There have been endless meetings, and more will follow. Anthony and Jennifer Richardson are tired of talking, though.
The Richardsons’ 15-year-old daughter spent the last weeks of her eighth-grade year at South Valley Middle School in Liberty being homeschooled after she reported that a white student had called her the N-word.
The student’s relatively mild punishment for spewing the hateful racial epithet didn’t put a stop to the racial bullying and harassment, according to the Richardson family.
Later, a white student unsuccessfully tried to goad the Richardsons’ daughter into a fight. That was enough for Mom and Dad, who pulled the eighth-grader from school. For weeks, the teen holed up in her room, unable to eat or talk about her feelings.
“It hit her pretty hard,” Anthony Richardson said.
“She felt let down by the school system,” Jennifer Richardson added.
The African American couple isn’t opposed to having conversations about racism in Liberty Public Schools. But it’s time for school officials to take concrete steps to improve race relations in the predominately white school district.
Of the nearly 12,500 students enrolled in the district, 79% are white. About 2,600 students identify as multi- or mixed-race, black, Hispanic, Asian or other.
Superintendent Jeremy Tucker said the district must confront the challenges that each of its students faces. That includes students of all races, ethnicities and learning capabilities.
Tucker has hit the right notes when addressing race relations. But talk is cheap, the Richardsons say. Immediate action is required. There should be zero tolerance for racism and racial harassment.
“Racism is a fear that has been taught,” Jennifer Richardson said. “It’s embedded into people. You cannot change people’s heart. These are children. You cannot change what they are being taught at home. You can only change what is happening at your school, and that will not change until policy and procedures are in place.”
The district’s policy on discrimination, harassment and bullying is under review. District leaders are also working to establish a racial equity plan, Tucker says, adding that racial issues are already covered in the harassment policy.
“But we have to be willing to listen,” he said. “People’s stories are impactful.”
For many people, it’s hard to imagine what the Richardsons’ daughter has been through. Unfortunately, I have some idea.
It’s been more than 30 years since a white kid called me the N-word when I was a ninth-grade student in rural Eureka, Missouri. But the sting of that moment has never lessened.
I retaliated and was suspended from school for three days. Deservedly so. I popped the kid in the mouth with a Wrestlemania-style forearm shiver. He got off scot-free. The incident awakened me to the injustices of the world.
The Richardsons and others have called on Liberty Public Schools to incorporate language into its harassment and bullying policy that would explicitly identify and ban racial bullying. They have urged Tucker to diversify his staff and administration, and mandate racial equity training for employees in the district, among other reasonable proposals.
The Richardson family’s experience highlights the fact that there is work to be done. The victim of racial bullying should never be the one who feels forced to leave school.
“Why does it take so long to get something done?” Anthony Richardson said. “We’re not asking them to rewrite the whole policy, just add some language to it. This can be done over the summer. If you care, you would do something about it.
“There is pain, hurt and frustration, but not a lot of resolution. They are saying the right words. But we haven’t seen any action.”
Neal Lester, founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University and an expert on race relations, said Liberty administrators must tackle the issue head-on. It’s uncomfortable work that requires thick skin, empathy and a commitment to eradicate racism in schools.
Words matter. As does action. School officials must stand strong against criticism that comes with discussions about race.
“There is no common ground,” Lester said of efforts to appease the majority. “How do you find middle ground on racism?”
That is a question Tucker and the Liberty Board of Education must answer before another student is subjected to the degrading treatment the Richardsons’ daughter has endured.