School Officials Face Questions Over Use Of 'N-Word'

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School Officials Face Questions Over Use Of 'N-Word'

By Ben Hall. CREATED Jul 14, 2014

COLUMBIA, Tenn. -- The state is ordering an entire Middle Tennessee school district, including employees and students, to undergo sensitivity training.

It comes after a grandmother claimed her grandson was bullied and racially harassed on a Maury County School bus earlier this year.

The Tennessee Department of Education Office of Civil Rights investigated the matter and blasted school officials for how they handled the grandmother's complaint.

The state investigation revealed Maury County school employees used the "n-word" multiple times in tape recorded meetings with Katrina Donaldson.

Donaldson said the district failed to respond appropriately to her complaint about her grandson being bullied, and she felt victimized by school officials repeating the "n-word" numerous times in meetings with her.

She said that her 11-year-old grandson tried to fend off a physical attack on a school bus in January, but it was the verbal attack, a racial slur, that hurt most.

"The little boy got over him and repeated the word until his brother pulled him off," Donaldson said.

Donaldson said a white student repeated the "n-word" after he kicked her grandson.

"We don't talk like that at our house.  I couldn't believe something like that would happen," Donaldson said.

She said she turned to school officials for help.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Did they take this seriously?"

"No," Donaldson answered.  "And I stated it more than once that they were not taking it seriously."

The Tennessee Department of Education agreed, their investigation into how the complaint was handled, found Maury County school officials showed a "lack of cultural sensitivity" by repeating the "n-word" numerous times in a meeting with Donaldson.

"It was hurtful and disrespectful," Donaldson said.  "There was no civility in that meeting.  They just treated us like dirt."

Donaldson recorded the two meetings, which took place in March.  

She said everyone saw the recorder on the table and knew they were being recorded.

Several times, school officials told Donaldson they were busy.  

Director of discipline Mary Carter seemed frustrated when Donaldson asked for documentation about her grandson's incident, 

"Ma'am, what is it you want?" she asked.

Someone else said, "Ms. Carter don't."

Carter continues, "What is it you want?  We are all very busy."

The meeting was held at Mt. Pleasant Elementary.  

Six school officials were in the room with Ms. Donaldson and her advocate.  

The recording obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates reveals officials repeated the "n-word" at least nine times in the hour long meeting.

According to the state document, middle school principal Kevin Eady said, "The husband came to me later that day, but we, our discussion was on the n****.  And how he was upset about the n**** and that the kids had come in and said he'd been called that."

The school district "adamantly denied" to the state investigator that Ms. Donaldson was bullied or harassed in the meeting.  

The district claimed officials only used the "n-word" when describing what was said on the bus.

But the state investigator stated in the her report, "Such repeated use, indicates a lack of cultural sensitivity and disregard of the emotional and psychological effect of derogatory language by district staff."

"The district should be mortified with the contents of that (state) letter," said attorney Gary Blackburn.  "The state of Tennessee to it's credit is saying, 'Maury County you don't get it.'"

Blackburn represents Donaldson and plans to file a lawsuit on her behalf.  

He said the district intentionally dismissed her complaint.

"They just don't care.  That's why the state is demanding that they have sensitivity training," Blackburn said.

When the state investigator questioned one school official about her repeated use of the "n-word," she told the investigator that "she was not afraid to use the term and had been raised to not be offended by it."

The state concluded that audio tapes from the meetings show Maury County school officials responded to Donaldson's complaint with "defensiveness and almost hostility."

"To me, they talked to my grandson the same way," Donaldson said.  " He was treated the same way I was."

"I knew in my heart that this was wrong, and I could not live with telling my grandson that there was no justice done for this and that he should accept it and go on with his life," Donaldson said.

The state has demanded that Maury County Schools submit a corrective action plan by September. The plan must include a way for employees and students to receive sensitivity training.  

The county appealed the state ruling and said it contains factual inaccuracies.

Ms Donaldson said she is concerned about her son riding the bus in the fall.

The Maury County School District sent two statements, but would not do an on-camera interview. 

Here are the statements:

"The alleged incident involves a verbal altercation between students on a Maury County School bus. We are participating in an investigation conducted by the State Department of Education. The district respects student privacy and doesn't provide information regarding student records."

"We received a copy of the report you reference.  We are appealing the report because we believe it contains factual inaccuracies.  Our investigation of the allegations was conducted by six individuals, three of whom are African-American.  The investigator from the Department of Education did not interview any of these individuals.  Any use of the 'n-word' by staff members was in reference to the allegations which were the subject of the investigation, and not directed at any individual."


Read the state Department of Education report



Ben Hall

Ben Hall

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Ben Hall is a veteran reporter at NewsChannel 5. He has covered the state legislature, presidential campaigns and is presently part of NewsChannel 5's award-winning investigative unit.