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Tabb Middle School student Za’Khari Waddy says he continues to be the target of obscene language and racially charged ridicule three months after his handwritten letter alleging racial harassment on a York County School Division bus went viral.
Waddy doesn’t pity himself. Rather, when asked how he’s doing, he speaks of his younger sister, a “straight-A” student who he said now pretends to be sick to avoid going to school and getting picked on by other students.
“She normally loves school and never wants to miss school and now she doesn’t want to go at all,” Waddy said, adding the persistent bullying “messes up [their] learning in school.”
Waddy and his mother, Zettrona Powell, have spoken out at YCSD School Board meetings and attempted to report subsequent incidents, but they say their complaints were deemed “unfounded” and there were no consequences for the wrongdoers.
“I’m at my wits’ end. I thought I was at my wits’ end when [Waddy] was first told to hang by a tree,” Powell said, referring to the incident that sparked the letter. “But he’s gotten more negative things happening to him since he came forward and spoke about what’s happening to him.”
Carl L. James, YCSD’s chief operations officer, could not speak specifically to Waddy’s complaint due to student confidentiality, but said incidents of harassment will be investigated and disciplined appropriately, as long as they are reported to school staff.
“Racial harassment or any type of harassment is not tolerated in the York County School Division,” James said. “Any student or staff member that experiences incidents of harassment should report it immediately to an administrator.
“They just need to tell us.”
Investigating racial harassment claims
When a school’s administration is made aware of a harassment complaint, an investigation begins, which includes collecting a statement from the victim and interviewing witnesses. From there, the investigator determines the appropriate disciplinary action, James said.
He explained that each incident is unique and disciplinary actions are determined based on the known details of an incident.
“Our administrators are prepared to take the action, but we need to make sure of the evidence and what happened in each case to know the code and how to classify it,” James said.
The state of Virginia does not give a specific code violation for racial harassment, said Albert Green, YCSD’s associate director of school administration. To collect data on racial harassment incidents, YCSD administrators must search for code violations related to general harassment and obscene language.
According to YCSD, incidents related to racial harassment prompted 10 disciplinary actions during the 2014-2015 school year.
Nine of those incidents targeted black students, while one targeted an Asian student. Eight involved oral harassment, such as name-calling, and two involved written harassment, which could include words or pictures of a derogatory nature.
Three incidents took place at Tabb Middle, three at Queens Lake Middle, and one each at York High, York Middle, Tabb High and Grafton High.
Four of the incidents were disciplined with an out-of-school suspension, four with an alternative to suspension, also known as in-school suspension, and two with a bus suspension.
So far during the 2015-2016 school year, four incidents of racial harassment resulting in disciplinary action have occurred at three schools: one at Grafton Middle, one at Bruton High and two at Tabb Middle.
The school division maintains official files of founded incidents, or ones that resulted in disciplinary action. However, unfounded incidents, which may be investigated but do not result in disciplinary action, are kept as desk files.
Green said it would be “very difficult” to calculate the number of unfounded complaints without purging desk files. Additionally, there are no regulations in place for how long an employee must keep a desk file, Green said.
A report of harassment form is included in the YCSD Student Handbook and Conduct Code, which a student or parent could submit to file a complaint of racial harassment, but the school division did not receive any of these forms during the 2014-2015 school year, according to YCSD officials.
James, who has worked in York County schools for more than 40 years, said the school division does not receive a lot of racial harassment complaints in general.
“I’ve been here quite a long time. I don’t see this being any different than any other year,” James said. “We don’t have a lot of complaints about or things that are reported to us of this nature.”
YCSD does not take a zero-tolerance approach to bullying. Rather, James said the way YCSD handles harassment cases aligns with the school division’s overall mission to address the unique needs of each student.
“When we work with students in the classroom, I think it would be inappropriate for us, from an instructional standpoint, to say ‘I’ll teach it one way to reach students, and if you didn’t understand it that way, I’m sorry. That’s how I presented it,’” James said. “We need to look at each student individually and understand what they come to the classroom with and what you need to give them to get them to a certain level.
“As we look at individualized instruction of our students, we also need to individualize all of our practices because no two situations are the same.”
A safe place – but not for all
Depending on the level and severity of an incident, Green said victims of harassment receive different types of support. Some may see the school counselor, while others may also be referred to a school psychologist.
School staff is made aware of victims so they can be “mindful and protective” of them, Green said, and administrators at the elementary, middle and high school levels share information about students so they stay on their “radar” as they transition between schools.
Good administrators “really know their kids,” Green said, a must if they want to positively effect change in their lives.
“Every single school in York County is a wonderful environment for kids, and we as a staff, our School Board, our superintendent, everyone involved works tirelessly to maintain that and make sure all of our kids are receiving the benefits of an outstanding education in a safe, secure environment where they feel supported,” Green said.
Waddy and Powell say this has not been their experience.
Before the letter became public, Powell said she could count five occasions throughout Waddy’s time in YCSD schools he has been a victim of racial harassment. At least three more incidents have occurred in the past three months alone.
In the most recent incident, which Powell said took place Jan. 20, Waddy alleges a classmate put cotton on his head. When he tried to brush it out, he said the classmate asked him why he was mad.
“Didn’t you pick cotton?” Powell alleges the student said.
Waddy said a student then hit him with a binder and he felt “dizzy and had a headache.” He said a sheriff’s deputy interviewed him about the incident the next day, but said the deputy told him the alleged offenders claimed it didn’t happen the way Waddy tells it.
In another incident, Powell said her son’s complaint of obscene language was not founded until after he recorded the alleged offender’s words.
“He shouldn’t be having to be in school and show [the administration] proof these thing are happening,” Powell said. “If he’s coming to you and letting you know these things are still happening, what are you going to do to protect my son?”
It’s gotten to the point, Powell said, where she questions if school administrators see her son as a victim.
She recalled an incident when a student allegedly said Waddy looked like Caesar from “Planet of the Apes.” Waddy, she said, was ultimately punished for allegedly calling the student a name in return.
“The administrators, to me, are turning it around and turning him into the bad guy,” Powell said. “My son deserves to go to school and not be harassed. He is being treated like he’s the aggressor instead of being treated like he’s the victim.”
Waddy said there is no one he can call an “ally” at Tabb Middle School. He identified one of his seventh-grade teachers as a former confidant, but scheduling conflicts have prevented him from speaking with her this year, he said.
“It’s harder because we have to go through the day with no one to talk to,” Waddy said. “We just have to deal with the people who are bullying us and bringing us down.”
And when Waddy reports an incident of harassment, he said he feels the automatic response of teachers and school administrators is antagonistic.
“They don’t ever believe what we say any more, and they never did,” Waddy said.
‘No matter what anyone tells them, they keep doing it.’
Waddy will move on to Tabb High School next year, but he does not want to go because he fears the harassment will be worse, noting his older sister experienced bullying at the high school.
“I would like to see other kids in our school not have to go through what we go through and get bullied every day,” Waddy said. “I just wish the people at our school wouldn’t do what they do. No matter what anyone tells them, they keep doing it.”
Powell said some of the people who reached out to her when she first shared her son’s story, including members of local NAACP branches, continue to support her, but many were “just there for the moment.”
Despite the incidents that have occurred since her family first made headlines, Powell said she still thinks sharing her son’s letter online was a good thing because it “brought to light things that were going on.”
“I’m not going to stop until something is done for the betterment of all students in the schools,” Powell said. “I don’t want someone else’s child to go through it.”
In an email to WYDaily, YCSD spokeswoman Katherine Goff wrote a bullying prevention committee is currently drafting a policy for the school division that “more comprehensively covers both bullying and reports of harassment to further support the procedures and process already in place regarding reporting and discipline for bullying.”
James said helping students work through conflicts, regardless of whether they are related to harassment, has been part of his work and part of the school division’s work throughout his 40 years with YCSD.
“From time to time over the years, I’ve seen kids make poor decisions and use inappropriate responses to situations,” James said. “And then, as a division, you investigate those matters and we try to help students make better decisions, better choices when it comes to relationships with each other and, truly, to understand that we’re all different, we all have value, and we all can contribute to the quality of life in our school and our community.”