North Stanly hosts community forum to address student race relations

Photo by Jesse Deal

NEW LONDON — In light of a recent controversy that led to a student walkout protest last week, North Stanly High School hosted a community forum inside its auditorium on March 18. 

Stanly County Schools Superintendent Dr. Jarrod Dennis had announced on March 17 that the following day would be a virtual day for all NSHS students so that members of the local community could come together to “engage in dialogue concerning events that transpired this week.” 

Those referenced events were spurred by a brief video leaked to social media platforms that contained the audio of multiple NSHS students using a racial slur as they sang along to the lyrics of a song by 1960s country singer Johnny Rebel; an organized student response to the resurfaced video led to an anti-racist walkout protest in the NSHS parking lot on March 15. 

Dennis, along with Director of Community Engagement Melissa Smith and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Amy Blake-Lewis, moderated the community forum where SCS officials, NSHS staff, parents and local religious leaders provided their input on how to move forward from the controversy while acknowledging the gravity of the current racial tensions within the school. 

“There is a sense of urgency,” Dennis said. “This is a real issue that we’ve been dealing with all this week. It’s a complex issue and I’m going on record to say that there’s no manual for this, so that’s why we need your input.” 

With more than 100 people in attendance at the forum, Blake-Lewis introduced an online survey where attendees could highlight their fears and hopes regarding the issues at the school, with each category including around 10 different choices to pick from.  

The most common “fear” (with a 79% vote rate) was that “miscommunication and a lack of understanding causes barriers between school and community.” 

The verbalized consensus among the speakers was that the individuals on video who sparked the protest were wrongfully using racist language and that the students involved in the walkout were justified in responding through a peaceful method — the underlying topic that was vaguely hinted at was whether or not the students should be disciplined by the school system for their objectionable language. 

Because the incident in question occurred off campus, some in attendance pointed out that this wasn’t a race issue but instead a free speech issue. 

“In my opinion, she (the student) was on her own time in her own space and she had every right to say what she wanted to say,” said Victoria Ramos, a former educator and current North Carolina Black Conservative Voices board member. “It wasn’t on school grounds and the school is not responsible for her mouth. That’s her parents’ problem but we’re making it our problem.” 

Others in attendance claimed that the recent civil unrest was not a call to retaliation or punishment in response to the viral video but instead a tipping point based on a perceived injustice within the SCS system against minority students. 

“These children feel like they are being treated unfairly,” NSHS parent Sasha Williams said. “If your children were forced to go to a school where the demographics in that school system was 100% black staff and 100% black administration, how would you as a parent feel?” 

Later in the forum, Blake-Lewis presented the “NSHS Action Steps” developed by the district that included the following goals for the school: hire more diversity in school teachers and staff; develop a support system for those staff members; provide effective cultural and diversity sensitivity training for teachers and students; give students an outlet to report concerns without being identified or ostracized; and top-down transparent accountability. 

Due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), SCS is unable to publicly comment on whether or not the students involved in the social media post will face disciplinary action.