On February 11, after three new school board members were elected on promises to combat racial disparities in Orange County Schools, the board approved a policy acknowledging “persistent racial intolerance, inequities, and academic disparities” in the district and called on school system officials to interrupt discriminatory “systems, structures, policies, and practices.”
Four days earlier, armed with video and audio recordings, the mother of a first-grader at Cameron Park Elementary School filed a complaint with OCS alleging that she and her child had been subjected to just such discrimination.
The district’s month-long investigation sustained many of Krystal Little’s claims. It found that she had been “treated differently, whether intentional or not,” and that her daughter, Shyanne, had been denied access to the school’s gifted program even though she was eligible. It also found that Little had been harassed by a custodian because she’s black, and that, when Little reported this harassment to the assistant principal, the school had failed to act.
Little, the investigation report concluded, “has not been engaged with as a parent by the school’s administration in a fashion, manner, or form similar to her white parent counterparts.”
The report, obtained by the INDY, recommended that Cameron Park administrators undergo customer service and diversity training.
Little says that’s not good enough. She wants every person involved held accountable—and says she plans to take legal action.
“There is a level of integrity that these people do not have,” Little says. “I want them out. There will not be a change until the hearts change. I am taking this all the way. I want for them to know this is not accepted. This is not tolerated. In the end, it’s not just about suing these people for money. It’s about them knowing and understanding it’s not right.”
Little enrolled Shyanne at Cameron Park, near downtown Hillsborough, in August. Looking for a fresh start, they’d moved from Carrboro after Little’s husband died of a rare illness in 2017. Shyanne was one of 66 black students out of 592 at the school; no teachers were African American, according to the investigation report.
Shyanne was entering a district that had been roiled by racial tensions.
In 2017, following months of protests, the school board finally amended its dress code to ban the Confederate flag. A year later, OCS released reports showing that staff members had recorded seventy incidents of racist comments and feuds in the 2016–17 school year.
Shyanne was also entering a school with pronounced racial disparities.
This is the case across OCS, where performance grades for the 2017–18 year revealed a wide achievement gap between minority and white students. But of all the schools in the district, the gap between black and white performance was the largest at Cameron Park. As the investigation report notes: “Educational outcomes for black students lag far behind their white counterparts at Cameron Park and across the Orange County Schools system.”
Shyanne didn’t stay long.
Within seven months, Little had pulled her daughter not only from the school but also from the district.
Shyanne came to Cameron Park precocious and inquisitive, Little says. But after a few months, she began apologizing for even asking questions—or, worse, not asking them at all.
“I think the district in its entirety is largely monolithic,” says Latarndra Strong, founder of the grassroots group Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Orange County, which has advocated for racial equity within OCS. “In this case, some of the problems that have sparked probably would have been handled differently if everybody in the school system, at least at this school, wasn’t white.”
Little filed the grievance on February 7, Shyanne’s seventh birthday. But she says she’d been troubled by Cameron Park’s culture for months before that.
“I was very, very nervous about moving her [to Cameron Park],” Little says. “I had already heard things.”
When she moved to Hillsborough, a black friend with children at Central Elementary told her not to place Shyanne at Cameron Park. “That is the white kid’s school,” she was told. “They don’t care for us.”
This was one of several warnings Little says she received. But she’d grown up in a diverse environment, she says, and she thought her family would adjust.
Her daughter faced setbacks from the beginning.
Shyanne is a gifted student. But unlike the school’s white gifted students, she wasn’t placed in the Academically/Intellectually Gifted program at the start of the year, despite her demonstrated abilities. According to the investigation report, Shyanne “did not receive the same AIG services that her white student counterparts received pursuant to the district’s own rules and regulations of the AIG plan.”
Throughout Shyanne’s first semester, Little says she came to the school on various occasions, including for the Christmas concert and field trips, though she felt like she didn’t belong. No one spoke to her.
“I didn’t even know who the assistant principal was,” she says. “I spoke to this woman, but I never knew she was the assistant principal.” (During the investigation, assistant principal Amanda Boleratz said she hadn’t interacted with Little before February.)
Little came to the school at lunchtime on February 7 carrying cupcakes and a blue candle in the shape of a 7. She checked in at the office. Before entering the cafeteria, she went live on Facebook, so what happened next was recorded. As she set down the cupcakes, a custodian told her she couldn’t the light the candle. She said she wouldn’t.
After the class sang “Happy Birthday,” Little put down her phone—ending the recording—so she could pass out cupcakes to Shyanne’s classmates. The custodian—identified in the report as Kenny Nutter, though he wasn’t wearing a school ID—told her again not to light the candle, according to the report. He said he’d just spoken to the assistant principal, then he told her a third time not to light the candle.
Little got fed up. “I asked him his name because I’m like, we’re having a lot of interactions now, I’ve noticed you staring at me over the months and kind of following me when I’m coming into the school,” Little recalls. “But now you are addressing me.”
She decided to report him. After all, this wasn’t her first run-in with Nutter, the investigation report says. The day before, Nutter had seen her in the halls and told her that she needed to check into the office when she came to pick up Shyanne from school, though she’d already signed out her child. He refused to identify himself.
Both incidents were motivated by race, the report found. In Nutter’s interview with Seth Stephens, the OCS communications official who conducted the investigation, Nutter admitted that he hadn’t stopped another parent under similar circumstances that week, or even that school year.
“When Ms. Little came up in [Nutter’s] narrative,” Stephens wrote, “he mocked her voice by portraying her words (that he recalled) in an unflattering manner (audibly). When he quoted other people in his narrative of the events, he did not change his voice. His natural voice was adopted as their words.”
Nutter also told Stephens that he “would do nothing differently” if given another chance. (According to the report, it took Stephens a month to secure an interview with Nutter, delaying the investigation. Nutter could not be reached for this story. A reporter who visited the school was told he wasn’t available.)
When Little told Amanda Boleratz what happened, the assistant principal listened “in the general space of the office” for about twenty minutes, the report says. Little, who recorded the meeting, wasn’t invited into the office, and the report says her harassment claim went nowhere.
This didn’t amount to discrimination by Boleratz or principal Tony Widder, Stephens wrote. “However, I do find that Ms. Little and her daughter have been treated differently, whether intentional or not, by Mr. Widder and Ms. Boleratz.”
Neither Widder nor Boleratz could be reached for comment.
After Little filed her complaint, the investigation report says, Shyanne got access to gifted services. That wouldn’t have happened if she’d kept quiet, Little says.
“To take away a child’s tools, an education, is to take away their sustainable way to make a living in their life,” Little says. “They would have economically screwed my child had I not stood up.”
OCS says it wants more minority teachers at Cameron Park and schools like it.
“Under the current leadership, there is a concerted effort when there are vacancies to try to hire, first of all, the best candidate, but then also a diverse set of teachers that would represent the student body there,” says OCS Superintendent Todd Wirt, who assumed that role in 2015, when asked about the racial imbalance at Cameron Park. “Why it’s been like that historically, I wouldn’t even begin to speculate.”
The policy the school board enacted in February is designed to increase minority hiring, setting out expectations that OCS “actively recruit, support, and retain a diverse workforce.” Wirt is developing a plan to implement that policy that should go back before the board this fall.
Wirt declined to comment on personnel matters or any disciplinary steps that would follow the investigation at Cameron Park. Stephens recommended more training but wrote that other corrective actions were beyond the report’s scope.
Little received the completed investigation on March 14. A week later, Wirt authorized Shyanne’s transfer to another OCS school. A week after that, Little removed her from OCS and took her back to Carrboro.
Though one investigation has finished, another is underway. Wirt asked the district’s top human resources official to follow up on Stephens’s investigation. But Little doesn’t want to describe what happened again. She wants something done about it.
“My daughter wants an education,” Little says. “This girl wants to learn. I’m going to do everything in my right state of mind to make sure she learns and gets that education. If myself or my daughter has to be the tool to make an example out of these people, to get them to make a change, to stop the indifference, to stop the racism, to stop the segregation, to stop fighting what has already been written in law, then we’re going to be it.”
This week, Little and Strong say they’ll meet with attorneys to discuss their options.
A day after Little received Stephens’s report, she got a call from Cameron Park administrators about an incident on the playground. They told her Shyanne wasn’t in trouble, but that she had told her teacher that she couldn’t play with the other kids because she wasn’t white. (The event happened that Monday. Little was notified on Friday.)
“What do you do when you’re a parent, and you know that you have a child that is smart and that wants to learn, and they are going from being so happy to go to school, and so happy coming home from school, to now they’re crying every day coming off the school bus?” Little says. “This has uprooted her. My baby has gone through changes.”
Charlotte Wray is the former editor of News of Orange County. She’s now a staff writer at The Daily Dispatch in Henderson. Find her on Twitter @_charlottewray.
I feel very sad for the children and parents in the Orange County School system. Our children are so precious to our future, what is happening to have two such important issues not resolved?
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