Some community groups and families are charging that Black students in Johnston County schools are being racially bullied by white classmates.
Concerns about racially motivated bullying first became public in late October after videos emerged of white students at Princeton High School taunting Black classmates with “Trump 2024” and “Blue Lives Matter” flags. Since then, other videos have appeared on social media of white students at several Johnston County schools using the N-word and other racial epithets.
The Johnston County NAACP and the African American Caucus of the Johnston County Democratic Party have called for a “meaningful review of Johnston County Public Schools’ policies relating to racism and bullying.”
“What we want to do is make the community aware of the issues going on in the schools,” Dr. Gettys Cohen, president of the Johnston County NAACP, said in an interview. “There is a history of racism in this community.”
The school district says it takes the allegations seriously. Johnston County is North Carolina’s seventh-largest school distric,t with around 37,000 students. The district is 52% white, 26% Hispanic and 16% Black.
“It is important to both our Superintendent and all JCPS staff to foster a climate that includes respect for others,” the district said in a statement. “We appreciate our staff and community partners working together to ensure that our schools are a welcoming and harmonious place for all..”
Black student told to pick cotton
Until recently, Brooklyn Edwards was a 15-year-old sophomore at Princeton High, about 40 miles east of Raleigh. Her mother, Kaiulani Moses, told ABC11, The News & Observer’s media partner, that she pulled her daughter from the school due to repeated racial bullying by white students.
Edwards told ABC11 that videos showing white students waving Trump and Blue Lives Matter flags in front of Black students were just some of the examples of racial tensions — a charge she repeated at a school board meeting this month.
Edwards told the school board that she’s been called the N-word and a monkey multiple times by white students. She said white students have also told her she should kill herself.
In one example, Edwards said a white student called her the N-word before taking cotton out of his pocket and dropping it to the ground. He then told her to pick it up.
“I really hope that you all look into this school,” Edwards asked the school board. “It’s bad enough we have to deal with racism in the real world.
“We shouldn’t have to deal with it in school. I’m speaking up for the ones who are too scared to speak up for themselves.”
Moses said at the board meeting that other families have shared with her stories of the racism they’ve experienced at the school.
“I plead with all of you to investigate these complaints that my children, as well as other non-white parents and students have gone through and will continue to go through if you choose to stay silent,” Moses told the board.
Macy Blake, a recent Princeton High student, backed up Edwards’ account of Black students being treated differently.
“Black girls rock” shirts and “Black Lives Mattes” hoodies were considered inappropriate while Confederate shirts and Blue Lives Matter flags were allowed, according to Blake. She said Black students were told by teachers to remove hats, hoodies and do-rags because they might be hiding weapons while white students were allowed to leave their head gear on.
Blake’s grandmother endured racist incidents such as a dead possum being placed in her locker when she helped integrate Princeton High in 1971.
“The same kids that bullied (my grandmother) at Princeton High School are the grandparents of the kids who are taunting Black kids now,” Blake told the board. “This is generational racism.”
The district said in its statement that it’s aware of the issues raised about Princeton High.
“While we can not and will not comment on specific events regarding student discipline, it is important for our community to know that we do not take any bullying or harassment incidents lightly,” the district said in a statement.
Are Black students treated more harshly?
Black students in Johnston County are six times more likely than white students to receive a short-term suspension, according to the Southern Coalition for Social Justice’s racial equity report card for the district.
Pansy Diaz said Black students often are portrayed as villains compared to white students by school officials. She cited two fighting incidents involving her granddaughter in which the granddaughter was treated much more harshly than white students at North Johnston Middle School.
“I want the Johnston County school system investigated,” Diaz said in an interview. “If nothing else, civil rights are being violated. They feel like they can do whatever they want.”
Johnston County’s racial legacy
The Johnston County NAACP and the African American Caucus of the Johnston County Democratic Party say the recent incidents are especially concerning in light of the county’s history.
For years, Johnston County was home to KKK billboards telling people “This is Klan Country,” the News & Observer previously reported.
In 2019, a freshman at East Wake High School in Wendell exposed a group chat where two students at her school and five students at Corinth Holders High School in Johnston County made racial slurs and talked about shooting Black people, the N&O previously reported.
Of more recent concern to both groups is how the school board passed a policy in October that puts new rules in place on how teachers can discuss history and race. For instance, the policy says teachers cannot teach that racism is a permanent component of American life.
The Johnston County Board of Commissioners had withheld $7.9 million in funding until the school board passed a policy preventing what it called Critical Race Theory from being taught.
Angelique Legette, president of the African American Caucus of the Johnston County Democratic Party, said it is actions such as the new policy that are contributing to the animosity experienced by Black students.
“Johnston County was home to the KKK,” Legette, who is also the parent of a district student, said in an interview. “We need to remember that and start changing things.”