For Christopher Wooten, each day at Brentwood Middle School was a struggle. "It was frightening," he told the court. "I would be walking through the halls and random people would slander me with mean and racist words."
Wooten was called a "white mother f--ker, a white bitch, and a white gay fag" every day as he changed classes. "A lot of the white males were called gay at that school," Wooten explained to the judge. The school's principal, Wanda Marshall, was often present in the halls and witnessed this, but did nothing, Wooten testified.
Once, other students attacked Wooten in the hall, called him a "white mother f--ker" and held a razor blade to his throat in an attempt to rob him. Terrified, he went to Marshall for help. According to Wooten, the principal of the largely African-American school did nothing.
Wooten was one of several white Brentwood students who claimed they were harassed that testified in the case of Elizabeth Kandrac, a Brentwood teacher who won $200,000 in 2007 in a suit against the Charleston County School District. Kandrac, who later became a CCSD board member, accused the school of creating a work environment so racially hostile that she couldn't do her job and feared for her safety. Apparently, her experience is not uncommon in Charleston County.
According to the judge's order, the Charleston County School District justified their inaction in the Brentwood case by arguing "that there was nothing they could do to stop the racial harassment." In other words, they weren't at fault for failing to protect students or teachers. Incredibly, despite the way she ran Brentwood and the hundreds of thousands of dollars it cost the school district, Wanda Marshall is still employed by the Charleston County School District as an assistant principal.
Over the last decade, at least five separate lawsuits have been filed on behalf of teachers and students at CCSD schools claiming they were harassed for being or acting white. All of the suits maintain that administrators have fostered or allowed an atmosphere of racial harassment to fester at their schools. They also claim that the problem was ignored at the district's top levels.
Given all of this, it's remarkable that the same school district that claimed in court that there was nothing it could do about racial harassment at Brentwood brought the wrath of God down on a white student at Charleston County School of the Arts last week for a tweet which contained racially insensitive language.
The student, Ashley Patrick, apparently sent the tweet from her iPhone about a fellow student, an African American female. According to The Post and Courier, Patrick tweeted that if the black student "makes one more got damn [sic] remark in Roger's class tomorrow ... [expletive] will drop." Along with it, Patrick posted a link to a picture of a young white girl crossing her fingers with the phrase "I wish a nigga would," a phrase used in hip-hop culture and the source of a popular internet meme.
It's important to note that Patrick didn't send the tweet from school. She sent it from home, making it an expression for which the school system has no legal right to punish her, Jay Bender, an attorney with the S.C. Press Association, explained to me last week. Regardless, the image was abhorrent, and Patrick deserved to be punished for sending it. But the school system took the situation to an extreme, given its well-documented, casual attitude toward racial harassment.
Before it was over, Patrick was suspended from school for five days, and her face was plastered across the front of the local paper and every television news station in town. Her family had to hire an attorney, Dwayne Green, to defend her as various school district disciplinary boards debated how to punish her (Green is African American and a City Paper contributor). Ultimately, the school board voted 4-1 to uphold her suspension and put her on probation, which meant that she wouldn't be allowed to attend prom or attend graduation with the rest of her class. So despite what the Charleston County School District once claimed in court, school administrators can do something about the racial harassment of students and teachers when they're motivated to. (In a surprise move, a CCSD constituent board ruled that Patrick could in fact attend prom and graduation, much to the chagrin of some school board members.)
The school district may soon discover a new source of motivation. I've been told that a barrage of lawsuits similar to the Kandrac case will be filed in the coming weeks by students and teachers who claim they are being physically and mentally abused in Charleston County schools. Hopefully, the same administrators who put Patrick on the hot seat for her actions will soon have to sit on it themselves.