Though Darryl White hasn’t been a school principal for years, he still remembers a particular incident that happened during his second year at Luther Burbank High in the Sacramento City Unified School District.
“Those things you don’t forget,” White said.
White, who’s Black, remembered that when he surfaced an issue regarding a white female teacher, the entire English department, which was also white, turned against him.
“The next day I had the whole English department walk into my office to explain to me that she was one of the best English teachers in the district and that I need to look closer at the students,” he said.
In the end, he said he was able to provide enough documentation that the teacher in question was not doing their job well and then departmental staff left him alone — but as a Black administrator that power struggle is something he keeps with him.
Now with the resignation of Elysse Versher, a vice principal at West Campus High School also in the Sacramento City Unified School District, White says it seems clear that the barriers Black administrators face haven't gotten lower.
“It’s always been a very difficult situation for African Americans looking to go into school administration,” said White, who is now the chairperson of the Black Parallel School Board, a community advocacy organization. “When you as an administrator decide to make that jump, you know that most of your teachers are going to be white, and because of that you know it’s going to be akin to walking through a minefield.”
Versher’s resignation earlier this year from West Campus was spurred by racist graffiti, written by students near her car last winter. In a letter to the district, she detailed racist treatment that had gone on for years while she held her position. Versher has since filed a lawsuit against Sacramento City Unified and has not returned requests for comment.
But Betty Williams of the Sacramento NAACP has said that Versher wasn’t the only one treated this way by district staff and students.
“To be quite honest, we have three cases in the NAACP of African American women, all vice principals, who if they haven’t resigned they’re out on mental health leave because of the way they’re treated, the harassment, the racism within the school districts,” Williams said. “It appears to be a trend for Black women and for them to ask for help within the school district and they hear crickets.”
Williams added that she did not believe Sacramento City Unified had done enough to provide adequate protection to Versher when she first began surfacing complaints of harassment.
“I’m sick about it and disappointed that the Sac Unified School District hasn’t done anything in my humble opinion as far as supporting her,” Williams said.
Sacramento City Unified hired attorney Mark Harris to specifically address the incident involving graffiti at West Campus and other acts of racism at district schools. A statement provided to CapRadio from the district said they are committed to providing an environment free of racism and harassment for students and staff. It also noted that an internal investigation found that the district had acted appropriately.
“The findings provide that the district appropriately responded to graffiti and social media posts that included racist language and images toward former employee, Dr. Elysse Versher,” it read. “While there was insufficient evidence to identify the perpetrator(s) through this process, these findings were provided to the Sacramento Police Department as the criminal investigation into this matter remains open.”
At the national level, however, some advocates say African American administrators have always faced barriers to success on the job.
Linda Tillman, a professor emerita of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, has studied these barriers. She said Black educators have always had a difficult time leading schools, a system that remains mostly white.
“We can trace the treatment of Black educators and administrators to the Brown decision, and we can go all the way back to 1954, that began a cycle of mistreatment of Black school administrators,” Tillman said. “I think the current moment of harassment, racial singling out of Black administrators in schools, not just in California but across the country is due to the current political climate.”
Tillman mentioned things like the rise of the idea that critical race theory is being taught in K-12 classrooms has caused white parents to lash out at Black people leading schools. Opponents have alleged it is being taught in public schools, but it is not.
“In the case of Black principals in the current climate of these pushbacks against critical race theory, against the whole issue of Black Lives Matter, any principal who supports that is likely to be attacked,” Tillman said.
Darryl White says Black administrator success always depends on white people supporting them.
“As African Americans, we’re wondering how our staff is going to treat us, we always worry about how much pushback we’re going to get, and we come in with the realization that if we don’t get the right number of white employees on our side, we’re going to have hell from our first day going forward,” White said.
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