Thursday evening March 12, parents of elementary school children in the Orange County Virginia school district brought their 8 and 9 year old children to the high school to participate in a public event at the high school to celebrate Black History Month. Due to winter weather it could not be celebrated on the original date in February and was rescheduled for Thursday. As one parent of an 8 year old shared with me, they were excited to attend and looking forward to hearing about black leaders like Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass. The children had prepared a medley of Motown hits under the guidance of their music teacher Ms. Scott.
What greeted the young students and parents has some parents up in arms. What they thought to be a positive community celebration turned into something they did not expect. I spoke to several parents of the elementary school children and they all shared a similar version of events.
Upon arrival, they were greeted by student volunteers wearing black t-shirts reading “I Can’t Breathe” and the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. One parent assumed this was an individual statement while others began to wonder what the program was about. As they were seated they saw all of the children supporting the event wore the same shirt.
They delivered their children to the backstage area and went to be seated. The programs they were handed continued the theme of the t-shirts.
As parents were seated and the program began students took the stage and started to speak. The opening included approximately 7 statements made by students. The ones all parents recalled was a statement made by a student as if they were Michael Brown. Another talked about being a 7 year old shot by police during a raid and yet another made a statement representative of the events around the death of Eric Garner. All of the parents I spoke to said this was shocking to them. Several parents said they feel they live in a community with very few issues in terms of racial divisions and were looking forward to program about shared history, not one they perceived to be divisive and anti-law enforcement.
Following the musical piece performed by the elementary school students, a number of the parents went to retrieve their youngsters. One parent said it was if all the elementary parents got up at once to exit the auditorium amid questioning looks. Initially they were told their children would not be released until intermission. A nearby teacher seeing how upset the parents were did begin to bring the children out. According to one Facebook post from a parent, the remaining readings according to the program were entitled as follows: “Voices: The Exhausting Task of Being Black In America”, “Don’t Shoot”, “Not an Elegy for Mike Brown”, “I Can’t Breathe”, “Does My Black Life Matter”, and “They Don’t Really Care About Us”.
At this time the parents believe the students who put on the program were supported by two teachers who introduced the program. One parent shared that this program is an annual event and nothing like this has ever peen presented before. They do not know if the t-shirts were bought by the school district or the individual students, but are upset school funds may have been used to present something so highly politicized. Now they are also dealing with the repercussions at home of young children having attended a full dress rehearsal prior to the program and hearing the entire content.
One parent said their 8 year old is now chanting, “Hands Up Don’t Shoot”, and when they asked their child what they learned from the program the child responded, “Cops shoot black people.” Another parent said their child is extremely disturbed by the story of the 7 year old child that was presented on stage. Now they agreed, the work is in explaining to their child the vast majority of police officers are helpful and can be counted on when they are needed to keep people safe. Some are struggling to find the words to explain in terms the children can understand the specific situations that were portrayed on stage.
Another parent, in an anonymous Facebook post said they were, “excited to allow our daughter participate in a Black History Month event,” but are upset and angry that their child was actually involved in what they believe was a political event. Their question as posted, “Why would the school allow this type of rhetoric and according to Eric Holder lies?”
One parent I spoke with lamented, “This is a great place to live and a great place to raise a family. It breaks my heart that this program and poor judgement on the part of some school officials in involving the younger children without informing parents about the content has the potential to cause such anger and resentment.”
Parents expressed real concern for the elementary school music teacher Ms. Scott. According to parent reports, Ms. Scott had some personal business and did not attend the dress rehearsal or the final program. Despite this, because her contact information was posted as one of the school officials involved, she is getting threatening messages. Several parents I spoke to asked that I specifically note this fact and mention what she had the children prepare for their portion of the program was appropriate and enjoyable. The treatment of Ms. Scott is also the reason they spoke to me on the condition of anonymity.
All of the parents I spoke to expressed concern about what will happen next. One said their biggest concern was “breeding hate” that may trickle down from the high school to children in other grades. Parents familiar with students at the high school are also reporting that there is social media chatter about protesting and riots on Monday from the older students in response to the push back on the program from parents. One of parents said if they had a child in high school they would be deeply concerned. The high school according to the parent, does not have screening devices or security in the event things become serious. Another parent fears a law enforcement presence at the high school might serve to increase tensions.
Parents and people from neighboring counties are demanding the school answer their concerns. Facebook posts on the event provided the contact information for school and district officials and the blow back started on Friday. At this point there has been no official communication from the district to parents regarding the events on Thursday night and this post will be updated as new information becomes available.