Anais Blackman first learned about Forsyth County's history of racial tensions just a year or two ago. The current Denmark High School student did not learn about it from a teacher, however; he learned about it from his dad.
“And so I think we should bring up the history and talk about these issues,” Blackman said. “Like at Denmark we don’t talk about it, but we — I didn’t really hear about stuff around this county until the eighth- or ninth-grade because my dad started talking about it and how I should handle myself.”
Much like Blackman, Black families and students in the community have started to share more about their experiences with and call for further change within the Forsyth County Schools system in recent weeks as the death of George Floyd has caused communities throughout the U.S. to grapple with racial justice.
Many in the Black community in Forsyth County have raised concerns about the school system’s curriculum and lack of support from administrators. With heightened attention on how to support Black students and families in recent weeks, they are now calling on schools in the area to make instruction and school environments more inclusive for all.
This was a main topic of discussion among Black community members on a panel held by the Community Remembrance Project of Forsyth County on Juneteenth this past month. Some have said that tackling difficult subjects such as racism in school and teaching students about different perspectives and differences in races, ethnicities and cultures could combat racial ignorance and lead students to think more in-depth about others’ perspectives.
“People think saying, ‘I don’t see color,’ is enough. If you don’t see color, you don’t see our struggle. You don’t see our issue. Pretty much, you don’t see us,” said Promise, a rising high school freshman who received racial insults, slurs and threats from other students online at the end of last year at Vickery Creek Middle School.
Forsyth County Schools system spokeswoman Jennifer Caracciolo said that she understands that the focus on the need for inclusion in schools is heightened right now because of current events, but she said that the school system has been working with community members for the past two years to try to emphasize diversity in schools and try to resolve problems that parents and students have brought to their attention.
Latresha Jackson, an African-American mother of two in the community, created the Forsyth Diversity Alliance last year after the incident with students at Vickery Middle School. She said that while her kids have loved their schools in Forsyth County, she wanted to make sure every student has the same experience.
“We are a group of residents in the county that want to work to ensure our schools are more inclusive,” Jackson said. “We recognize that the students are becoming more diverse, but the staffing is not. We are also concerned about how issues of racism are handled by the schools, Superintendent, Board of Education and Sheriff's office. We are new organization, but we are trying to help the school district to celebrate diversity and ensure children are protected.”
The Forsyth Diversity Alliance, a group of approximately 50 residents, has been working with Caracciolo and other school system leaders, along with the Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement, to help develop the system’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan.
The plan was finished and made available to students, parents, faculty and staff last year, and it is now being implemented as part of the system’s strategic plan for this school year. The DEI plan highlights several areas within Forsyth County schools that need improvement, including the curriculum.
Caracciolo said that the curriculum within schools is mostly set by the state, “and that’s just so it doesn’t matter if you go to school, to school, to school in a different school district — all of the students in Georgia are learning the same standards and are being assessed on those standards.”
She emphasized that these standards, found at georgiastandards.org, were not created by the school system, and no matter what changes are made, they must conform to the state standards. She said, though, that these standards are always created with diversity in mind.
Despite limitations, Caracciolo said that there are still areas in which the school system can improve its curriculum, including the addition of local history. She said that she has been working recently with social studies specialist Eric Lauterbach to look at current standards and consider future improvements.
These improvements are coming mostly from the DEI plan that has already been laid out, but as more community members have started to speak out about the importance of teaching about the county’s uncomfortable history with race, Caracciolo is paying attention to community feedback to help inform future changes to the curriculum.
“[There is] still a real problem with what isn’t being taught here,” said Grace Cronan, a 2016 graduate from Forsyth County Schools and now a leader for Forsyth County United, an online group that was formed in June to help protest police brutality. “I didn’t hear about the 1912 events in our own county until I was in an advanced placement class my senior year of high school.”
Caracciolo said that the main focus for change will likely be in eighth-grade social studies classes where students learn more about Georgia history — from early European settlers all the way to the present day. To work more on adding local history into the mix, she said that the school system will be working with the Historical Society of Cumming/Forsyth County.
This “enhancement” of the curriculum will also extend to English language arts classes. While Caracciolo said that they still have to follow the Georgia standard, they will start to look at what books students are reading and being taught from and to look at what authors they can include who are from different cultures and backgrounds.
A Georgia state manual from 2015 that offers guidance to teachers and schools on how to put together K-12 reading lists for English and literacy classes also states that teachers should “ensure that the books and other reading materials selected represent a variety of cultures and viewpoints.”
Caracciolo said that when standards are made at the state level, they are reviewed with diversity in mind, and going forward, the Forsyth County school system wants to review their practices in the same way as they are making these changes to the curriculum, such as asking themselves whether a book added to the curriculum highlights different perspectives that many students may not often see in their own lives.
As schools have gotten feedback from students and parents in the past couple of years, however, Caracciolo said that they want the school community to look at the DEI plan as more than just a program or simple curriculum solution.
“We like to say that Diversity, Equity and Inclusion is not a program, but it’s a mindset,” Caracciolo said. “It’s just keeping that in the back of your mind.”
Many Black parents and students in Forsyth County have recently shared their own experiences with issues that they have faced not only with other students in the school, but with faculty, staff and administration as well.
Promise tried to seek help from her school’s administration when students were threatening her over Snapchat, and she said it was a struggle to come back to school as she felt like no one could ensure her safety. The day after she said a teacher had implied that she had overreacted to the ordeal, Promise attempted suicide.
Parents have said that other young children in the county have faced much of the same difficulties in school.
Robin, who asked that her last name not be included out of a worry that her son will receive backlash at school, said that her daughter recently graduated from South Forsyth High School, but she faced bullying throughout school solely based on her race. She said that her daughter was called racial slurs in her classes where teachers were present, and she said that they “have just ignored it or laughed it off.”
Her son, now a rising sophomore at Alliance Academy, has also had other students call him slurs while riding the bus. Robin said that the driver ignores the situation anytime it is happening.
“There have been so many more instances,” Robin said.
Others, including Promise’s mother and past West Forsyth High School graduate Jessica Lewis, said that these instances of racism have been occurring within Forsyth County Schools for years. Lewis said she was disheartened to hear that it continues to impact students even now.
Caracciolo said that the school system will bring out about change with the DEI plan, making sure that every administration, staff and faculty member knows how to treat and interact with students.
GLISI will help to start training staff starting in September after the school systems settles into a plan for the year regarding COVID-19. To start out, staff members will be looking at understanding bias and recognizing and acknowledging their own.
“It is a very — it’s an uncomfortable process,” Caracciolo said. “And so we want to be able to support our staff members as they self-reflect and consider their work and how they support children and then to give them the tools for improvement, especially because some of our schools are majority minority schools. Some of our schools are low income schools. After a certain point, the training will be able to be individualized for them.”
In the meantime, the school system has been working with outside groups to do extensive research and to ask community members how they can build upon and improve the system and its programs to support a more diverse student body.
They have also put together a list of resources for parents and students online for more information on how to educate on and celebrate diversity in schools and in the community.
“DEI is a mindset,” Caracciolo said. “It is the way we treat others and the way they treat us, an opportunity to learn together and from one another, and we do it because it is the right thing to do — period.”