DEWITT, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — The Jamesville-DeWitt Central School District superintendent isn’t holding back his assessment of racist remarks infiltrating a district-hosted Zoom call for students and their parents.
In an interview with NewsChannel 9, Superintendent Peter Smith says, “Ms. Johnson was called the n-word repeatedly during her presentation. It’s that egregious act that needs to be named. She was called the n-word. That was an attack on her as a black woman.”
NewsChannel 9 first reported details of the incident Tuesday, after the targeted administrator shared what happened with Bishop H. Bernard Alex.
Candace Johnson, an assistant principal at J-D High School, was meeting eight graders who will become her ninth-grade students next year when an unknown person used racial slurs verbally and written in the Zoom screen name.
The meeting was ended a few presenters later, but without a discussion about what happened.
Smith says: “We missed an opportunity to name and call out an overt act of racism and to protect and standby Ms. Johnson. Certainly, we need to learn from this. We need to do better. We need to do better in our response to everyday incidents of racism and bigotry.”
“This is a time when we need to again look at our work as bystanders,” said Smith, “and improve again our ability to respond appropriately at the moment, in the moment.”
The superintendent says the incident will energize the work toward a more inclusive district already happening as a result of the district’s strategic plan.
“It’s critical,” said Smith. “It’s ongoing. It’s never-ending. We constantly have to be vigilant and reflective and continue to strive towards making sure everyone feels welcome and affirmed and safe.”
When asked how a plan can result in people’s lived experiences, Smith said, “Our strategic plan is a living document. I agree with you that many strategic plans sit on a shelf. Ours is a living document and really is our guiding light for our work at Jamesville-DeWitt.”
The district plans to improve the ratio of black or brown staff members to students. Of the 25% of students who identify as non-white, 8% say they’re black or brown. It’s far fewer in terms of faculty and staff.
The plan calls for more training and a review of the curriculum through a lens of diversity.
In terms of internet security, the superintendent says his technology department is looking into advanced features within Zoom to secure the meetings better.
Superintendent Smith is relying on police to determine who gained access to the Zoom meeting. He wouldn’t speculate or guess on a motive or if the people are local.
DeWitt Police didn’t respond to NewsChannel 9’s email on Thursday, but a department lieutenant said Wednesday that he’ll release more information when the investigation has results. He said cyber investigations take longer because they often lack physical evidence.
When asked what’s already changed for the better at J-D, the superintendent answered: “I can tell you that a lot of our families, not just black and brown, a lot of our families don’t feel good about where we are. I don’t think that’s a change for the good.”