former publisher and columnist of the Lee’s Summit Journal, also worries that Singleton’s approach might be too abrasive. “We’ve got to be tough on issues, but soft on people,” Beaudoin said. “Right now we’re not doing that.”

Beaudoin, reflecting sentiments of the NEA letter and other residents, also says Carpenter should not have selected Singleton’s group without considering other firms or consulting with Lee’s Summit teachers. Had Carpenter done so, Beaudoin says, he would have uncovered objections early on instead of becoming bombarded by them.

Cameron Greenwell, a curious, conservative student who routinely attends school board meetings, says he began researching Singleton’s group after hearing it mentioned in a school board meeting months ago.

“I would like to have seen multiple organizations interviewed and appraised for equity training,” said Greenwell, a sophomore at Lee’s Summit West.

He took issue with Singleton’s emphasis on white privilege and racism as the main source of the achievement gap, and the “unreasonable amounts of money” the group charges school districts.

Greenwell is also slow to embrace Singleton’s curriculum, saying all signs point to marginalizing white students to help minority students. “What exactly are they going to do to narrow the gap between students?” Greenwell wonders. “The way to go about it would not be to promote a certain subgroup and see a decline in another. I would much rather see the promotion of all. … It seems to me there is no way to narrow the gap found in these inequities without pushing down one.”

Singleton, exasperated, says these are all smokescreens hiding the true issue — privileged white people not wanting to have a tough, critical conversation.

“I am not in a place right now where I can listen to unconscious white voices telling us how to address race. We have been doing this for nearly three decades,” Singleton said. “I’m tired of children of color being sacrificed because white adults are too fragile to have a conversation about race and power.”

He explains his focus on white privilege for the white participants: “Before I can talk to educators how race plays out in their classrooms, they have to understand how race plays out in lives.” That’s the topic of the first of two eight-hour sessions.

“We’re talking about addressing the implicit biases,” Singleton said. “Implicit biases that have been built into this education system for over a century. Teachers have never been trained, by and large, to address those biases, both the personal ones and the systemic ones.”

The second day trains educators how to create a diverse and inclusive environment and curriculum.

Graham Wallace, an employee at the advertising firm Wieden & Kennedy in Portland, Ore., underwent Singleton’s program a couple of years ago. Wallace, who is white, describes the sessions as tense and emotional, but ultimately beneficial. “It’s tough because you’re faced with a tough reality,” he said. “It’s like, this is real. Race and racism is real. And these sessions are about learning how we can interact and work with each other, positively.”

Said Singleton: “You can’t deal with poverty without looking at wealth. You can’t deal with female inequality without looking at males. You can’t deal with racial inequality without looking at whiteness. You’re just beating around the bush until you get there. And people in this country have to develop the capacity to deal with that truth if there is ever going to be hope for racial reconciliation.”

A walking back, and a look forward

Barely a day after the Lee’s Summit NEA letter calling for Carpenter’s ouster was published, a second letter was sent to teachers largely disavowing what had been said.

Interim president Heather Crain apologized to members for implying that her personal opinion represented the union as a whole.

“It was not my intent to offend or misrepresent you in any way and for that I am truly sorry,” Crain wrote. “Now knowing several do not support this letter, I made this statement in error.”

The union has about 80 members, according to district payroll documents. A rival teachers union, the Missouri State Teachers Association, has nearly 500 members in the district.

Despite the walking back, the anonymous teacher says the first letter did in fact represent a considerable faction of Lee’s Summit’s teachers.

“Do I believe there was an accidental over-extension in that original letter? I do,” she said. “But the concerns in that letter are all concerns that have 100 percent been verbalized to me before.”

“If I sat down and counted,” she said, pausing to estimate the number of teachers who had voiced similar concerns, “I think I could get to three or four dozen easily.”

In response to the backlash, Carpenter and his newly created department of equity services began brainstorming a new equity plan. They presented it at Thursday’s school board meeting, where it was approved 7-0.

Among the goals in the plan: adding more diverse school curriculum and recruiting and promoting a more diverse workforce.

“We acknowledged and did some reflection from our community in building this equity plan,” district spokeswoman Kelly Wachel said. “That piece of learning and listening to our community is reflected.”

Also included is an invitation for outside consultants to bid on an equity training program for all district staff.

Could the district end up choosing Singleton’s firm after all?

“We’re going to put out and ask far and wide. We can’t control who applies, we’re just going to score all the (proposals) that come in and we’re going to score them fairly,” Carpenter said.

“The unanswered question isn’t about my work,” Singleton said. “It’s not about me, it’s not about Dr. Carpenter. We are skilled and ready to move forward.

“The question is, is Lee’s Summit?”

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Aaron Randle is the Star’s “Divided City” enterprise reporter, tasked with exploring the cultural intersections that shape — and divide — Kansas City and Kansas Citians.