Black educators urge culture shift in Douglas County School District

Employees of color detail challenges of working in a school system and county lacking diversity

Jessica Gibbs
jgibbs@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 2/22/21

Last year, in the span of three months, the Douglas County School District saw every person of color in its cabinet — the highest level of district administration beneath the board of education — …

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Black educators urge culture shift in Douglas County School District

Employees of color detail challenges of working in a school system and county lacking diversity

Posted

Last year, in the span of three months, the Douglas County School District saw every person of color in its cabinet — the highest level of district administration beneath the board of education — resign from their posts. 

Those departures included both African-American members of the leadership team — Chief Academic Officer Marlena Gross-Taylor and the district's first African-American superintendent, Thomas Tucker — as well as Chief Technology Officer Gautam Sethi.

Related story: Lack of diversity poses challenge for students

Alarm bells rang for leaders of the district's Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility Strategic Initiative team, who in turn penned a letter to the board of education expressing “deep concerns” about the loss of that representation.

The Oct. 21 letter, obtained by Colorado Community Media through a public records request, connected administrative turnover to racism in the district.

“... their resignations speak volumes to the state of implicit biases, and quite honestly, racist practices in our district,” warned Remy Rummel, the district's director of language, culture and equity; Janet Laning, director of the district's student assistance department; and Highlands Ranch High School Principal Christopher Page, all whom signed the letter.

“Both explicit and implicit racism played a role in their resignations, and, as quoted by an anonymous person prior to fall break, 'It is difficult to be a person of color in Douglas County,'” they wrote.

'A lot of work ahead'

Douglas County Schools is a predominantly white school district in a county where 89% of residents identify as white alone, according to the U.S. Census.

The district had one Black principal or assistant principal at the helm of its roughly 90 schools as of last semester, according to data provided by the district through a records request. The district employed more than 60 teachers who identify as Black or African American as of Dec. 1, 2020, according to the district's data, about 1% of its teaching force.

The district is currently working on ways to attract, retain and support diversity among staff. Board directors could soon adopt the district's first-ever “equity policy,” which aims to ensure people have the resources they need to attain or deliver education based on their identities — from religion to sexual orientation to disability or special education needs. 

Related story:  An 'arduous journey' toward racial equity

And the policy includes a commitment to root out systemic racism and biases. The policy says the district will not condone the perpetuation of racism systemically or among students and staff.

During their Feb. 16 meeting, board directors read the policy at length, although they did not ask questions or discuss it beyond thanking the district's Equity Advisory Council for drafting it. The council is made up of more than 20 people, including staff, parents, community members and students. School board director Susan Meek encouraged people to read the policy and weigh in.

The district's general counsel explained during the meeting that the policy would support existing policies that prohibit discrimination, provide avenues for students or staff to report discrimination and strive to create safe school cultures.

The district declined Colorado Community Media's repeated requests to interview interim Superintendent Corey Wise and school board President David Ray about either general or specific experiences of current and former Black administrators, staff and students. It also refused requests to interview Rummel or a representative of the district's Equity Advisory Council.

In several emailed statements to CCM, district spokeswoman Paula Hans emphasized the district's commitment to an inclusive, equitable system that does not tolerate discrimination in any form. 

The district, she said, is continuously evaluating “its current practices and training to staff related to discrimination, inclusion and equity.”

But in a lengthy email response to the diversity team's letter, also obtained by CCM, Ray acknowledged “… our district has a lot of work ahead to reverse trends of injustice and mistreatment of others.”

He wrote that he had done more “soul searching and seeking” in recent months than he had ever done on systemic racism and social injustice.

“These reflections have included understanding the negative, pacifist role I have played as a 'dominant privileged white male,'” he wrote. 

He spoke in the letter of the “jubilation” he felt in helping hire Tucker as the district's first African-American superintendent. He acknowledged he and Tucker had “occasional conversations about some of the microaggressions and blatant racist remarks directed his way.” But, he said, when Tucker and the others left, “racism was not mentioned as an extenuating factor.” 

Ray emphasized that he did not deny they experienced racism, but only wanted to better understand what they had faced in order to better inform the district's equity work.

While Ray declined an interview with CCM, he did answer some questions by email. When asked how the district will increase diversity among leadership, Ray said the board has hired search firm Frederick Andrews to lead recruitment of the next superintendent and that the company “will work to ensure that our search is inclusive, diverse and broad.”

The district has announced its superintendent search will be regional, not national, focusing on internal and local candidates.

Ray declined to say whether the district investigated its practices following the equity team's October letter, or the culture for employees of color, citing employee confidentiality.

“I'm not at liberty to discuss specific investigations or allegations,” he said in his emailed responses. “However, I can confidently state that reports asserting discrimination or harassment are addressed and responsive measures are taken.”

Tucker and Gross-Taylor, as well as two other current and former Black employees, agreed to talk to CCM about the challenges they experienced or are still experiencing within the district. Sethi could not be reached for comment regarding his resignation. His Aug. 27 resignation letter called his seven years with the district “a terrific learning opportunity.”

The four current and former Black district employees all described numerous instances of racism, racial insensitivity and subtle or unintentional discrimination in jobs with the district.

Each described a workplace where the lack of diversity can be isolating and where the challenges of creating a supportive environment are not limited to the inside of a school building.

A challenging culture

Gross-Taylor, the former chief academic officer, specifically cited her desire to work in an environment that prioritizes diversity when she tendered her resignation on Oct. 2,according to emails CCM obtained through a public records request. 

She left the district on Oct. 31, and now leads EduGladiators, a consulting firm that works with school districts to promote equity in education.

“I think that my time was well spent (in DCSD) personally and professionally because in many ways we don't understand the depth of our character until it's tested. And mine was tested,” she told CCM in January.

Gross-Taylor, whom Tucker hired in 2018, said she often felt doubted and undermined as an African-American cabinet member. She pointed to hours-long grill sessions from board directors as she presented what she considered routine information about curriculum.

Her points were met by skepticism and scrutiny that was not evident, she said, when white colleagues made the same points.

As she began meeting with district departments in her first weeks on the job, Gross-Taylor said she also felt interrogated about her work experience, including people who questioned, “Were you really a principal?”

“I was taken aback even as a Southern gal from the bayou,” she said. “Obviously, I wouldn't have been chosen for this position if I didn't have the qualifications.”

She said she felt apprehensive about joining the district, largely because of “the extreme lack of diversity” among both employees and students. 

Gross-Taylor said she experienced “microaggressions and passive-aggressive racism” almost daily. 

“I know there were people there who truly did not like me because I was Black,” she said.

The district has increased professional development regarding equity and inclusivity, Gross-Taylor said, but she had concerns about the district's recruiting practices during her time there.

She said she once asked cabinet members during a hiring discussion if they worked with HBCUs — historically black colleges and universities. 

No one else, she said, seemed to know what an HBCU was. She called the conversation eye-opening and “a prime example of us really needing to know our history.” 

The district can only diversify its schools if it seeks to, she said. 

'Demeaning to my ethnicity'

Questions about racism also followed the departure of Tucker after roughly two years on the job.

Tucker said he told the school board last July that he would be leaving for a position as deputy commissioner and chief equity officer for the Kentucky Department of Education. He'd planned to stay on the job to help launch fall classes as the pandemic raged. 

But in September, he was placed on administrative leave following a formal workplace complaint alleging gender discrimination. He resigned during that leave, citing personal reasons, and was ultimately cleared, according to the investigative report and complaint obtained by CCM. 

During that investigation, documents show, Tucker and his attorney questioned the role race may have played in the complaint. 

“I am concerned that some individuals expressing such criticisms of me might not be accustomed to taking direction from an African American male,” the investigative report reads. “I am neither volatile nor aggressive in my communication style with women or men.”

Speaking to CCM on Jan. 29, Tucker said he would never take back working in the district. He called being selected as the DCSD superintendent “an honor and a privilege.”

But beyond his frustrations with the gender discrimination complaint, Tucker said he felt inundated by microaggressions and assaults on his character during his tenure. They began the moment board directors named him a finalist and followed him out the door, he said.

Some people “really questioned my abilities,” he said, and “questioned my credentials” despite more than 12 years' experience as a superintendent. He helmed three school districts in Ohio before coming to Douglas County.

Social media chatter among the community could be particularly brutal, he said. Sometimes he felt depicted as a caricature. 

Tucker said he felt both he and Gross-Taylor were subjected to “character assassination” and repeated assaults on their professionalism from community members. He described constantly defending his reputation as exhausting. 

“It was demeaning to me, demeaning to my ethnicity,” he said.

Tucker said he raised concerns about the culture for leaders of color to board directors. 

“I think initially there was some shock. There was some denying,” he said. 

If the district wants diverse and inclusive leadership “for the long haul,” it needs to create a more supportive environment for employees, he said. Part of what drew him to Kentucky was the state board of education's anti-racism and anti-bias policy, he said, calling it “a strong statement.”

“I don't want people to think that everyone in Douglas County is not compassionate and is not respectful of other cultures,” he said. “But as African Americans, we experience these microaggressions every day.”

And that environment, he said, did play a role in his departure.

“It wasn't the main reason why I left. Was it a reason? Yes,” he said. 

'How do we compete?'

When a friend working at Highlands Ranch High School urged Rashaan Davis to apply for a teacher opening at the school, he balked. 

“Back then, I was like, Douglas County? Really? Do they even hire Black people?” he said. “Douglas County is not known for hiring Black and brown folks.”

When Davis joined the district in 2000, 11 of its roughly 2,100 teachers identified as Black or African American, according to data supplied by the district to the Colorado Department of Education. During his roughly 17-year tenure, the number of Black teachers never exceeded 16 among the district's dozens of schools.

Since the 2017-18 school year, the district had more than tripled the number of Black teachers as it expanded its teaching force. Despite the hiring, Black teachers represented about 1% of district teachers between then and this school year.

Davis left Douglas County for more competitive pay in the Cherry Creek School District, he said. But he called his time in Douglas County schools some of the best in his career, and said he misses his Douglas County colleagues to this day.

That didn't mean race never posed a challenge, he said. 

“In 2000, when I got to Highlands Ranch,” he said, “man, I had a hard time.”

Davis spent three to four years trying to get settled. His students and their families were wealthy. The overwhelming majority of students were white. Davis felt like “a fish out of water.” 

“It became a place for me to learn to teach kids how to be more racially sensitive and for kids to understand that there is a line, and why there is a line,” he said.

Davis said he was the only Black teacher many of his students had the entire time they were enrolled in Douglas County schools. 

Obstacles to hiring and retaining Black teachers exist not just within the system but outside it, he said. 

Davis pointed, for example, to the absence of traditional Black gathering places such as churches or barbershops — places that signal a vibrant community — within Douglas County. 

“All the things that would support Black teachers in the community are all in Aurora or Denver, so how do we compete when you know, the community has to help us build in some of these components?” he said.

'It's sad'

Not two months after receiving a promotion in the Douglas County School District, an African-American employee said they learned from a colleague that a parent had referred to them as an “Uncle Tom.” 

The term historically has been used to disparage Black individuals perceived as eager to please white people or too subservient to authority.

The employee spoke to Colorado Community Media on the condition they not be named for fear of professional repercussions. 

In the last several years, “I've been called the N-word by a parent while doing my job,” the individual said. 

“There was nobody in our system above me at that time to call and talk to and walk through that issue with,” they said. “There have been a lot of situations where I have not felt supported in the district.” 

In written responses to emailed questions, Ray called the employee's account of being called the N-word “disheartening.”

“There is no tolerance for this,” he said. 

Employees can report harassment and discrimination to their supervisor or the district's compliance officer, he said. 

The departure of Tucker, Gross-Taylor and Sethi are a reflection on the system as a whole, the employee said. 

“My thoughts are [that] it's sad. There has been a stigma of racism that exists in Douglas County for a long time and when you have a lack of representation it just reemphasizes that.”

The current employee echoed calls for more diversity at all levels of the district. There have been “ceiling breakers,” or people of color who climbed the district ladder, they said, but there is still too little diversity in leadership — a point echoed in the diversity team's October letter to the board.

“As we take a look and observe the proverbial 'room,' our people of color in leadership, particularly executive leadership, are disappearing,” the letter said, “thus missing from future work, action and decision making.”

Tucker said to create a more inclusive workforce, the district has to listen to employees of color, and understand biases won't go away in the system simply by hiring in diversity. 

“If you are bringing in someone who is different from an ethnic or socioeconomic standpoint, or different from the majority, you need to have some understanding or taken some time to understand that person's unique experiences,” he said. “And, anticipate problems or difficulties this person may have coming into this organization.”

Over the last seven school years, the district has had short periods in which it had two principals who self-identified as Black, but for the most part, it has only had one, according to the state department of education. 

The current employee could only name two Black principals working in the district this year and "zero assistant principals in this entire district that are African American.” 

“How do you build a structure that talks about honoring diversity,” the employee said, “when in all reality you've hired enough to be tokenized, so you can march them out when you need to?”

This story has been updated to reflect the number of Black or African American principals and teachers in the district as of Dec. 1, 2020.

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