Exclusive: U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has opened a case into violence at the Richland One school
By RON AIKEN
To feel safe, if only for an hour, India Young ate lunch in a bathroom stall.
To eat in the cafeteria at Hand Middle School, where the group of boys and girls who had teased, harassed, shoved, slapped and kicked her were waiting, was too much of a risk to take.
Just walking past them, the seventh-grader said, fear would consume her whole body.
“I’d start sweating, shivering and get really nervous,” she said.
“Oreo,” they’d call her, meaning she was black on the outside but white in the middle, or sometimes just “white girl” as a way of putting her down for speaking well and excelling in school.
Her parents didn’t know. How could she tell them? They already were outraged with school officials over what they considered the administration’s apathy toward their concerns after two incidents on back-to-back days in November when she was violently shoved by a 250-pound boy into a table and then followed into the hall where a girl slapped the glasses off her face. The next day the same girl kicked her from behind so hard she had trouble sitting comfortably for a month.
Young’s mother, Toschia, filed a police report on the boy. It wouldn’t be the last.
In March, the same boy hit her in the face with a backpack, chipping two teeth and causing her nose to gush blood. The incident was caught on video and the school promised to keep him away from India.
It didn’t work.
The day she returned to school after recovering from the attack was the first day the boy was back at school after being suspended. When Young went to drama practice after school and walked out on the stage, the boy, who had skipped his bus, was there in the seats, waiting for her, hitting his palm with his fist until the drama teacher intervened and made him leave.
By then, India was afraid to go to school, shaking and vomiting in the mornings and living in fear of the day to come.
So, to survive the only time of the day she was outside the safety of her honors classes, she hid where she could in a bathroom stall in constant fear of discovery.
For as bad as that is, there’s something worse.
She wasn’t alone.
“Two other girls would hide in there with me,” she said. “We were all scared.”
Over the course of the 2016-17 school year, parents say discipline broke down so badly under first-year principal Brian Goins that unruly students ran wild in the halls and cursed at teachers and administrators while fights and bullying went unchecked and, parents say, unreported in an effort to keep the problems in-house. They blame a young, first-year principal, Brian Goins, who they believe could not enforce discipline and lacked accountability, especially when he abruptly cancelled a scheduled meeting to address concerned parents and instead asked them to complete a survey online, the results of which parents were denied access to.
For one mother of a student who spoke only on condition of anonymity, the transformation of Hand from a National Blue Ribbon School to one where children disrespect and threaten teachers, bully classmates with impunity and keep getting chance after chance to return to school is hard to swallow.
“I had a child at Hand for four years who’s now at Dreher, and under the old principal (Marisa Vickers) it was a fantastic school,” she said. “Now, I’m afraid to send my child to school. My daughter tells me kids smoke marijuana in the parking lot and brag about it, kids who have older family members in gangs.”
“Things got out of hand so fast. It’s not the same place it was.”
A STATE OF FEAR
Sitting at a coffee shop table in May, India’s father, Alex, wears the pain on his face. A 19-year Army veteran who is currently a cyber warfare instructor at Fort Gordon, Young has been deployed into combat five times.
“(India) has PTSD,” Young said, adding that India has begun seeing a therapist for help with her anxiety.
When asked if she ever cried at school, India got quiet for a moment.
“I don’t even have a number for how many times I’ve cried at school.”
“You get angry,” said Alex Young, who stands six-foot-three and is an imposing presence. “You get very, very angry. When you call the school, show up at the school and call the district office and show up to school board meetings and no one will listen or do anything about it, meanwhile your child is being terrorized, it’s devastating as a parent. Devastating.
“No parent should have to send their child to school and fear for their safety during the day.”
The Young’s efforts to get an audience with Richland One Superintendent Craig Witherspoon failed during the year, though he did meet with him earlier this month and said Witherspoon was not aware of the problems at Hand.
For those involved, however, the problems were impossible to ignore.
Parents Quorum spoke to said their children would bring home story after story of kids videoing fights at school and sharing them on social media, kids in classrooms on their cell phones or with earbuds in, kids wearing hoodies with the tops up and kids physically putting their hands on teachers.
Said a mother who graduated from Lower Richland in the 1990s, you can’t prevent trouble in school.
“We had problems at LR, it was dangerous and kids got in trouble,” she said. “But there were deterrents.
“Here there are no deterrents. We’ve had gangs for 20 years, but Dreher and Hand have been safe because discipline was tight. Now, the things kids see regularly is unbelievable.”
When asked if they reported what they saw, they’d say no because out of fear of retaliation. Like India, those who did experience bullying often gave up on being helped or even talking to their parents about what is happening to them at school.
“I didn’t want them to get upset,” India said. “I just kept it to myself.
“We were heartbroken when it all came out what was happening,” Toschia Young said. “We knew what happened in November and that things were going on, but I think you tell yourself that it’s not as bad as it really is. In reality, it was worse. By March she was begging us not to make her go to school.”
Said another parent with a daughter who was bullied, “Every time during the day I’d get a text from her my first response was panic,” she said. “I’m still in shock. I’ve lost a lot of sleep.”
Not just sleep gets lost. The time away from work also takes a toll.
“It’s about an hour-and-a-half from Fort Gordon to the school, and I had to make that trip several times, a three-hour round trip,” Young said. “If I get a text or a phone call saying she needs help, I can’t be there in 10 minutes. That part was hard.”
‘HE COMPLETELY LOST CONTROL OF THE SCHOOL’
In-house discipline this past year, parents say, was lacking. A parent who asked not to be identified because she has children still in the system said ISS, or in-school suspension, wasn’t enforced.
“My child is a straight-A student, but he did something he shouldn’t have and he got detention,” she said. “He knew he deserved it. On the day he was supposed to serve it he came home and I asked him how it went. He said he didn’t go because ‘no one goes and it’s not required.’
“The teachers are trying as hard as they can, but when the kids know nothing will happen, you have no control. None.”
All the parents Quorum spoke with said Goins was the prime reason for the lack of discipline.
When the Youngs finally got a meeting with Goins “after several attempts,” they said he seemed more sympathetic to the bullies than their victims.
“He told us how these kids come from tough backgrounds and that needs to be considered when you’re thinking about kicking a kid out of school,” Toschia said. “He said suspensions weren’t ideal for at-risk kids because they can just get into more serious trouble at home with nothing to do.”
That lack of leadership on the issue trickled down to the assistant principals as well, Toschia said.
“I have a list a mile long of things Mrs. (LaShaunda) Evans did that either didn’t help a situation or made it worse,” she said.
Another parent who met with Goins said he told her and her husband the same thing.
“I think him being white and young, there was a desire not to come down too hard on the African-American kids as much and so he gave them every chance possible,” she said. “I understand that, but you can’t have two sets of rules. You lose everyone’s respect.”
One parent Quorum spoke to was a participant on Hand’s Student Improvement Council. During the year, she said when they’d meet just those involved would go. By the end of the school year at the final meeting, she said probably 15 sets of parents came. Because of the additional numbers, the meeting, which took place during the school day, had to be moved to another location — a decision that led to an unintended consequence.
“As we were walking into the hallway, classes were in but kids were running up and down the hall, jumping around,” the source said. “The principal tried to tell them to calm down, cut it out and get back to class, but they cursed at him.
“It was painfully obvious how bad it had gotten and where things stood. He completely lost control of the school.”
At the district’s regular school board meeting on May 9, Taj Reed, a parent of a child at Hand Middle School, spoke during the public input portion of the meeting.
“Two years ago, there was a long waiting list to be a teacher at Hand Middle School,” Reed said. “Last year, we had about 20 teachers leave. This year we already have more than 20 teachers who have decided to leave. These aren’t bad teachers, these are some of the best teachers at the school.
“The reason is that there is a lack of support from the administration and safety concerns. Students and teachers are getting bullied at school and assaulted at school and the responsible students receive no consequences. I’ve met with the administration and district multiple times and was assured that the district had a plan in place to ensure the safety of students. That was a month ago, and there have been no meaningful changes.
“When students, teachers, parents and the community do not feel safe in their schools, there is a problem.”
Ultimately, that problem became too much for the district to ignore. On May 24, Goins resigned.
While the problems at Hand may be solved with new leadership, the repercussions at the district level are still being felt. On June 2, the principal at A.C. Flora, Richard McClure, resigned.
Additionally, Quorum has confirmed that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has opened a case over repeated incidents of violence at Hand. Toschia Young said the she has had positive contact with Sen. Tim Scott’s office about India’s treatment and the South Carolina Department of Education.
Should the U.S. Dept. of Education choose to send investigators to Columbia, they would not be the first federal agency this year to do so. As Quorum previously reported, the U.S. Dept. of Labor has investigators in Columbia looking into alleged violations of the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act. The district has also run afoul of the state Dept. of Education when last year it missed an Aug. 15 deadline to apply for $3 million worth of Title 1 reimbursement — money meant for programming designed specifically to help at-risk students.
For India, the change simply means hope.
“I want to go to school again.”
Reach Aiken at (803) 200-8809. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter @RonAiken and @QuorumColumbia.