FLEMING ISLAND – School superintendent Addison Davis was preparing to go to bed the night he received a call telling him that a white male Fleming Island High student had posted an ad on Craigslist for two black” slave girls for sale” on April 26.
“It’s very disturbing. I remember when I got the picture and the call. It’s unfortunate. It’s sad that any of our kids are subject to discrimination. I told my wife that we have to continue to be role models for our two kids and then I have to continue to be a role model and problem-solver for the entire district,” Davis said.
Then, he immediately turned concern into action. He and other district staff worked together to create a plan that involves sitting students down and having authentic face-to-face discussions about race and all forms of discrimination. He emailed the plan to each member of the Clay County School Board.
“Immediately upon acknowledgement of when a kid made a bad decision, I immediately engaged the leadership team,” Davis said. “One of the things I wanted to do was create focus groups from every ethnic subgroup within the school regardless of gender and then really meet with them to identify what areas of concerns they have as it relates to their culture and climate and what we can do to break down barriers and create unity.”
And while the advertisement touting the caption “Two healthy negro slavegals for sale. Good Condition and hard work ethic! If you need another pair of hands around the farm/house, you’re in luck!” has been taken offline and the student suspended for 10 days, some onlookers believe the pain will linger until it is addressed publicly.
Nekea Sanders, a research assistant with the Delores Barr Weaver Police Center in Jacksonville, addressed the May 6 School board meeting. Sanders became involved in the incident the morning of April 27 when it hit the news media. She said a Fleming Island High teacher reached out for counsel and hope.
“She had to go to school with that on her chest,” Sanders said.
Sanders did not identify the teacher, but instead said she became friends with the teacher’s daughter when they were in college together.
“We sat down and had dialogue about what this meant for not only the two black girls who were victimized, but for the other students who are indirectly affected by the racist post that was on Craigslist,” Sanders said.
Sanders and Lawanda Ravoira, chief executive officer and president of the Delores Barr Weaver Police Center, attended the May 6 meeting in hopes of serving as a resource in the aftermath of the posting. Ravoira said she would like to see the two female students have a role in how the male student is disciplined so they can feel whole again.
“They will walk through life totally different from now on. This will be a memory that haunts them forever and so they need to have a voice in terms of what the consequences are,” Ravoira said. “We would love to partner with [the school district] and bring the resources forward to help have that dialogue and to start the conversations around sexism and around racism in a way that the young people are really engaged and having to begin looking at what are the true values that are part of the culture.”
Ravoira and Sanders both questioned why the Craigslist posting was not on the school board agenda on May 6 given the severity of the incident. Sanders said the incident should not be viewed as mere child’s play.
“I’m not going to take this as a joke. I’m not even going to use that language because this is a very serious matter. We’re talking about selling girls online – this is called human trafficking. This is very illegal and it’s not a joke. I’m not laughing. No one should be laughing. We should be holding the male accountable and the school board accountable and the school,” Sanders said.
School board members used their time at the end of the meeting to discuss the matter.
“We’re going to face it head-on because we’re better than that here in Clay County and we don’t put up with behavior like that. We don’t tolerate it. We will not have this kind of racism and bigotry. It is unacceptable and I for one will do whatever it takes to get it out of our [schools]. It really makes me angry,” said Carol Studdard, vice chairman of the school board.
Studdard, who grew up in the 1960s in Alabama in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement, said she was appalled and was glad to learn Davis and district leadership acted quickly.
“The kids are fine. It’s old folks like me that get mad,” Studdard said.
School Board Chairman Janice Kerekes agreed with Studdard saying she was appalled and, at the same time, pleased with the actions taken thus far.
“I think you all know that I have a black son and this should not happen to anybody. Nobody should be treated in that manner. I did speak to the mom of one of the young ladies, so I’m glad you brought it up,” Kerekes said.
Board member Ashley Gilhousen went to the school during lunchtime the day after the news of the posting broke. She said she saw resilience in the face of adversity.
“I don’t want Fleming Island High School to get a bad name because of one student’s poor choice,” Gilhousen said.
“This is not being brushed under the rug. We don’t tolerate this and we will not tolerate this," Kerekes said.
Board members pledged to work with district staff to review and possibly tighten current code of conduct policies regarding cell phone use at school, as well as bullying in the wake of the incident.
In other business, the school board voted 5-0 to recommend to the Board of County Commissioners that the impact fee paid by residential builders stay the same despite a recent study recommended increasing the fee.
“The school board doesn’t actually have any policing power to enforce this. We are recommending to the county commission that they leave the impact fee the same. They actually make the decision on what to do. Our study indicated that we should raise it and we elected not to do that,” said board member Betsy Condon.
From 2011 to 2016, the impact fee resulted in $26,213,025 pouring into the school district’s coffers as residential construction picked up post-Great Recession. So far this budget year, the impact fee has collected $4.19 million. The fees are going to be used to pay for the new Elementary School ‘Y’ in the Eagle Landing area of Oakleaf. However, the fees are also used to pay down the district’s debts incurred for the construction of Fleming Island High and each school in the Oakleaf area.
“Because when we hit that heavy growth period before, we did not have the money to build the schools for Fleming Island and Oakleaf. We had no choice but to go and borrow money and so now, part of that impact fee money, goes to pay the debt service on those schools, so not only are we getting some money to build schools, we are paying off our debt. But we certainly couldn't consider lowering the impact fee at this point,” Studdard said.