Black Iowa Mom worries after 8-year-old called racial slurs, bullied at elementary school

The mom has complained to Maquoketa Community School district officials but said the abuse is still happening to her 3rd-grader. A school official said the district is handling the situation.

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Ciara Winters and Andre White moved their family from Illinois to Iowa for a quiet, peaceful life, with the hopes of better opportunities for their five children.

“I really don’t hear any violence or anything – here – like it is in Chicago,” said Winters, 31. “It’s very violent there.”

No more listening to gunshots. No more fears about abducted children. Winters left those concerns behind in Chicago Heights, Illinois, 207 miles away from her new home in Maquoketa, population 6,126.

But now, three months into the school year, Winters said the Maquoketa Community School district isn’t doing enough to stop the racism, bullying and threats happening at her daughter’s elementary school, which according to the district’s website serves grades 3-5 and has about 227 students.

Winters expected a slight adjustment period moving Sa’ Riyah, 13, Jour’Ni, 8, Javier, 6, Gianni, 3, and Dre Ah, 11-months-old to a small town in Iowa.

But not this.

She said Jour’Ni, a third-grader has been called the N-word more than once by a male classmate. Winters said the 8-year-old has also been called a “Black elephant” and told to “go back where she came from.” A student compared her skin color to “dirt.” Jour’Ni has been hit several times and threatened with a weapon, she said. A classmate told her they wished she would die, Winters said.

“Jour’Ni doesn’t even know what racism is, and now we have to teach her the raw truth of racism,” said Winters. “We have to teach her that.”

Winters said Black children shouldn’t have to feel unwelcome and uncomfortable at school due to their color of the skin, and she had repeatedly shared those concerns with school officials. She wants them to do more to end the abuse.

“I don’t feel like my kid is safe at the school,” she said.

Ciara Winters and daughter, Jour’Ni, 8. Photo courtesy of Winters.

Tara Notz, superintendent of the Maquoketa Community School district, said when school officials receive reports like this, they first ensure student safety, then investigate and speak to the children involved.

“Typically, we start by letting both parents know, both sets of parents,” she said. “And then based on the investigation and the information that we gather, we discuss both consequences, as well as, learning opportunities.”

That’s where Winters said school officials dropped the ball. She wanted to meet with the boy’s family. She wanted to know what specific consequences the boy faced but said school officials dismissed her concerns.

“They told me they’re not allowed to tell me what the consequences are, if anything,” Winters said.

That left Winters not knowing whether the school took the threats seriously, she said, and wondering whether the boy was reprimanded. It worried her.

“I’m not able to share with that parent specifics about another child’s consequences. So I’m not able to say, for example, you know, ‘I suspended this child for three days or five days,'” Notz said.

But school officials can tell a parent, like Winters, that the boy in question did receive consequences, Notz said. School officials didn’t realize that they hadn’t informed Winters that the boy in question, had, in fact, received consequences, Notz said. Winters, who had met with school officials and exchanged several emails and messages, wasn’t advised about it until sometime later, she said.

“I just don’t think that it had been stated directly to the family that the other student had consequences,” Notz said.

She said once Winters was informed, there was a “better understanding between everyone” and it made Notz aware “that’s what the breakdown in communication was.”

Winters said she was told the consequence the child received involved “guided learning” and watching a video.

“That’s not a consequence,” Winters said.

She said she wanted the student to be suspended, lose recess privileges for a week and have to learn about diversity.


According to the Iowa Department of Education, 2.7% of the 1,269 students in the school district are Black. Maquoketa is about 40 miles from the Quad cities, which include Bettendorf and Davenport in southeastern Iowa and Moline, East Moline and Rock Island in Illinois.

Notz, who grew up in Maquoketa and has worked in the district for five years, said Maquoketa is “definitely changing” with families from “lots of different backgrounds” and with “different experiences” moving in. A trend happening in other Iowa communities.

“So I do think that’s something new for our community, in general. And so, we are really looking at how do we continue to ensure that our community is . . . welcoming. We want people to move here. There’s many great things about our community,” Notz said. “We want a diverse community.”

She added: “So with that, I think something as a district we’re really trying to navigate is continuing to provide a rich conversation around diversity in all different aspects.”

The district has a “transient population,” with families moving in and out during the year, she said. The district also has a significant Micronesian and English as a Second Language learner population.

Notz, who is in her first year as superintendent, said she wants to have community meetings to gather input from all stakeholders in the district.

“To make sure we are having a conversation that everyone feels welcomed and safe in our schools,” she said.

Lack of ‘Diversity’

Winters had reservations about moving to a small town, but she had never experienced any problems while visiting bigger Iowa cities, she said. Her sister lives in Monticello, and the families had attended the Jones County Fair together.

When the school year began, each of Winters’ children began adapting to being in a new place without their friends and the familiarity of their old schools, which were very diverse, she said. But last month, she noticed changes in Jour’Ni.

The family has a daily routine. Winters asked them about school, what they learned and if they made new friends. She said Jour’Ni “would come home and she would always sigh: ‘I don’t like it.'”

When she heard about the racial slurs, name-calling, hitting and threats, Winters said she sounded the alarm to the school.

“I told the principal it’s important that you call me because if my kids are in your care, if something’s going on, if something is happening to her, you are to call me,” she said.

Winters said the situation is scary because she has heard about kids who are bullied who sometimes take their own lives. That’s why she believes it’s critical that the district stop the bullying and racial slurs in its tracks.

She’s also worried about the hits to Jour’Ni’s self-esteem.

“We just tell her everyday: ‘You’re beautiful. You’re intelligent,’” she said. “We speak those words to breathe life into her heart.”

Winters said she brought her children to Maquoketa for better lives — not this.

“Why did their education have to be disrupted with this mess?” she said.

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