News & Politics

Arkansas School District Apologizes for Black-Student-Only Assembly on Gang Dangers

School district leaders have expressed ‘regrets’ after singling out black students to attend a talk on the dangers of gangs, violence and drugs.

Group of pupils reading books whilst seated at desk
Photo Credit: Monkey Business Images

An Arkansas school district has apologized after singling out black students to attend an assembly about gangs.

Last Wednesday morning, an announcement at Maumelle high school, in a northern suburb of Little Rock, reportedly told all African American ninth-graders to go to the auditorium for an assembly where a local pastor, Dante Shelton, gave a talk on his personal story and the dangers of gangs, violence and drugs.

The focus on black students left some people angry. “[Where] does that leave kids that are mixed? ‘Oh, you know, that’s my other side that’s calling, let me go learn about gang-banging.’ To me, it’s just wrong on every level,” Aaron Perkins, whose younger sister attended the assembly, told KATV news. “She felt that it was very racist … This is 2016. All kids should understand and listen to what this reverend had to talk about. It’s probably great information, but [don’t] single out the black kids.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arkansas sent a letter to the school expressing concern that the episode “violated these students’ rights to equal protection under the law and labels them with harmful stereotypes about students of color”.

A spokesperson for the school district said the event was “not an anti-gang assembly. It was a motivational speaker.” The district issued a counterintuitive statement which said that the black students were segregated as part of desegregation efforts.

“A local pastor was invited to speak to a group of African American, ninth-grade students. He shared his personal success story and encouraged students to make good choices. Freshmen students were identified by the school because it is a time of transition when they are more easily influenced,” the statement said.

“Black students were selected with the intent that the assembly would be an extension of the district’s court-ordered desegregation efforts, which encourage programs and opportunities tailored to minority students. Students who did not want to attend the program were not required to do so, and the response to Mr. Shelton’s presentation was overwhelmingly positive. The Pulaski County Special School District [PCSSD] regrets that this inspirational program was not made available to all students and in the future will work to ensure that when outside speakers are brought into a school that all students are included.”

In response to the ACLU, Whitney Moore, an attorney for the school district, said in a letter that the staff member who approved the assembly was reprimanded but had acted in good faith in a misguided attempt to comply with federal requirements.

Little Rock and its surroundings have been under court scrutiny for decadesbecause of segregation that has fostered racial disparities in the education system.

“PCSSD remains under federal district court supervision generally as to its ongoing obligation to not discriminate on the basis of race. A specific aspect of this requires PCSSD to create special programs designed to reduce disparate impact between black and white students in application of discipline. I offer this only in mitigation, not as a defense,” the letter said. “You are right, we were wrong, and we won’t do it again.”

Tom Dart is a Houston-based freelance journalist. Before moving to Texas he was a soccer reporter, editor and columnist for The Times in London, also covering MLB and the NFL. He is on Twitter @Tom_Dart