Michael Paul Williams

As a sophomore at Hermitage High School in 1974, our Black History Week assembly ended abruptly when the speaker was greeted with hostility and drowned out by a cacophony of exaggerated coughing and hacking by white students.

There was no community outcry. No apologies. As far as I know, no punishments were meted out. The Henrico County School Board held no hearing on the incident. There were no teachable moments or calls for tolerance.

Four decades later, the tumult at Short Pump Middle School represents both a sad realization of the endurance of racism and a glimmer of progress that this incident didn’t get sucked into a vortex.

The school’s football team made national headlines last week after a smartphone video with a racist caption was posted on Snapchat showing some football players straddling black players and simulating sex acts in an unsupervised locker room.

At a School Board public hearing Wednesday — the anti-bullying Unity Day, as it turned out — outrage was palpable and clearly had been festering. Among the complaints was a chronic lack of administrative disclosure and responsiveness.

Short Pump Middle’s principal, Thomas McAuley, said the school received the video from another school’s administration at 10:30 a.m. on Oct. 16, a Monday. He briefed his administrative team, called Henrico police, launched an investigation and sent the video to the school district’s central office. That afternoon, he met with Superintendent Patrick Kinlaw, spoke with the locker room aggressors, victims and their families, and consulted with school coaches and the athletic director.

On Tuesday, after a meeting in the athletic director’s office, McAuley determined where the breakdown in supervision occurred, he said.

On Wednesday afternoon, the story broke on NBC12 news.

On Thursday, the school communicated with parents in a statement.

“We were acting swiftly, taking it seriously, communicating in a responsible manner and following human resources personnel policies and upholding the standards as set forth in the student code of conduct,” McAuley said at Wednesday’s meeting.

If that’s so, those policies need a makeover. A middle ground must be established between privacy requirements and the need to notify parents and the community in a timely manner.

In the internet age, it’s untenable for school officials in a social media-driven world to sit on a video so toxic that it can subject your school to national humiliation.

Parents can be notified instantaneously via text and email. Any system that results in parents learning about a school-based trauma from a local news anchor has broken down.

“I don’t trust your judgment,” parent April Sullivan said at Wednesday’s public hearing. “I feel like there’s a complete erosion of trust from the top down.”

Said parent Ngozi Ibe: “I’ve been involved in multiple discussions, both online and in person, and the common thread throughout these discussions is that there is a systemic problem of racism and bullying at Short Pump Middle School that is not being addressed. The first step to solving a problem is admitting that you have one.”

Kinlaw had already admitted as much.

“There is much more work that needs to be done, not only at Short Pump Middle, but across the school division,” he said. “As all of this has transpired, others in the county have come forward to share their experiences and their concerns as well.”

The Henrico school division bears scant resemblance to the overwhelmingly white one I was a part of more than four decades ago. Its enrollment is majority-minority: 36 percent African-American, 10 percent Asian-American and 9 percent are Hispanic-American, as of November 2016. (At Short Pump Middle, black students make up less than 6 percent of the enrollment; Asian-Americans, 14 percent.)

As speakers pointed out Wednesday, the school division’s hiring has not kept pace with this change. Seventeen percent of the district’s teachers are minorities, spokesman Andy Jenks said.

Kinlaw announced plans for a districtwide, representative group to engage in conversations about equity, race relations, harassment, tolerance and ethics. This standing committee will meet regularly and serve as both a monitor and a resource, he said.

“As egregious as the incident has been, I believe it is very important to use this as a life lesson,” he said.

In the fallout from the video, the School Board announced that the football team would forfeit the remainder of its season. Some parents complained that their sons were being punished for the actions of others. But as McAuley said, “While the majority of the team were not involved in the incident, it is a team sport, and many students in the locker room did not speak out or try to stop the deplorable behavior that was occurring.”

And in this context, that locker room and that football team are a metaphor for an America we don’t like to acknowledge.

We are aggressors and victims. We observe racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, religious bigotry and discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Some of us support politicians who practice some or all of those biases.

Too often, we are silent witnesses.

“We must not allow the actions of a few to define us” was a refrain heard Wednesday. But the -isms that plague us are not merely about “a few,” and never have been.

We are that locker room. We are a nation of bystanders, too often saying and doing nothing. The first step in solving a problem is admitting that you have one.

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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