In late April, an Orange High School student parked on campus in or near what’s known among students as “redneck row,” the back row of the parking lot. When he returned to his car, his mother told principal Eric Yarbrough on May 1, he found a message written in dust on his windshield: “Park in your own spot [N-word].”

Much about this incident isn’t clear. The student didn’t take a photo of the message—he washed it off at a nearby gas station—and security cameras didn’t capture anyone leaving it. Some of the students administrators interviewed said they’d seen the message, but it didn’t use a racial slur, just the words, “Park in your spot.” Two students accused each other of writing it. 

Yarbrough mentioned the incident to a school resource officer on May 2, but he didn’t ask the Orange County Sheriff’s Office to investigate. According to the incident report—dated May 28, and written in response to the INDY’s request for information—“The names of all the students involved were not revealed to law enforcement.” The report continues: “Based on the findings of insufficient evidence, [school] administration closed their case.” 

Yarbrough says if someone gave him new information, he’d look into it. And he seems to have taken the matter seriously. (On May 3, he emailed the school’s parents: “I was shocked and saddened to hear that this had occurred. Stuff like this is wrong and has absolutely no place at Orange High School.”) But he didn’t have much to go on. 

Had this incident taken place somewhere else, it might have escaped notice. But this happened in Orange County, whose school system has been plagued by racial tensions. 

According to a report released in 2018, OCS recorded more than seventy racist incidents during the 2016–17 school year. That year, black OCS students were 3.2 times more likely than their white counterparts to receive an in-school suspension, according to the Racial Equity Report Cards produced by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice’s Youth Justice Project. In 2017, the system was 5.6 times more likely to refer black youth to juvenile courts than whites, and all of the students deemed delinquent were black. 

And while almost half of the district’s students are minorities, just 12 percent of teachers are people of color. 

So at the May 6 Board of Education meeting, some parents voiced their frustrations. 

“I am not only disgusted by the act itself, but that an incident such as this would not trigger immediate action and a response from the administration and the school district broadly,” one said. “If this was an isolated experience, it would still be unacceptable, but when you add on the reality that similar events have happened in the past and continue to happen, it is deplorable.” 

A second speaker demanded a lottery system for parking spaces, rather than letting students pick their spots at the beginning of the year. “I’m sure that we can all agree that redneck row, a row that students have to walk along just to get to the school building each day, really needs to be abolished, just like slavery,” she said, alleging that students who park in redneck row have bullied black students for “more than twenty years.”

Two weeks later, the board agreed to add more parking lot cameras and, in principle, a parking lottery, though there are some logistics to sort through. 

The more pressing issue is getting the district’s new equity plan off the ground. 

In January, the school board voted unanimously to adopt an equity policy that acknowledged “persistent racial intolerance, inequities, and academic disparities” throughout the district. The policy was supposed to be a guide for a subsequent equity plan developed by Superintendent Todd Wirt. 

But in April, Wirt announced that he would resign this summer. Now, a chief equity officer will take over the project beginning July 1. 

Advocates say they’re optimistic. 

“As Orange County Schools makes this shift, they are going to be a more desired school [system],” says Latarndra Strong, founder of the Hate-Free Schools Coalition. “We have the strongest policy in the state, and maybe across the nation, with regard to our commitment to equity. It’s just going to take some time for us to take that policy, convert it into a plan, and implement it.”

But on May 6, the night parents complained about the incident at Orange High, the board voted 4–3, along gender lines, to oust Brenda Stephens, the board’s only black woman, as its chair. Stephens, who was essential to creating the equity policy, was replaced by Will Atherton, a white man. 

Atherton told The News of Orange and The News & Observer this move had nothing to do with race or gender, pointing out that the board has voted unanimously except for two occasions—this and a charged vote on parts of the dress code. Atherton said the decision was partly motivated by the fact that a board member was going to be away in July, when the board votes on its annual reorganization. But he also noted that Brenda Stephens had what he called a “conflict of interest,” and that she had not recused herself from discussions about allegations of racial discrimination at Cameron Park Elementary School.

Brenda Stephens’s son, Seth Stephens, is the OCS communications officer who initially investigated those allegations. After the INDY brought them to light in April, the school board decided to look into them again. 

Atherton could not be reached for comment for this story. 

The board hired an outside investigator the day after the reorganization. He’ll be paid $100 an hour for fifty hours of work. 

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Editor’s note: This story has been edited to reflect that the Sheriff’s Office’s report was made in response to the INDY’s request for information about the alleged incident and to clarify that the school never asked the OCSO to investigate. In addition, a paragraph has been edited to clarify that Atherton’s views on the school board reorganization came from media reports. 

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