Biracial family makes stand against racism in Tanque Verde district

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Mar. 24, 2022 at 11:03 PM MST|Updated: Mar. 24, 2022 at 11:05 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - A biracial family is making a stand against racism in the Tanque Verde district.

The parents say their middle school son has been harassed by students and districts leaders are not doing enough to send a strong message against racist acts.

It’s an issue that’s been going on for more than four months at Emily Gray Middle School, the family says.

They’ve been so frustrated that they pulled their son from the campus and put him in remote learning until he feels safe enough to return to school.

The parents came to KOLD after exhausting all measures that include emails and conversations with school and district leaders.

Important to note: the district isn’t denying there’s a problem.

“I see how much is done to my child and that’s where I’m broken. I know he’s in a dark spot,” said Leah Simmers.

Leah is talking about her son who attends Emily Gray Middle School in the Tanque Verde district.

He’s been home learning remotely since mid-January.

He desperately wants to get back to his classes on campus, but Leah says he doesn’t feel safe there.

“He knows it’s not a good environment. He knows he doesn’t want to have to keep hearing those things,” she said.

Those things are racist remarks including the “N” word by students in his classrooms, in the hallways, all around the campus.

Her son would come home frustrated, complaining of at least one student who made repeated racist jokes.

Leah said the student would tell her son, “‘Hey, I want to tell you a racist joke. You want to hear it?’ And he says, ‘no,’ and he’s like, ‘I don’t care. You’re going to hear it.’”

KOLD News 10-10:30 p.m. recurring

Leah immediately sent emails to the assistant principal, Elizabeth Egan, telling her “the daily comments around him are just non-stop”.

She asked Egan to take action calling the behavior “unacceptable” and wrote “kids need to know they matter.”

That was late November and early December.

Leah wrote her son felt the school didn’t care after he reported the incidents to his teachers and principal.

“He had been in other classes where you have to think up group names and people are joking like -- the KKK group -- or drawing swastikas,” she said.

“There was an incident where the decision was made to show the movie, “Roots,” with no real background or conversation around it. And the kids were mocking the movie,” said her husband, Steven.

He sent emails to Superintendent Scott Hagerman asking him to send a strong message that “racism will not be tolerated.”

Hagerman responded saying they’ll use the current code of conduct, review it for changes to take to the board, and work with staff on preventative steps.

“Hagerman is the one that said that we needed to revamp these policies to make it stronger and clearer. And that’s really where I became more involved to say, ‘okay, I’m going to support you in doing this and make sure that this gets accomplished.’” he said.

The vice principal responded to the Leah’s emails saying she’ll deal with the racist acts “appropriately and expediently” and she has “zero tolerance for this behavior”.

We asked a few area education leaders who all agree it’s critical to act swiftly and publicly to send a strong message to all students.

“Yeah, it’s extremely important,” said Pima County Superintendent Dustin Williams.

His office has this included in its mission statement on the website that it “stands in solidarity against racism and discrimination.”

“You have two parts of schooling. One is the cognitive, which is the learning part, the other one’s the management, the social emotional students. So if students feels in any way unprotected, unsafe, something going on in that head, that needs to be figure out. They don’t learn until that’s figured out. So it’s critical for any organization to make sure that’s paramount,” Williams said.

The Simmers, still encouraged the district would send a strong message against racism, waited past the winter break.

And when school resumed disappointment hit yet again.

A student shows their son this and lets him take a picture of it.

“The kid had been handed a credit card, a pretend credit card, that said white privilege on it. He was like the kid really seemed like he didn’t understand why he had this, why his parent gave it to him when he got out of the car. He was confused by it,” Leah said.

And then an audio recording turns up that Steven sent me showing the assistant principal addressing the racist acts.

But in the process she uses the “N” word while explaining to the student it shouldn’t be used.

It was then the Simmers, feeling “ostracized” and “abandoned”, decide to move their son into remote learning.

“He’s like, ‘I do not trust her. I do not feel safe with her. I do not think she is there really to support me.’ So he felt completely isolated along in the demographics of the school already not in his favor. He’s the only male student in his grade that’s black,” Steven said.

Steven continued to email Hageman about the issues and incidents, including Egan’s use of the “N” word, but Hagerman never addressed that.

The Simmers believed the seriousness of the racism would be brought up to the board as he discussed with Hagerman.

But that wasn’t the case at the board meeting on March 9.

Staff only detailed how schools are addressing behavior and discipline issues and mentioned students being suspended for harassment, but nothing specific about racism, no public statement.

“It was devastating to watch like four months for this,” said Steven, “They would say one thing out of one side of their mouth, but their actions said just the opposite. They were just trying to wait me out. The didn’t care about me. They don’t care about my family.”

Steven relayed that sentiment in an email to Hagerman.

Then a staffer called and Steven recorded it.

The staffer told him “she appreciated what he was doing” and said “she’s sorry they haven’t done better”.

And then she became emotional saying she “wanted to take off her Tanque Verde badge and join him.”

She told Steven while preparing the PowerPoint and running it by Hagerman it was “watered down and edited so much”. It was “just disgusting” calling it “political” because “Hagerman is up for senate confirmation seat with the Board of Education” and “has been appointed by Doug Ducey”.

“I relayed my absolute devastation at hearing this. I mean my child’s directly affected. We had to take him out of school,” Steven said.

He said he feels he’s failed his child.

“He’s asked me, ‘What’s going on. Why haven’t you fixed this?’ And what do I say as the answer? You know, I’ve done what I think is best, but, it didn’t work. That’s what brought me here to the media, is I failed. And I’m looking for assistance to get this done,” Steven said.

Leah said she feels the same.

To be clear, the Simmers say there are great families in the district, some who’ve outwardly supported them throughout this ordeal.

But the Simmers question why the district isn’t making a public statement against racism and why this issue has dragged on for so long.

“We apologize, it hasn’t been faster,” said Superintendent Scott Hagerman.

It didn’t take long for Hagerman to make that quick apology.

He explained the delay, which was no different than what he has told the Simmers.

“I told them what we would do is collect all the behavior data we could find from the schools and then look for some policy things that we can do. And so what we’re trying to do is kind of like three levels of work,” Hagerman said.

He’s also added site councils over the next few months for more feedback before taking any policy changes to the board.

The Simmers stated to Hagerman repeatedly that the racist acts had not stopped. And Hagerman said the district is trying.

“It’s unbelievably unfortunate and disappointing that our students have done these things, but that we have to address it situation by situation. We have to look at the big policies and try to do both of those layers at the same time. And, unfortunately, it can’t just be fixed in an instant,” he said.

A reason Steven wanted the superintendent to make a strong public message now against racism.

Hagerman said a declaration may be in the future, but the district is simply trying to start by being clear about its expectations of students. He said he’ll discuss the public message with the board to see how to proceed.

Regarding the Assistant Principal’s use of the “N” word, Hagerman said, it was “completely unacceptable.”

“And I’m sorry that it happened and it will not happen again,” he said.

Hagerman said he just learned about it last week.

But the Simmers informed him about Egan’s use of the “N” word in an email mid-Feburary.

The Simmers pointed out that in late January the board approved Elizabeth Egan’s promotion to principal starting next school year.

Now to the issue of the staffer who told Steven that Hagerman watered down the board meeting presentation and that politics is behind the delay in action.

“So we’d have to get specifics from her because the presentation came from them. It wasn’t watered down,” Hagerman said.

So what about Simmers’ son who’s still working remotely?

Steven and Leah say they’re likely not enrolling him or their other children in the district next year because of everything’s that happened.

We’ll will continue to dig deep into racism in the Tanque Verde district and give you updates as we get them.

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