Parents, superintendent voice opinions on plan to tackle inequity in the Lee’s Summit school district
Embattled Lee’s Summit school Superintendent Dennis Carpenter has been the target of threats after proposing racial equity training in the district, prompting the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office to assign a security detail to his home.
Sheriff Darryl Forté devised the plan to protect Carpenter and his family, even though the Lee’s Summit Police Department investigated the threats and said they were unfounded. No arrests were made.
In February, Carpenter emailed Forté and Lee’s Summit Police Chief Travis Forbes saying a parent told him that another parent said that he was “running our school district into the ground” and that he had attracted “inner city kids” into schools. The other parent talked about the “Italian Mob” making Carpenter “disappear into the lake.”
“To say that this is concerning to me would be an understatement,” Carpenter told law enforcement in his email to them.
Carpenter, the district’s first African American superintendent, and his administrative staff had proposed district-wide equity training as the school year began, causing friction in the district, including nasty emails and social media posts that were racist and called for his ouster.
The school board in this predominantly white and fairly affluent suburban district approved an equity plan four months ago but, under pressure from parents and the community, rejected two attempts to hire a firm to lead the training. A special meeting is set for Wednesday to continue talks about hiring a firm.
Meanwhile school district officials said they have been reviewing how to respond to the emails and the threat. In a newsletter this week they said they want “stakeholders to know that the (board of education) in no way, shape, or form condones any negative remarks made to our staff, via any form of communication.”
In their investigation, police talked to Carpenter and three other people connected to reports of the threats.
The parent who alerted Carpenter told police that in a conversation about buying a house in Lee’s Summit, the other parent said, “as long as we can get rid of our superintendent …” She also told police, according to the report, that the other parent warned, “that man better watch himself.”
Last week, Forté on Twitter and on Facebook responded to recent nasty emails directed at Carpenter, saying, “I continue to pray for @EquitySupt1 and his family.” @EquitySupt1 is Carpenter’s Twitter handle.
Carpenter has declined to talk with The Star about the threats.
Forté says Carpenter has been the target of verbal attacks from the community since he arrived two years ago.
Forté’s comments came after receiving a copy of a pair of racially charged emails that had been sent to the Lee’s Summit school district last month, allegedly by a resident of the district.
The emails were a response to a memo school leaders had sent to residents and employees informing them that the school board and Carpenter were entering a mediation over his current contract, his future with the district and ways to move forward toward launching equity training.
“Fire that piece of shit,” said one email from email@example.com. “What are you afraid of? Is it because he is black? He is racist.”
An earlier email from the same address came after school board President Julie Doane in May sent a memo to the community apologizing for comments she made about white privilege. She had equated dealing with assumptions made about her because she is blond to the racial oppression suffered by black people.
“Why apologize for being white,” that email said. “Be white and proud. Has that negro apologized for his racist comments and behavior? Sounds like he has black privilege.”
District officials said they are not certain who shared the emails with the sheriff or why, but they are trying to figure out a course of action. They know the emails were sent by an actual person in the community and did not come from a social media bot.
“We are working through how to deal with them through the appropriate channels,” said Kelly Wachel, district spokeswoman.
Wachel said that whenever the district receives correspondence of any kind that is threatening or contains “troubling language, we will send them off to be dealt with through the appropriate channels and some of those might be law enforcement if that is appropriate.”
These aren’t the first disparaging comments directed at Carpenter since he began at the district in 2017.
This past school year Lee’s Summit has been steeped in controversy over an attempt by Carpenter and his administrative team to start equity training.
The school board approved an equity plan in February after a study it commissioned revealed that in nearly every measurable academic category, Lee’s Summit’s black students were outperformed by their white counterparts. And black students were disciplined more often, the data showed.
And while black students accounted for 12 percent of enrollment, they represented nearly 36 percent of suspensions, numbers reflective of trends seen in many suburban districts across the country.
Based on national research, school officials concluded that one step toward closing that gap would be equity training, which is becoming more popular in the nation’s school districts.
But attempts by Carpenter and his team to hire a firm to lead equity training have fractured the district and the community.
On one side, Carpenter was called “the race doctor” on social media. Some in the community have called for his ouster.
On the other side, some parents talked about examples of racial insensitivity, such as the time elementary school children were made to sing “Pick a Bale of Cotton” during a school performance.
In October the board rejected a recommendation to spend $7,000 to hire a California firm for short-term equity training.
Last month the board split 4-3 on a second, longer-term proposal, voting against spending $97,000 to hire Education Equity Consultants, a St. Louis firm that, according to its website, “creates a safe environment for people of color and whites to heal from the hurts of racism.”
Carpenter became so frustrated by the board’s rejection of the firm he suggested that board members buy out his contract and hire instead someone they trust to operate the district.