Your high school yearbook is for memorializing what life was like in your last years of childhood. The football games, the school plays, and the photos of brace-faced freshman and shawl-and-tux-clad seniors.
Oftentimes, yearbooks will also preserve national phenomena in the extra pages in the book, which is what Southern Alamance High School did in its 2020-2021 edition. Now, pages documenting a summer of protests around the world and in their county have parents calling for action against the yearbook team, the advisor, and the school administration.
On May 19, Southern Alamance students in the city of Graham, 30 miles west of Durham, got to grab copies of their yearbooks. That night, the mother of a SAHS student posted photos of eight pages from the 100+ page yearbook to Facebook, calling on other parents to share their thoughts. The post is no longer public.
The pages included sections called “From Hashtag to Movement,” “The Notorious RBG,” and “Voting Voices.” They spoke on the election and students who got to vote in it. They wrote a memorial for the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, saying she “was an inspiration to many students and teachers at SAHS.” But most notably, they covered the Black Lives Matter protests across the country and included a short passage about the October 31 march to the polls protest on the last day of early voting that ended with police pepper-spraying and arresting people on their way to vote.
“George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were both innocent people that were murdered by policemen, and, with this news, the country started to speak out,” one yearbook staff writer said of the Black Lives Matter protests. “Petitions were signed, donations were made, thoughts and prayers were put out to help the families and communities that were affected.”
The writing on the other seven pages was similar. The pages also included quotes from other students. It reads like the work of high school journalists, documenting a school year that was different from any school year in recent memory.
The majority of people commenting on the Facebook post, however, didn’t see it that way. Of the 305 comments on the initial post, most expressed outrage that politics were included at all.
“School is for learning … NOT Democrat Propaganda !!,” says user Jay Wrenn, who is the father of Jennifer Wrenn Gregory, the original poster. “This must be stopped … It may already be too late …”
“They need to pull it and reprint a non-biased version,” user Joanne Rich wrote. The 106 public shares were similar in their negativity, as are the comments on those posts.
Others called for the advisor to be fired, for Alamance County Sheriff Terry Johnson—a Southern Alamance alum—to get involved or to take it to Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson. They also threatened to bring their complaints to the school board Monday night. Gregory, a mother of a SAHS freshman, was the only one to speak against the yearbook, although three other commenters brought up the “dangers” of critical race theory.
“I feel that this year’s Southern Alamance yearbook promotes hate, violence, and division,” Gregory said at the meeting. “A high school yearbook is no place for this. There are sections in this yearbook that are anti-police and actually call them ‘murderers.’ It was very much one-sided and not factual.”
Four speakers showed their support for the yearbook staff and their advisor, Lynn Bare. They included one 2020 graduate, who pointed out that the previous yearbook included a “Blue Lives Matter” flag on the first page, and no one complained.
“If the yearbook isn’t supposed to be political, then why is that allowed?” former student council member Zach Clemmons said, also pointing out Sheriff Johnson in the crowd. “There was no rage on Facebook. There was no name-calling of a 16-year-old on Facebook about a ‘Blue Lives Matter’ flag being in here. In fact, you go a couple more pages: Mr. Thom Tillis is right here.”
“It’s a yearbook,” Clemmons continued. “2020 was crazy, and the most crazy parts about it probably deserve to be in that yearbook.”
In response to the discussion on Facebook, board chair Allison Gant said she took the yearbook issue to superintendent Bruce Benson for a review of their policies. It led to a heated moment when board member Patsy Simpson—the only Black member of the board, and the only Black person in the room—expressed concern about the board’s lack of inclusion. She said this was the first she heard of any issue with Southern Alamance’s yearbook, and she didn’t want the public to assume that they stood against the students who produced it.
“The chair of the board has no authority other than what she’s doing right now, which is to preside over the meetings,” Simpson said. “It is the board—that’s why it’s called a board—that makes decisions.”
People in the audience began shouting at Simpson. One yelled, “respect is earned, not given” when she asked for them to respect her ability to speak with Gant without interruption. Johnson, who was there as a resident and not asked to provide security, approached Simpson and told her to calm down. The meeting was quickly adjourned.
“If I knew in advance, I would have had the room full of people as well, and I would have done my research and been able to be more informed on the issues at hand,” Simpson told the INDY. “I felt that it was a step up. I’m upset that the sheriff and his [second] in charge came to our meeting.”
The yearbook advisor and students on the committee have not returned requests for comment. The school board, however, ensures that there are clear guidelines in making the yearbook and that the students are supervised along the way.
“It is an annual yearbook feature to include top local, state and sometimes, national, events reported by students from their perspective as student journalists,” says Jenny Faulkner, the school district’s public information officer. “The Southerner yearbook and its staff rank as perennial winners among other high schools and student-produced yearbooks from North Carolina and other states as judged by outside judges.”
Although some students on Facebook expressed their disappointment in the yearbook, others pointed out that yearbooks are supposed to record the year students experienced. One high school student, who’s Black, says her English and history teachers would not discuss Black Lives Matter and the protests in class. The yearbook was the first time she saw it discussed.
“Between there being dip all over the school and racist things on bathrooms stalls like ‘I hate black people,’ [S]outhern doesn’t have much to offer,” she told the INDY in a direct message. “This year book [sic] was the most [S]outhern has ever done pertaining Black Lives Matter now parents are upset about the yearbook.”
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