The complicity of silence and the obligations of power: my response to Tuesday's meeting and The Ledger story
On August 31, 2017, School Board Member Tim Harris, on behalf of the Polk County School District as an institution, destroyed the credibility of the Tenoroc sexual harassment investigations, while they were active.
He attended a mandatory Tenoroc staff meeting called by principal Jason Looney. At that meeting, he lectured the Tenoroc faculty, which included many actual or potential witnesses. He expressed institutional support for Jason Looney, while the investigation was still active. He suggested some of the staff/witnesses might want to find new jobs. He had been aware of Brandi Garcia Blanchard's allegations for more than a month when he said this:
I appreciate those of you were comfortable enough to send those emails, some of whom I did reply.
And as a result of those emails I felt like it was important for myself and the superintendent to come out and speak with you and show our support — and support of Mr. Looney.
Unfortunately, the superintendent cannot be here she has a very important family issue. [Inaudible] She’s out of the office for several days. So keep her in your prayers please.
I personally have gone through situations in my career, and I was with the school district for 31 years before I ran for School Board, where I had a supervisor, let’s just say had a different paradigm from mine.
I finally got to the point where I could handle the different paradigm because I decided that myself and that supervisor were always going to disagree. We just had a totally different philosophy of life. When I finally got to those mental positions with those three separate supervisors, I was able to deal with it a lot better and accept their differences from mine. It made looking for another job a lot easier mentally.
Tim Harris said that, with Jason Looney standing next to him, while the investigation was still active and its outcome, in theory, still unclear.
Harris and Looney openly showed powerless witnesses, on behalf of the institution, that the institution had made up its mind. Harris made claims on behalf of the superintendent, speaking for her in her absence. I didn't invent these facts. This happened. The tape and transcripts exist because a potential witness who felt intimidated taped what Harris said.
This meeting destroyed the validity of the Tenoroc investigations before they were finished and released. I told the School District immediately that this intimidation happened. At that instant, we should have hired an independent investigator to review Brandi Garcia Blanchard's investigations. We did not.
I cannot imagine the liability that exposes us to. But that's a secondary question to morality.
Silence is complicity
Instead, what Harris and Looney did in that meeting on behalf of the institution has never been investigated -- or really even acknowledged as anything unusual -- by the Polk School District. It has not appeared in any report, although I have repeatedly raised it with board members and senior staff and the lawyer who recently did our "independent" review, who couldn't stop interrupting and condescending to me.
I have spoken with multiple people who attended that Tenoroc meeting. They felt intimidated. And the Polk School District officially does not care. About the only hint of its enormity comes from Tim Harris' decision not to run for re-election, which he announced shortly afterward.
If you want to know why I cannot simply walk away from the Looney question, it's because of what this institution did on August 31, in the community's name and in my name. In this case, I think silence is complicity. I have a responsibility to the institution and my community not to be silent. Because this could happen again tomorrow. To anyone of any race or ethnicity or sexuality. I'm not aware of any institutional efforts to prevent such a thing from happening in the future. I have asked for them, repeatedly.
I also have a deep responsibility to the hurt of Brandi Garcia Blanchard and Juanita McCoy. Both are human beings who have suffered deeply for their lack of power within our institution, as minority women often do in large organizations.
What The Ledger didn't quote
I said all of this directly to the citizens who came to speak to me at Tuesday night's board meeting. In all but the most literal sense, The Ledger was quite wrong when it said:
It was a sobering reprimand of Townsend, who did not immediately respond to any of the comments made Tuesday evening.
I explained the "why" of all of this clearly before the speakers began to talk. I looked many of them in the eyes while I spoke. And I challenged the speakers, before they spoke, to issue a clear statement of support for the institution's handling of the Looney issue. I challenged them to endorse what Tim Harris and Jason Looney did on Aug. 31. None of them took me up on that. Not even Don Brown. He praised Tim for going, but then hedged and said something about Tim not having all the information. None of them was willing to offer a full-throated endorsement of institutional witness intimidation.
See what I said for yourself on this video. It starts at 1:08:00.
For some reason, the District doesn't include citizen comments on its YouTube videos of meetings. I think that's silly. But that's why this tape stops before the citizens begin their comments. I will try to get my own full version up when I get a little time.
One thing I didn't say, which I probably should have: I don't want to fire the superintendent. I think there are people who are worried about that. But these institutional issues far pre-date her. I want to see commitment and progress on fixing them. I think the record shows that when she and I are aligned, good things happen. I want to align with her to build a better, kinder, more transparent, and more just organization.
Questioning or challenging is not berating
The Ledger, I think, also got it wrong with its headline.
"Black leaders berate Billy Townsend at School Board"
It's pretty hard to imagine any newspaper ever referring to "white leaders" berating somebody. As always, individual human beings determine their leaders. It always seems condescending to me to tell people who leads them.
More importantly, I don't even think Don Brown "berated" me. I didn't feel berated. Maybe I just have a high threshold for beration; but I think power -- elected and otherwise -- expects way, way, way too much deference. I don't expect any, really, from the public.
Rather, I felt questioned and called out by people with concerns who do not have the level of detailed information about all of this that I have. And why should they? I've spent a year fighting to understand this matter from an institutional point-of-view. They haven't. Without that information, they have to see the world through the lens of their personal experiences. The Ledger certainly has not helped them understand it.
Black Americans have regularly been on the suffering side of abuses of power in American history. Those experiences, like the monument that remains Lakeland's centerpiece, impose a heavy weight on me or any other person of some official power trying to act in the service of justice, especially when that justice comes with racial implications. You can either hide from that fact -- or face it. I won't hide.
Indeed, after the meeting, I was able to catch up to and speak personally with several of the citizens, many of whom I know pretty well already. We talked person-to-person, like people. I told them why I thought they were wrong. And I asked several of them to consider why the fate of minority women who claim they've been victimized by institutional power -- including an African-American teacher caught unfairly in the criminal justice system -- didn't seem to concern them.
Anyway, maybe I've lost support from them forever. Maybe I haven't. Either way, I care about this community, justice, and holding power accountable for its own sake, not for what political or personal benefit it may or may not provide.
One of America's finest chroniclers of segregation is a reporter/writer named Nikole Hannah-Jones. She wrote a beautiful and challenging story a couple years ago about finding an elementary school for her daughter.
It included this sentence, which has haunted me ever since I read it.
True integration, true equality, requires a surrendering of advantage, and when it comes to our own children, that can feel almost unnatural.
I'm going to be exploring that quote in a future piece through the lens of our District, which looks so much like America that it hurts sometimes. Our kids are 39 percent white, 36 percent Hispanic, 20 percent black, and 5 percent other. I wake up every morning thinking about how to make that work.
For now, let's just say this: arguably the greatest "advantage" of power is the ability to ignore people who don't have it. As a writer with a public platform -- and now as an elected official -- I try very very hard to surrender that advantage. I don't pretend to succeed at all times; but I try.
As I told the deputy superintendent in a good meeting yesterday, everybody gets to yell at me. You can call me a racist, a godless heathen, libtard, or whatever you want. I've been called all of those things. I don't care. My obligation is to listen and answer the questions implicit in your critiques. If you're right, it's my obligation to tell you so and change my thinking.
If you're wrong, it's my obligation to explain why -- calmly, forcefully, and with principle. And then it's my obligation to accept the public's judgements.