Parents of color hold forum, discuss feeling ‘unsafe’ after white parent used racially charged language at school board meeting

Parents of color in the Johnston school district develop a list of demands, vow to fight back after 'escalating incidents' and a contentious school board meeting over high school books.

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Johnston School Board meeting aftermath:

Dec. 13:

  • During a board meeting about whether to keep books at the center of a district controversy, a white parent said the N-Word, profanity and an antigay slur during a public comment section in a statement condemning the language used in high school curriculum, up for reconsideration by the board after an appeal.
  • Parents of color were shocked and upset by the comments.
  • Parent Tiara Mays, a former school board candidate, from her seat in the audience, asked the board if the parent’s language was acceptable. Other parents on both sides of the issue made comments.
  • The school board didn't respond to Mays, said only people at the podium are allowed to speak, asked the audience to be quiet and then took a 5-minute recess.
  • Mays left the meeting.
  • A school official called the police.
  • The board reconvened and read its policy on public participation before they continued the meeting.
  • The board voted to keep the books.
  • Video before the district's recess
  • Video after the district's recess

Dec. 14:

  • The district released a statement that read: “Because the language cited by the parent is used in the books under consideration, it was not deemed to be “defamatory” or a personal attack to board members or the general public.”

Dec. 15:

  • Johnston School Board President Katie Fiala released a statement condemning the parent's remarks and stating she will ask the board’s policy committee to review the public comment policy and consider “specifically prohibiting slurs and expletives in any context.”

After a white Johnston parent used racial and homophobic slurs and profane language during a contentious school board meeting about high school books — outraging parents of color — the school board's response sparked even more anger, according to five parent and advocacy groups that held an online forum this week to discuss the matter and what they plan to do about it.

Parent Michelle Veach can be heard on the district’s livestream saying the N-word and using profanity and uttering an antigay slur she said are contained in the books while requesting the books not be used as required reading.

“This parent is the problem,” said Shalome Musignac-Jordán, a mother of three, during the online forum. “But the bigger problem is that it is allowed.”

Parents and students in the audience and those watching from home didn't see the board or administrators condemn the language Veach used, parents said.

“There was no mention to the parent who said the racist and homophobic slurs. There was no: This is not acceptable in Johnston community schools,” Musignac-Jordán said. “There was no: ‘You need to leave because you just made this very hostile and unsafe for a lot of people . . .'”

Veach decried the language in “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie and “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas — both books have been sources of controversy in the district.

"People have no idea what it’s like to hear the N-word or the R-word. For us, for indigenous people, the R-word is something that really offends us. And the F-word for LGBTQIA folks,” said Sikowis Nobiss, founder and decolonizer of the Great Plains Action Society, one of the hosts, during the forum. “To hear a white person go up to a podium and say it so loud and so clear, so aggressively is really hard.”

After the parent's remarks, parent and former school board candidate Tiara Mays, said she asked the board about the comments and a nearby parent tried to silence her.

"I asked her, 'why do you want me to be silent about a term that's being utilized in this boardroom unnecessarily?'" she said. "It could have been redacted . . . They kept going on about, you know, 'It's in the book. It's in the book that you want to keep.'"

Parents reacted immediately to the comments Veach made; Board President Katie Fiala asked the audience not to speak then went into a recess.

"Please stop. Please stop. You're not at the podium. Please stop. The audience needs to be silent," she said, before exiting.

“It blows my mind that the school board did not have an immediate reaction to that,” Nobiss said.

Cellphone video of Veach speaking to the board swept social media Monday night, sparking outrage.

“It feels upsetting that we constantly have to have a video camera to prove that things are happening to us,” said parent and former school board candidate Lya Williams, who took the video. “And that's the part that's also frustrating."

Mays left the meeting.

“Our school board meetings are becoming hostile, and there’s zero control over what’s happening," Mays said.

Author Angie Thomas presents her book, "The Hate U Give" during the Opening Night, Massachusetts Conference For Women 2019 at Boston Convention Center on December 11, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images for Massachusetts Conference for Women 2019)

Mays said more damage was heaped onto her after the meeting because she was made to look like the aggressor and that fighting was involved.

“There was no fighting happening in this meeting. I did not approach anyone. At no point in time did I go near them but (Veach) left too and that’s nowhere to be found and that's the continuation of the narrative," she said.

The forum "Confronting White Supremacy in the Johnston Community School District: The Racist Rise to Ban Anti-Racist Books" was organized by: Johnston Parents for Equity and Anti-Racism, (JPEAR), Johnston Community of Racial Equity (CORE), Johnston March for Our Lives (MFOL), Iowa Coalition for Collective Change and Great Plains Action Society.

"The parents who tried to interrupt racism and homophobia during the meeting were reprimanded in a way," Musignac-Jordán said.

The fight in Johnston over books by authors of color is part of a nationwide trend by conservative forces to ban books and control how history is discussed and taught. It comes on the heels of HF802, signed by Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, which prohibits divisive concepts. Two Republican legislators plan to introduce legislation next year to make it a felony for school officials to provide students with "obscene materials," according to Axios.

Online forum organized by several parent and advocate groups. Screenshot of meeting.

Nobiss said a rise in attempts to ban books has increased after former president Donald Trump's failed attempt to ban diversity training at the federal level emboldened “other white supremacists and white supremacist state legislators” to work on banning it at the state level and “squash attempts to discuss diversity, equity and inclusion."

“What it is — is just a ban on anti-racism training,” she said during the forum. “It’s also a ban on anti-homophobia training . . .”

During the forum, Williams said the community must take action.

“To see another parent leave out of the meeting with a 6-year-old child in tow, that’s hurtful. To have children experience that, that’s hurtful,” she said.

High school students who experience racism in the district are struggling to be heard, the parents said.

“Then, they’re watching our community do the same thing to the adults in the community trying to speak out,” Williams said.

Luana Nelson-Brown is executive director of the Iowa Coalition for Collective Change. She said there are parents who want their children to learn that “these slurs are slurs” and the books were chosen for that reason — to allow children to learn that in guided conversations with educators.

“We know they’re a lot of people saying, ‘Well she just said what was in the book’. First, she did not give a quote from the book because if she had, context would have been around the slurs and we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now,” Nelson-Brown said.

Jaylen Cavil, an organizer with the Des Moines Black Liberation Movement, said during the forum what's happening in Johnston has implications for the rest of the state because of proposals by legislators to criminalize educators over "obscene" reading material.

“We saw the same kind of response that we always see when folks are speaking out against white supremacy and speaking out against hate speech. The person who did the hate speech and the person who's espousing these white supremacist views is protected,” he said. “And at the same time, these people in power in the school board are going to start crying about civility, respectability politics, telling you, 'You need to be quiet, and you need to go about this the right way'. And yeah, I think that's exactly what happened in Johnston, and it's awful. We need to keep speaking up about it.”

Parents said they want changes in how the board handles public comments and they want more accountability from the entire board.

“They have to make sure that when they make those policies everybody is held accountable for it, not just us. It’s always us being approached about the policy. Every time we say something, they’re flinging the policy book in front of us, and that’s got to stop,” Mays said.

Proposed list of demands:

  • Policy changes barring racial slurs, expletives, repercussions
  • Public apologies
  • Better accountability from the entire school board
  • Training for school board members and administrators
  • Board to hold a meeting with JPEAR

“We want the policy to state that racial slurs and expletives are prohibited in school board meetings,” Nelson-Brown said.

They also called for training for school board members and administration. Parents also said the district has an equity committee and director that should have been consulted.

District’s response

A statement from Fiala on Dec. 15 denouncing the slurs and profanity and vowing to involve a policy review committee failed to satisfy some parents.

“We cannot have one board member saying, 'I recognize this' and the other six be silent,” Musignac-Jordán said. "That just continues to tell the students that they don't matter, that they're not safe,” she said.

School board member Soneeta Mangra-Dutcher posted a statement on her public figure Facebook page. She apologized and said as the only board member of color she was shocked by what happened and "burdened" by thoughts of how she'd do it differently. She said she didn't speak up when it happened, but she is "committed to standing up and speaking out about it to protect the people in this community who have been harmed by this act of hatred."

The shock of Monday’s meeting has dimmed but Nobiss doubts the fighting is over.

“People are feeling particularly emboldened right now and we're going to have many more fights ahead of us,” Nobiss said.

Johnston students also held an online forum to discuss the issues on Dec. 16.

*Luana Nelson-Brown's name was incorrect in a previous version of this story. It has been corrected. I apologize for the error.

Banner: Johnston School Board. Screenshot

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