Segregated meetings at Florida school canceled after ‘dismay’ from parents, school district

Discussions were meant to focus on ‘cultural issues’ on campus

A plan to hold two segregated school cultural meetings has been canceled at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, the Duval County School District said in a statement to News 6 partner News4Jax.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A plan to hold two segregated school cultural meetings has been canceled at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, the Duval County School District said in a statement to News 6 partner News4Jax.

The full statement reads:

The event, announced by Principal Melanie Hammer, would have arranged for students of color and white students to attend separate meetings in the school cafeteria to “discuss cultural issues that have arisen at the high school.”

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Hammer issued an apology to students over the school’s loudspeaker on Wednesday.

“From the bottom of my heart, I want to apologize. I look around this school, and I can see the hurt and pain. I truly don’t know what to say except I care deeply about each and every one of you, and the experience you have at DA. And you deserve to have the best possible high school experience. I remain 100% dedicated to working together with you, to improve the racial and cultural experience of our school. We are fractured. But we are also family. The work is hard, and I have made mistakes, but I love each and every one of you. I do hope you will forgive me. And we will continue strengthening our families together. Thank you all for listening,” Hammer said.

Parents and former students of Douglas Anderson said they were outraged after hearing about plans for the meeting.

Junior and senior students of color were to meet at 9 a.m. and white juniors and seniors were scheduled to meet at 10:30 a.m., according to the email sent to parents.

The first email was sent shortly after 7 p.m. Tuesday night. Outrage from parents and students erupted.

“Over the last year, there has been tons of attention that has been drawn to the racial divide and tension at Douglas Anderson and there were efforts made to try and pull things together, mend wounds and improve relationships. But, when I saw the memo, I couldn’t believe it. It was like we took a step back,” parent LaToya Gunn told News4Jax.

Shortly after, a second email, doubling down on the plan was sent to parents from Hammer. It reads in part,

“Many have reached out with questions regarding why two separate meetings have been scheduled. DA has partnered with a diversity consultant to help address concerns and ensure all student voices are heard. Our diversity consultant is hosting two meetings in hopes of creating a safe space to allow students to be transparent about their experiences at DA.”

The President of All Things Diverse LLC said the email sent to parents was lost in translation and that the point was not to segregate but to create a space for honest dialogue.

Jade Collins is an alumna of the school and has spoken up about racism there.

“I think that this sadly has taken away the possibility of trusting administration to create that safe space for students,” Collins said. “I think that it’s really time for the administration to listen to those students to listen to the parents. But there shouldn’t almost never be a reason, especially at such a creative, honest and liberal school like Douglas Anderson, to even have to bring an outside voice for students to be able to speak freely.”

The diversity issue at DA has been ongoing.

News4Jax received an email reportedly sent to school leaders two weeks ago by a group of students. It is unclear if the email is what prompted the series of meetings.

The email acknowledged the school had hired a more diverse staff and supported Black student leaders, then they listed grievances including, how the school silences Black and brown students, a lack of inclusiveness, disproportionate punishment of Black and brown students and more.

For perspective, Douglas Anderson School of the Arts has more than 1,100 students: 60% are white, 21% are Black and almost 10% are Hispanic. The student population is 74% female.

A third email was sent later and Hammer apologized on behalf of the consultants and the school. That email reads:

“Dear Douglas Anderson families,

“As you know, we have implemented a series of strategies at Douglas Anderson to improve the culture of our school and the experience of our students. Working with consultants in the area of diversity, an event scheduled for Thursday was communicated in such a way as to have the appearance of dividing, not uniting, our student body.

“One of our core values as a school is a belief that the arts is a powerful way to bridge differences among people. We now realize that the communication around the event and the manner in which the event itself was organized are contrary to our values and to the goals we have for improving our culture. Therefore, we are revisiting our approach with our consultants and will develop a new strategy for leading our students through these sensitive topics and conversations. The events scheduled for Thursday are being canceled while we reconsider our approach.

“In collaboration with and on behalf of our consultants and our school, we apologize for the lack of clarity with which this was originally communicated and that our path forward wasn’t more thoughtfully considered. Our commitment to this work with our students and our staff remains steadfast, and I will provide additional information as we revise our plan consistent with our goal of creating a safe space where all students feel comfortable sharing their voices with their peers and with school leaders.”

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