Atlanta, Georgia — Gwinnett County School board member Everton Blair is calling for a review of student discipline policies in response to YR Media’s year-long investigation into his metro-Atlanta school district’s handling of K-12 student sexual misconduct.
Gwinnett County Public Schools is a microcosm of the nation, as schools set out to balance the rights of sexual harassment victims with growing concerns about criminalizing children and disproportionately punishing black and brown boys. If they get the balance wrong, districts face federal investigation by the Office of Civil Rights.
Blair, who was elected at 26, is the youngest and first black board member of Gwinnett County Public Schools, one of the most diverse counties in the southeast. He ran for office as a current educator and a former student of Gwinnett. YR Media spoke with Blair about his historic win and the changes he intends to make.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Shawn Wen: Data shows that Gwinnett is disciplining students for sexual misconduct at twice the rate of Cobb County [the second-largest district in Georgia], with one boy who is as young as 5 years old being suspended for it. What do you make of such a high rate?
Metro-Atlanta School Districts: Total Sex-related Offenses per 1,000 students
2016-2017 School Year
SOURCE: Georgia Department of Education
Everton Blair: I think all of our student disciplining needs to be addressed. And when I see reports about a higher incidence of discipline in certain counties versus others, my first thought is, how [do] we respond, what interventions we're putting in place, or what preventative measures [do] we have? I do think that we have to figure out whether [there’s] a failure to adequately educate our students on what appropriate sexual behavior is.
SW: Our reporting also found that black boys were disproportionately disciplined for sexual misconduct. What did you make of this disparity and what is the district going to do to address it?
Metro-Atlanta Students Disciplined for Sex-Related Offenses:Broken down by Race and Ethnicity
2016-2017 School Year
SOURCE: Georgia Department of Education
EB: I don't know. I think we have to take a deeper look at that. We really try to deepen our engagement with mentors, and with teachers, and staff in the building to make sure that our students, or especially our black boys, feel like they have a role model and an advocate in our buildings. So they're not lashing out or acting out in a way that's irresponsible or not conducive to the learning environment. I take that on as a personal matter, as a black male educator, because I do want our black boys to be supported.
SW: What sort of conversations have you had about sexual harassment or sexual assault in schools?
EB: I haven't had very many. But I have heard of very specific instances at previous board meetings, before I was serving in an official capacity, where students were commenting on the failure of our sexual education. Some victims of sexual violence have commented on our failure to really serve our students well. They did not receive an education that prevented some of the behavior from happening.
I think we can do more, really stressing consent: the definition of consent, as well as what affirmative consent means, so that people are much more safe, especially when they leave our K-12 environments and go on to college and career.
SW: What's the board doing in response to that feedback?
EB: I think I am the person who is the most vocal around the need to look at our sex education curriculum and make a change. I can't comment for other people.
SW: Do you face resistance from other board members?
EB: When I bring it up, people tend to agree around the need to have conversations about consent. We have to either supplement to our current curriculum or [find] a replacement of it altogether. And I think that I'm optimistic that we'll find some traction in the coming months around it.
SW: Some of these larger issues we’re discussing — sexual misconduct, racially disproportionate punishment, the very limited sex ed — did you recognize these while you were a student?
EB: Definitely as it related to the sex ed curriculum. Abstinence-only sex ed is just not going to cover the full arsenal of what kids need to know in order to make responsible decisions. At that point, there was still that ridiculous chewing gum analogy that was shared in my middle or high school. [Ed. note: A popular analogy in many abstinence-only curricula compares losing one’s virginity to becoming a chewed up piece of gum.]
SW: I'm curious if the school board has been receptive to your approach.
EB: They don't have a choice.
SW: Right. You're an elected official.
EB: Fortunately right. I'm from the community. When I speak, I try to speak with a level of authority limited to either my lived experience, or research. And so you can't deny my lived experience as my lived experience. And you also can't deny data is data.
SW: When I asked the superintendent about racially disproportionate punishment, he basically said, “We are punishing students in accordance to the misconduct committed.” I wonder if you have any response to his response?
[Ed. note: Gwinnett Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks wrote to YR Media, “Student discipline for misbehavior of any nature is administrated according to our discipline code and because of the act of misbehavior and not gender, race, or ethnicity.”] ‘
EB: No. I don't have any response to what they've said.
When somebody says, almost as a justification, that “we're applying the law equally across all groups,” or something along those lines, I'm thinking, if there are kids under our watch who need more, why are we not providing it? And if we're able to also see a huge body of research that shows that kids across the board are committing some of the same offenses, but certain groups of kids are being disproportionately suspended or disciplined for the same behavior at a higher rate or more severely than others, then we need to address that.
And if that's a conversation on unconscious bias, then we should have that. If that's a conversation just around student intervention I think that should happen too and it should be student led. This is work that our kids would want to lead.
How does Gwinnett get to 1,087 students disciplined for sexual misconduct? Here's a school-by-school breakdown of sex-related offenses Gwinnett County Public Schools in the 2016-2017 school year.