A mother’s claim that her children’s school was assigning Black students to certain classes has shaken up one Atlanta school community with some parents insisting the principal would never group students based on race.
It’s also fueled a debate about whether the practice would even be considered legal or productive for the children.
Kila Posey filed a civil rights complaint with the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights last month. She alleges that during the 2020-2021 school year Mary Lin Elementary School Principal Sharyn Briscoe designated only two second-grade classes for Black students without the consent of families while White students were able to be placed all six second-grade classes. Posey and Briscoe are both Black.
According to the complaint, the assistant principal at the school admitted in a recorded phone conversation in August 2020 that she was aware of the class separation Briscoe created, noting that “class lists are always tough” and that she wished the school had more Black children. The district’s chief academic officer also acknowledged in a recorded conversation in March 2021 that Briscoe admitted to designating classes for Black students, the complaint states.
Regina Molden, Briscoe’s attorney, said in a statement to CNN on Wednesday that Briscoe was “extremely concerned about the recent allegations of wrongdoing.”
“Given that this is an active investigation, however, Ms. Briscoe is limited in what information she can share right now, but is looking forward to telling her side of the story at the appropriate time and place,” Molden said.
Mary Lin is in a predominately White, middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta. The school had 599 students in grades kindergarten through fifth, according to the Georgia Department of Education’s latest data. Of those, 60 students are Black. In March, the second-grade class had 98 students, 12 of whom are Black and 81 are White, the data shows.
Atlanta Public Schools have said very little about Posey’s claim – other than a statement saying “appropriate actions were taken to address the issue and the matter was closed”– leading many parents to question her accusation against a principal they say is adored in the community.
“All anyone has to do is pick up a yearbook from last year and previous years to see that that any claim of grouping Black students together is obviously ridiculous,” a group of Black families from Mary Lin said in a statement obtained by CNN. “We have a small number of Black students, but it’s a very loving and inclusive community of families of all races and backgrounds, led by our well-respected principal.”
The statement also said that Posey’s complaint and public remarks have made the school and Briscoe “the target of hateful and harassing phone calls and emails.” The families say they are concerned for their own safety.
The legal risks
If Posey’s allegation is true, one expert says grouping students by race in certain classes can benefit them because it prevents feelings of isolation and leads to higher success rates. Other legal experts warn that the school may be breaking the law. Assigning Black students to two classes and White students to six violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 14th Amendment and may also violate state or local anti-discrimination laws, said Michaele Turnage Young, senior counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
“Essentially what has happened is these children are being discriminated against because of their race,” Young said.
While Young was uncertain how common or rare it is, she said the NAACP LDF has worked with schools that attempted to assign students to classes based on race to educate them about the laws. Some were majority Black schools clustering White students.
Young pointed to research that shows children actually thrive better in diverse settings with students who don’t look like them.
“Sometimes people have very good intentions, but they’re not necessarily acquainted with all the research and they’re not necessarily acquainted with the legal requirements,” Young said.
On Tuesday, Posey said she too believes Briscoe broke the law. She said despite the backlash from other parents, it’s not fair that Black students have fewer options for classes than White students.
Posey told CNN’s John Berman last week that she found out about the school’s practice when she requested her child be placed in a certain teacher’s class. Briscoe she said, told her that was not a “Black class” and that her daughter would not have anyone who looks like her in the classroom.
“It’s disheartening to know that in 2020, after George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, we’ve done all the marching and I’m here in 2021, you know, having this conversation with someone that looks just like me,” Posey said.
Posey is a former Atlanta Public Schools employee who now runs her own company, The Club After School, which offers after-school programs at schools in APS and the DeKalb County School District, according to the complaint. Posey’s husband is a school psychologist at Mary Lin.
Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, an associate professor in the School of Education at Virginia Commonwealth University, said schools need to create alternatives to placing students in classes based on race so they aren’t violating the law. That could mean designating times, safe spaces or groups for children to gather with people who identify with them.
“I think there are ways to do this …without doing something that may or may not be legal,” Siegel-Hawley said. “And without making classroom assignments the sole deciding factor.”
‘A good practice’
One race relations expert, however, said grouping students by race creates a healthier classroom environment.
Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, former president of Spelman College and author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race,” said if a student is the only person of their identity in one classroom, they are more likely to stand out in ways that lead to stereotyping.
Tatum said she believes Briscoe, if Posey’s allegations are true, may have been following psychological research that says when there are three or more students of a minority group in one classroom, they are more likely to be seen as individuals and not stereotyped. This gives students a better chance of having a positive learning experience, she said. The same practice can be applied to gender, Tatum said.
“It is beneficial to not be a token,” Tatum said. “What I imagine is that the principal was trying to create a learning environment where no Black child would have to be in that uncomfortable position.”
Some parents agreed with this notion.
Andee Schroeder, a White parent who has a third-grade son at Mary Lin, said she was not aware there were designated classes for Black students but trusts that if it’s true, Briscoe is “100 percent well-intentioned.”
“It’s unfortunate that this (controversy) is happening over what is probably a good practice,” Schroeder said. “She works her tail off to make sure every child is set up for success.”
Sabrina, a Black parent at Mary Lin who declined to provide her last name for fear of harassment from critics, said while she would never demand that her child be placed with a certain teacher, she feels comforted when there are other Black students in the class with her daughter. Being the only Black person in a setting often comes with a level of pressure and responsibility that isn’t easy to accept, she said.
“I’m not appalled, I’m not offended by the idea that gender matters, temperament matters, needs matter and that race matters,” she said. “I would say I’m glad my child won’t be the lonely only.”
CNN’s Rebekah Riess and Gregory Lemos contributed.