When Summer Smith finally got six minutes to speak to the Plano ISD school board, she had waited a month to do it. Her son, SeMarion Humphrey, waited for her on a bench outside.
“First I just want to say, why am I sitting out here watching swimmers?” she asked, regarding the district’s agenda item, recognition for the achievements of a PISD school swim team. “You had recognition for swimming. I haven’t talked to nothing but two people in this room. And I know everyone has seen the video of my son.”
By that time, the board knew what to expect. Around 10 people signed up to speak. All of it regarded Smith’s son, a Black former Haggard Middle School student, and the viral videos that she posted in early March of his white classmates forcing him to drink urine and calling him racial slurs at a February slumber party.
For a month now Smith has wanted to speak before the school board. In fact, when Next Generation Action Network (NGAN), a Dallas activist group, rallied around her, they issued a series of demands. One of them was that the president of the school board call a special board meeting regarding past and present bullying incidents to address this ongoing issue within PISD.
That meeting was never called. Bullying and SeMarion were not on the agenda of the April 6 meeting, and Smith had enough.
“Can the people who are supposed to protect [SeMarion] do their jobs?” she demanded. “Because that’s why I’m here. I wouldn’t be here if the small things I asked for—I don’t think I asked for much. I asked to talk to y’all about the details about what happened.”
During the public comment section of Tuesday’s Plano ISD school board meeting, a small group of activists with NGAN, and Plano residents gathered outside the building. NGAN had asked 1,000 to show up. Less than 20 did. Due to COVID-19, they were not allowed to enter the chambers, except when it was their turn to give public comment. But from inside the chamber, as the board conducted their business, occasionally a loud uproar could be heard. Every time the noise swelled, the board paused, waited for it to subside, and continued.
The seven members of the school board include President Tammy Richards, Vice President Jeri Chambers, Dr. Heather Wang, Angela Powell, Nancy Humphrey, David Stolle, and Cody Weaver. They meet every two weeks. At the beginning of the meeting, following the invocation and a couple of awards, they opened for public comment.
As Summer told the board, she went to her son’s school multiple times about Haggard Middle school students harassing her son. “Who kept SeMarion safe? Nobody.”
Along with Smith, NGAN President Dominique Alexander was at the helm of Tuesday’s event, speaking for over an hour to supporters, and twice before the school board. He reiterated that the school board needed to call a special meeting about bullying and incidents of racism in the district. Alexander also intimated that next steps could be calling for resignations and having activists stationed outside board members’ houses. Others, including a Plano ISD mother and a former teacher, spoke about topics like mental health after bullying, the district calling SeMarion’s case “bullying,” and even for the board members to consider whether they are racially aware enough to hold their positions.
These kinds of interactions are what happens when the righteous anger of activists meets bureaucracy’s thorough yet slow pace.
One month ago, Smith and Alexander met with Plano ISD Superintendent Sara Bonser, and by all accounts, it was a successful meeting. Smith and Alexander said they had “hope” that PISD stood with them. Addressing Superintendent Sara Bonser Tuesday, Smith pleaded, “I talked to you, you told me we would work together.”
Since then, the district concluded its 10-day investigation into the slumber party incidents. Because it involved minors, the results of the investigation are not public knowledge. The district also hosted “Community Conversations” with Collin County’s branch of NAACP, a Zoom meeting where they discussed in depth their policies regarding bullying and harassment and their commitment to serving all students. The district has reminded parents of resources like their anonymous tip line and the website they have dedicated to resolving complaints and concerns. They reminded parents to give as many details as possible when reporting an incident, and to call the police if they think it was a crime.
But sometime between now and then, something has soured.
Alexander spoke first and well past his three minutes. He expressed his disappointment in the district, and the primary reasons why NGAN and Smith were present. First, he felt that the district was not giving NGAN a seat at the table to help establish policies and provide insight, particularly because no board members are Black.
He added that while he did not want a seat at the table for himself, he did want one for Excel, the Education Division of the Next Generation Action, which helps address issues of race in school districts. Alexander also claimed he had the parents of David Molak, a 16-year-old whose tragic story of suicide driven by cyberbullying inspired David’s Law, standing by to come to Plano ISD to discuss the law.
Additionally, Alexander made it clear that he did not trust the district to make the necessary changes internally. “Your district does not lack policy to address these issues,” he said. “It isn’t being enforced.”
Earlier, outside the meeting, he had alleged to his supporters that some cases of bullying were being decided by principals and assistant principals. In particular, he hinted that a previous incident where SeMarion’s teammates beat him with a belt in a school locker room “went as far as an assistant principal’s desk.”
He also claimed that after one meeting with Superintendent Sara Bonser, they were rerouted to Dr. Courtney Gerber, an assistant superintendent who Alexander claims is not someone in a position to make crucial decisions.
Finally, Alexander took issue with PISD’s late March announcement that they were adding Mexican American and African American studies classes. He said the announcement was misleading, because the timing made it appear to be a response to SeMarion’s story. In reality, the district made that decision in November 2020.
“I’m just asking you to do the right thing so we wouldn’t have to protest,” he concluded.
While private citizens like Alexander and Smith were able to clear about their demands for the school board, the board’s response was less so. President Tammy Richards only seemed to go off-book once to answer complaints that the board was not diverse. She pointed out the two diverse members of the school board — Dr. Heather Wang and Angela Powell — were both Asian American women, and then thanked them for adding “complexity” to their discussions.
After that, Richards read a prepared statement, outlining another step the district has taken called listening rounds. Starting on April 1, they began community conversations with elementary and secondary students, staff, and parents, intended to create a dialogue. (Alexander argued that the board should cancel these in favor of a special school board meeting specifically about SeMarion.)
Richards also said that one of the conclusions they had reached was that “parents want more detailed communication about actions PISD takes regarding bullying and harassment.” They recently sent a detailed summary of their process to parents.
She added that the district reopened Smith and SeMarion’s previous claims of bullying from 2019. Because it occurred in the past, there is no 10-day time limit on the investigation. They are looking at district policies and their desire is to be as thorough as possible.
“We want parents to know we take all reports and claims seriously,” she concluded. “The district sincerely thanks parents who participated in the six listening rounds done so far.”
Outside, surrounded by their supporters, Smith and Alexander were more open than they were before the board. Smith admitted the whole family is in therapy. Her son has moved schools—and even at his new school, this incident preceded him. “We’ve been public for a month now. It’s hard to begin healing when we have to keep talking about it. He is better but we have a long road ahead of us.”
After feeling threatened, their family left their home. They are currently living in “a room,” according to Smith. She requested suggestions from supporters on where her family could move, but noted that she wanted to leave Plano. “I’m ready to go,” she said, her voice heavy with exhaustion.
“I will be at every single one of these meetings until someone listens to me,” she had promised the board during her comments. “The people who can change things are sitting here talking about swimming.”
Once public comments closed, the board moved on to the rest of their business, the minutia of appointing new principals, terminating certain contract employees, and an in depth discussion on a new Plano ISD Wraparound Service Center for underserved students and families. Outside, briefly, the small crowd cheered.
View the whole meeting on PISD’s website.