'Pick up my book, slave': Black students face hostile environment at Ohio school district

Keith BieryGolick
'Pick up my book, slave': Black students face hostile environment at Ohio school district

CINCINNATI – The hand-drawn picture shows a barn with a noose hanging from it. A large Confederate flag covers one side of the barn, and “WELCOME TO DIXIE” is written on the roof.

In front of the barn, six people wear pointed white hoods. Their arms are raised, standing near a burning cross. On top of the barn is another Confederate flag fluttering in the wind. And next to the crisscrossed stars, there are a few words:

“We kill n------ here. KKK”

This was scribbled on lined notebook paper by an eighth grade student at Lebanon Junior High School in Lebanon, Ohio.

It happened in 2012, but it wasn’t an anomaly: In each of the next three years, similar racist messages were found in the southwest Ohio school district’s bathrooms, according to a review of discipline records. 

It is 2019 now. And although the school district’s superintendent said addressing racism is a priority, a parent said officials went years without telling the community what they were actually doing about it.

Swastikas and messages carved on bathroom walls

There were swastikas and notes that said, “go home n------ and Jews.” One student took a picture of a message carved into the bathroom wall. School officials appeared to paint over it but the N-word was still visible.

In spring 2015, high school teachers were asked to check bathrooms before the beginning and end of each class.

Records document a federal investigation into racial discrimination claims at Lebanon  schools. It took more than a year for school officials to comply with a public records request for them, producing a slew of documents on April 16, 2019.

And even though there was a federal investigation, the findings have never been fully reported.

This drawing by an 8th-grade student at the Lebanon Junior High School is part of a number of discipline records produced by school officials during a federal investigation into claims of racial discrimination at the Lebanon City School District. The investigation concluded there was a hostile racial environment for minority students in the Lebanon Junior High and High School.

More than half of incidents involved N-word

In 2015, multiple families filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights alleging racial discrimination. The families settled in 2017, with the school district agreeing to revise its policies, provide employee training and form committees to tackle harassment and discrimination. 

The district also paid $150,000 to the three families and their attorney to split.

Before the settlement, school officials commissioned their own investigation, downplaying complaints and calling race-based incidents "few" and "isolated." All staff interviewed by the Office for Civil Rights said they did not believe there was a contentious racial environment at the schools.

But a review of discipline records found 72 reported racial incidents in the district during the 2014-15 school year. That was more than the previous two years combined.

The incidents included:

  • A first grader telling his mom another student said he couldn’t be someone’s boyfriend because of his skin color.
  • A fifth grade student singing “duck, duck, (N-word)” during math and science class.
  • A seventh grade student who was called the N-word at football practice telling officials that happens a lot.
  • An eighth grade student asking a teaching assistant to “please pick up my book, slave.”

More than half of the incidents involved the N-word.

This is part of a number of discipline records produced by school officials during a federal investigation into claims of racial discrimination at the Lebanon City School District. The investigation concluded there was a hostile racial environment for minority students in the Lebanon Junior High and High School.

Federal officials said the district didn’t do enough to address racism and called discipline inconsistent and, in some cases, “wholly insufficient” to prevent future harassment. 

On at least one occasion, the only discipline for a student who used the N-word directly to another student was talking to the student and the student's parents.

The investigation concluded there was a hostile racial environment at Lebanon Junior High School and Lebanon High School in the 2014-15 school year.

During that school year, there were 145 black and multiracial students at the two schools. That's less than 6% of the number of white students there, 2,635.

'Positive strides being made'

Lebanon Superintendent Todd Yohey was hired in 2016, about a year after the federal complaints were filed.

By the time he got here, the superintendent said school officials were already trying to address the problems. But he said he doesn't believe the district handled the parent complaints very well.

“We’ve done a lot since that time," Yohey said. "I see positive strides being made in the district from the climate that you describe. I think that all of us in the district are more aware of our own biases and how that might impact how we interact with other people."

As a district, Lebanon students are about 88% white. That's more diverse than some districts in Warren County, such as Springboro and Little Miami, but less diverse than others such as Mason and Kings.

Lebanon’s school board and superintendent are all white.

In 2016, a Democrat ran for county commissioner, where there hasn’t been an elected Democrat since 1976. The party’s chairwoman put his chances bluntly in an interview at the time.

He’s black,” said Bethe Goldenfield. “It’s tough.”

More: 'Deeply offensive' blackface video of California high school student sparks backlash

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A national spike in racial complaints

Nationally, the Education Department saw a spike in racial harassment complaints in 2017.

Several high-profile incidents last year in nearby Mason, where a white teacher told a black student he might be lynched, and Kings, where a basketball team had words such as “Coon” and “Knee Grow” on its jerseys, show racism hasn't gone anywhere.

Elsewhere in the county, the Office for Civil Rights is investigating Springboro City Schools for racial harassment allegations.

But what the federal investigation into Lebanon shows, in sometimes shocking detail, is what minority students go through in schools across the state.

Using Ohio’s public record laws, more than 1,000 pages of notes, student statements and discipline records were reviewed for this report. 

Among the findings: White students regularly said they didn’t understand what they did wrong, and minority students often told administrators something racial happened to them before.

Minority students downplay racism

In records, minority students themselves often downplayed racial incidents. One middle school student in Lebanon said he’s heard racist comments since 2nd grade.

This student was the center of a video taken during a high school football game several years ago. During the video, a white teammate rapped to him about “smoking crack," ending with an insult and a racial slur.

The black student defended his friend to school officials and said he was not offended by what happened. He said rap battles are supposed to be offensive and he laughed because it was funny.

This same student also was pictured in an anonymous Instagram post which seemed to threaten black students at the school. 

The video was viewed thousands of times online, circulating throughout the community. 

This written student statement is part of a number of discipline records produced by school officials during a federal investigation into claims of racial discrimination at the Lebanon City School District. The investigation concluded there was a hostile racial environment for minority students in the Lebanon Junior High and High School.

Because the school couldn’t figure out who made the Instagram post, they did nothing. And while officials conducted assemblies about bullying in general, federal investigators said, they did nothing to specifically address racism.

Lebanon students often defended racist comments by saying they were only kidding, or they didn’t know something was offensive.

A high school junior blamed his upbringing for one incident, telling the school he tries not to let his family influence him but “sometimes things slip.”

'I wasn't being racist'

In 2013, a freshman was puzzled when a female student slapped him for saying, “What’s up (N-word)?”

He told school officials he couldn’t figure out why she stared at him so long after he said it.

“I wasn’t being racist,” the student wrote in a statement. “It’s not like I was saying, ‘Hey there’s my slave’ or ‘You done with the fields?’ like everybody else does.”

At lunch, a high school freshman sang the N-word and defended his actions because everybody laughed and the slur he used ended in an “a” – not an “er.” 

After an argument about race and how a short, black student wanted to play in the NBA ended with another student telling him there were no white people on plantations, that student acknowledged he took things too far. He was given an in-school suspension.

But later that day, his parents emailed the school, tried to justify what he said and appealed his punishment.

The principal rescinded the in-school suspension and gave both students a verbal warning.

In another case during the same school year, a white student asked a black student to prom with a bag of Kentucky Fried Chicken and a watermelon with the word “prom?” written on it.

The white student posted a picture of the “promposal” on Twitter, saying, “the correct way to ask a black guy to prom.”

The black student told school officials he thought it was funny. He said he jokes about his race all the time.

Diagnoses of depression, anxiety and self-esteem issues

An eighth grade Lebanon student threatened to kill herself if she had to go back to school. And when she was at school, according to district documents, she texted her mom and begged to be picked up.

At some point every week, according to the federal complaint, she would cry.

She didn’t want to be somewhere she heard racist comments at lunch.

She didn’t want to be part of a classroom discussion about race where a student said, “all blacks sagged their pants and sold drugs.”

She didn’t want to walk down the hallway with her friends and hear shouts of, “Go back to Middletown" along with a racial slur.

This student was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and self-esteem issues, her mom said in the federal complaint. The family moved out of the district.

This 1999 Enquirer file photo shows a window on a business in downtown Lebanon supporting the school district's athletic teams.

Raye Kimberlin, a black parent who grew up in Lebanon, thought about moving elsewhere during the federal investigation. But her son wanted to stay. His friends were here, and he wanted to see his grandmother every day.

Kimberlin graduated from Lebanon High School in 1986 and moved to Cleveland. When she moved back, she said, there were fewer black people in Lebanon than when she lived here before.

“It was a real challenge coming from the big city back to a small town,” she told the Cincinnati Enquirer in an interview. "It was not as diverse as I hoped Lebanon would become." 

Kimberlin’s son is 18 and graduated in May. He’s been in the school district since kindergarten.

Raye Kimberlin

“My son has probably had a unique experience, where he hasn’t had any experiences with overt racism,” she said.

Other parents asked to speak for this story declined because they worried about potential repercussions their children, who are still in school, might face.

Kimberlin is part of a parent committee tackling issues involving race and inequality at the schools. She said after initial meetings and discussions in 2016, the district didn’t communicate with parents for years.

When officials did share what the district had worked on, she was relieved.

Kimberlin thinks the curriculum and the way sensitive material involving race is taught have improved. She still wishes there was a club at the district for black students, where there are 34 total clubs at the high school, but she is happy with her son’s experience.

“No school is perfect,” Kimberlin said. “The community, as a whole, has supported my son and our family.”

What's changed? It's hard to say

It’s hard to say how much has changed since the 2017 investigation. 

Eric Ellis, a diversity and inclusion expert who has worked with companies such as Toyota and Procter & Gamble, has spoken to school districts across Greater Cincinnati.

What Ellis found at Lebanon is what he finds everywhere: young people struggling and school officials lacking the resources to provide anything more than Band-Aids.

"Schools are a microcosm of what is happening in our society," Ellis said. "We are in the midst of an ideological civil war. I think a lot of that gets played out in the school environment."

As a society, he said, we can’t expect schools to fix everything – but we often do.

Karen Schaeffer is the pastor of Bethel AME, a predominantly black church in Lebanon. The church itself can be used as an example of positive change in the city when a 2017 fire left the congregation operating out of storefronts but overwhelmed by the community's support.

Schaeffer acknowledged there are still issues involving racism and inclusion in the city – not just the schools. But she worried sharing those stories with the media would stunt progress that’s been made. 

“We know there are people experiencing racism in our community,” she said. “We have work to do, as do all of our schools and institutions.”

When asked for the number of racial incidents in the years since the federal complaints, Superintendent Yohey said officials investigated zero incidents in 2016-17 and 2017-18. He said there had been two incidents this past school year. 

For comparison, the Education Department found 32 racial incidents in 2012-13, 23 the next year and 72 in 2014-15.

In its report, federal officials said the district underreported racial incidents in electronic records by classifying them as something else. 

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: 'Pick up my book, slave': Black students face hostile environment at Ohio school district