Deal eyes better community relations

Published 4:56 pm Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Following a steady beat of criticism levied against the Brookhaven School District by black community leaders and parents, the district has signed an agreement with the Lincoln County NAACP and other black leaders designed to address their concerns.

     A mediation agreement was signed Tuesday evening, following talks held with the assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service.

     “I think it’s going to be great,” said Superintendent Lisa Karmacharya describing her optimism that the agreement will yield progress within the district.

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     Steven Keys, of the Café A+ community action group, highlighted that the document’s real value is only in the agreements it represents.

     “All too often we have pieces of paper,” Keys said. “The paper means nothing if we don’t do what we say we’re going to do.”

     The agreement is not binding, but pledges the school district will work in good faith to address complaints by black leaders, specifically regarding student discipline practices and the promotion and hiring of black personnel.

     The district agreed to provide “opportunities for leaders in the African American community to assist with the recruitment of qualified African American personnel.”

     School administrators will also work in good faith to ensure the district’s no-tolerance policies are applied “equitably fairly.”

     Points of concern by the black community included the high discipline rates of black students, particularly black males.

     Black leaders participating in mediation agreed to work with the district to implement strategies to address high expulsion and suspension rates for black students. These leaders also agreed to encourage parents to address all complaints and problems to school principals first and then to the superintendent before contacting the school board or any news media.

     The mediation process began several months ago. Department of Justice Senior Conciliation Specialist Walter Atkinson held a public forum in Brookhaven and in personal conversations with Karmacharya, discussed formal mediation to deal with certain complaints in the school district.

     Atkins was present Tuesday night and emphasized he was not there to assign fault.

     “We do not investigate,” Atkinson said. “We are a neutral party.”

     The Community Relations Service provides assistance to communities in resolving disputes or difficulties over conflict based on discrimination or the perception of discrimination, said Atkinson. He believes the talks between the two groups went very smoothly.

     “It turned out there was more in common that not,” Atkinson said.

     School district representatives involved in talks and signing the agreement Tuesday night included Karmacharya, Alexander Jr. High Principal Rod Henderson, Maintenance Director Joe Morgan, Speech Language Pathologist Heather Smith, school Public Relations Coordinator JoAnna Sproles and Tracy Williams, a Central Office secretary.

     Leaders of the black community involved included NAACP President Bernetta Character, Darlene Graham of the NAACP, Keyes of CAFÉ A+ and Roy Smith of Brookhaven Community Action Group.

     The Rev. Dr. Larry Jointer has appeared before the school board multiple times this year, voicing criticism of the district. He was not involved in mediation talks but was present Tuesday night and allowed to speak.

     He once again highlighted what he believes has been a failure to promote qualified black personnel in the district to fill vacancies, something Atkinson pointed out to him was discussed in mediation.

     Jointer expressed skepticism the agreement will change anything.

     “We’re going to sign an agreement to work on it?” Jointer said. “We’ve been working on it and nothing has been done.”

     He also accused Karmacharya of a failure of leadership.

     Following Jointer, the Rev. Ronnie Mackabee also spoke up on behalf of his wife Marian Mackabee. A secretary at Brookhaven Elementary School, she was a member of the school district’s mediation team but not present at Tuesday’s signing.

     “She felt strong armed to support the Brookhaven School District,” Ronnie Mackabee said. “That is why Marian is not here. She isn’t just absent.”

     He requested Marian Mackabee’s name be removed from the agreement.

     Karmacharya said Tuesday night was the first she heard of any objections by Marian Mackabee.

     “It was nothing contentious,” Karmacharya said of the mediation talks.