When Summer Smith, the mother of SeMarion Humphrey, posted on Facebook videos of her son being horrifically bullied by his Plano middle school classmates, it was because she felt the district had not heard her. She’d reached out for help and been told because the incidents were off campus, there was nothing they could do. As far as she knew, the bullies were not being punished. If they were, the district couldn’t tell her.
Since then, following protests and national attention, the district and Plano community have been engaged in conversation about the experience of Black and brown students in school.
A month after the story went viral, Plano Independent School District and the Collin County chapter of NAACP met online for a town hall called Community Conversation, intended to clear the air. Members of the school board, parents, and community members met on Zoom to listen to a panel of district officials answer questions from the community.
The town hall with Plano ISD was moderated by Sherasa Thomas, Educator Director Texoma Region Anti-Defamation League, who said the main point of the discussion was, first, to give the community a voice.
“This did not have a vacuum,” she said. She added that it was also important to give PISD a chance to address the community’s concerns and stop rumors that were growing. In the first week after SeMarion’s story became public, PISD reported staff were receiving threats.
The town hall is the start of a new, “open partnership” between the district and NAACP, to ensure all students receive fair and equal treatment. As Thomas said, “We all have a vested interest in this.”
Panelists included Superintendent Sara Bonser, Dr. Theresa Williams, Chief Operating Officer of PISD, and Dr. Courtney Gober, assistant superintendent of students, family, and community services.
“They are here of their own will and they’ve been gracious enough to give us their time … but know that there are some questions they’re just not able to answer right now,” Thomas said. She asked the audience to remain sensitive to the situation.
What is the Plano ISD chain of command for reports of bullying?
One of the first things the panel addressed was the chain of command set in place for dealing with reports of bullying.
“First and foremost, we want to make sure every time there’s an incident, we need to know about it and know as much as possible about it,” Dr. Williams said. She reminded viewers that there was an anonymous tip line on the district website. But any incidents needed to be reported to teachers or administrators as soon as possible. “If a crime is involved, the most important thing is to report it to the police department.”
Once an incident report comes in to administrators, she added, they begin investigating, looking for witnesses and gathering details about the event upfront. The next step is to reach out to the students and parents involved. The district has three days to notify the families and ensure the safety of all students. The district should complete a thorough investigation in 10 days, giving all students due process. Dr. Williams said her advice was to provide as much information as possible.
“I know it seems sometimes ‘I told the school and it took two days before anything happened,’” Dr. Williams said. “That may be the perception on the outside, but I want to be careful and mindful that we’re not always able to say because of confidentiality, ‘Here’s what we’ve done with all the students.’ We can only talk to parents about their own child. That makes it really difficult.”
How will Plano ISD change perception?
But, Thomas said, there is a perception “true or not” that the Black and brown community’s complaints are not taken seriously and that they are over penalized by the district. It’s a problem she said likely starts at the campus level. “What is the district doing to reshape that narrative?” she asked.
Superintendent Sara Bonser addressed this question, acknowledging the perception that there is a lack of follow up. “While we may not give specifics, it may be a communication problem, persistent communication [between the district and parents],” she said. “We’ve done retraining as a result of this—I want everyone to know that. Clearly there is a need for us to refresh our training, processes, and then look at how we’re communicating with parents as they’re reporting and we’re investigating so that we’re working together. We don’t want the perception that we would ignore something. It is not acceptable for bullying, harassment, or acts of racial hatred to occur and the perception to be that we would ignore that.”
Bonser reiterated that their job was to protect children and ensure that schools were a safe place to learn for all students.
“If that is the perception, we need to work on that. I’m not afraid to say that,” she said.
Why is bullying still under the radar?
Every year, district staff and students receive training in how to deal with bullying. However, it hasn’t stopped concerns that bullying has gone under the radar. The best example of this awareness is Dear Plano ISD.
Dear Plano ISD started over the summer on social media. According to an administrator, they purposefully remain anonymous and simply share stories of bullying that went on in the district, from incidents of racial tension, to sexual harassment.
The district received thousands of template letters and postings from Dear Plano ISD, but Dr. Gober assured viewers that it doesn’t mean there were thousands of official complaints of bullying. Most of the posts, he said, contained “non-information.” They didn’t have students’ names or information about when the incidents occurred, leaving very little for the district to actually follow up on. “98% of them were cut and paste of a template,” he said.
Dear Plano ISD is not intended to be an official reporting system. “Our mission is really just to bring awareness to the problems, and we want to work with the district to see what they can do,” a page admin told Local Profile.
Dr. Gober said that PISD has gotten that message.
“For someone to take the time to send does say something to us, it says we need to look into what avenues we have to report bullying,” he said. “Despite the non-information in most of those Dear Plano ISD, I don’t want people to be mistaken that we didn’t see another message there. We did.”
What changes are on the horizon?
Based on enrollment, Black students make up 13 percent of students. But Thomas quoted numbers from the department of education in 2017 that showed “overwhelmingly,” they make up a large percentage of students in suspension. The same is true for Latinx students.
“You’re in my lane now,” Dr. Gober joked. “I don’t want to dispute those numbers. But yes. There is some disproportionality with suspension and in school suspension rates with students of color in Plano ISD. This is a Texas and U.S. problem as well. However, I want to make sure you know what we’re doing.”
As Dr. Gober explained, in the fall, the district started reworking the student code of conduct and handbook, and started to retrain admin and staff in equity. He said they have made “drastic changes in our expectations and guidelines.” For example, the district had two alternative schools, one for elementary and middle school, and another for high school students. Because of changes made, they won’t need two, only one. The other building will provide wraparound services, from a food pantry and closet, to a counselling center. They will also offer parent education, GED classes, and English language classes.
“We had a problem. No dispute there. But we resolved the problem and turned something that had a negative stain and made it a positive thing.”
As far as truancy goes, typically, the district filed close to 200 truancies a year. This year, they filed 13 cases. The district also created an internal truancy court in the district that works with families to provide actual services and support.
“That’s what they need, they need some love,” he said.
The district also now offers two new electives at the senior high school level, Mexican American Studies, and African American Studies. But despite the current uproar, the district actually had the classes planned since November.
The Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) considers a variety of new courses each year. In 2018, they approved Mexican American Studies and in 2020, they approved African American Studies. Plano ISD’s Board of Trustees approved both for PISD on November 4, 2020.
Bonser provided numbers that showed that in 2018, two of 16 members of the superintendent’s cabinet were diverse. “Now, 50% is,” she said. There are still no Black members on the school board. But panelists reminded viewers that anyone can run for school board. If someone is passionate about these issues, they should.
Following the speakers, NAACP called the town hall “the first step regarding this issue.” It represented a willingness to work together and to regard complaints of racial hatred and bullying with seriousness, so that no mother has to wonder if her child is safe. “We know there will be many more as we work toward fair and equal representation within our schools,” NAACP concluded.
Watch the full Plano ISD town hall on NAACP’s Facebook.