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Fallout from video about 'white privilege' roils Derby school district

Suzanne Perez

Controversy about the video centers on its mention of white privilege, a phrase that refers to inherent advantages that white people have over people of color on the basis of their race.

WICHITA, Kansas — A video about racial profiling and discrimination was “not appropriate” for students or teachers at Derby High School, according to a Derby school board member who requested an apology from the principal who showed the video.

Emails obtained through a Kansas Open Records Act request show that Derby school board member Andy Watkins requested the apology, which principal Tim Hamblin issued in an email to staff earlier this month.

“I don’t think the community would support that video and the terminology used,” Watkins wrote in an email to Hamblin.

“I think Derby is a unique place that can look past the color/race of an individual and not discount those people by their race, but rather, encourage integrity, academic achievement, community and treating others as they want to be treated.”

In the email, Watkins writes, “My request was only a request of one board member, and not a requirement.”

Watkins, who was first elected to the Derby board in 2017, did not return emails or phone calls asking for comment.

Last week, before releasing the records, Derby school board members met in closed session for three hours with their attorney, Calvin Rider.

In an email that accompanied the records, Rider said: “At no time did the Derby Board of Education, any member of the board, Superintendent of Schools or other school district leadership require Mr. Hamblin … to apologize for the showing of the video in question.”

Hamblin, the Derby High principal, emailed his staff on Feb. 7, apologizing for showing a video during an employee meeting in January.

The four-minute video features Black author Joy DeGruy relating a story about being treated differently at a grocery store because of her race. A lighter-skinned family member “used her white privilege and … pointed out the injustice,” DeGruy says in the video.

Late last year, some members of the Derby High girls basketball team were the target of hurtful race-based comments on social media. Coach Dan Harrison shared the same video during a meeting with team members in an effort “to help his team heal and move on,” Hamblin said in an email.

The principal played the video for employees in January so they would know what the students had seen, he said.

‘Biased propaganda’

School board member Jennifer Neel was the first to raise concerns about the video, according to the records obtained by KMUW.

In a Jan. 26 email to Hamblin and Superintendent Heather Bohaty — subject line “White Privilege -DHS” — Neel said she “heard from a couple teachers” about the video and wanted more information.

“The staff that I spoke with explained to me that they felt like it was harassment in the workplace, & a push of biased propaganda,” Neel wrote. “Ultimately, I think we need to investigate what actually occurred & I would like to know where this information is coming from.

“Are we trying to push this divisive information into our schools? I am afraid this is negatively affecting our culture, both staff & students.”

Reached by phone, Neel declined comment and said all questions should go through the district’s communications department.

In her initial email to Hamblin, Neel writes, “Side note: I actually had a DMS (Derby Middle School) teacher tell me a story about a black teen who was acting VERY inappropriate so she corrected him & he told her ‘but I am black,’ they went back and forth 2 more times, she asked him ‘does this normally work for you’ then he giggled & said ‘well most of the times it works.’ We have to be careful with the kind of standards we are setting.”

In subsequent emails to Neel, Hamblin wrote, “Every human being is entitled to their opinion and how they choose to take things. … I know that what I presented to my staff was completely appropriate and justified given what some within the DHS family have been dealing with over the last few months.

“The claim of biased propaganda is nothing more than a deliberate orchestrated attempt to create controversy within our school, district, and potentially the community at a very difficult time.”

Hamblin issued his apology to employees about two weeks after that exchange.

“I was informed this afternoon that another BOE member wants there to be an apology to both staff and students for my actions,” Hamblin said in the email to staff.

“I apologize to anyone that felt the video or its content which referenced white privilege made them feel uncomfortable, awkward, harassed, or that it created a hostile work environment.”

In an email to Neel, Hamblin said he took “extreme unbelievable exception” to claims that the video caused a hostile work environment or that he would retaliate against a staff member who complained.

“I am more upset at this moment than I have ever been in my entire career and quite possibly in my entire life in this community,” Hamblin said.

District protocol

It’s unusual for an individual board member to issue directives or requests about classroom or staff development materials.

Derby district policies say the superintendent has “general supervision of all the schools” and is “responsible for managing the schools in compliance with board policies.”

District policy also requires any employee with a grievance to file a written complaint to their supervisor within 20 days. If the employee disagrees with the supervisor’s decision, he or she can appeal to the superintendent, whose “decision shall be final.”

Superintendent Heather Bohaty has not commented publicly about the video or subsequent apology.

Hamblin’s apology to staff came on the day school board members were slated to consider the annual renewal of Bohaty’s contract, along with those of two assistant superintendents. The board voted unanimously Feb. 7 to renew Bohaty’s contract through the 2023-24 school year.

White privilege

Controversy about the video centers on its mention of white privilege, a phrase that refers to inherent advantages that white people have over people of color on the basis of their race.

Concepts such as white privilege and systemic racism have become targets in the battle over critical race theory, which opponents increasingly link to diversity initiatives in schools and workplaces.

In the video shared with Derby teachers, DeGruy, who is Black, talks about being in a grocery store with her biracial sister-in-law, who looks white. The sister-in-law writes a check without incident. Immediately afterward, DeGruy writes a check and is asked for identification. The cashier then checks DeGruy’s license against a list of people who have written bad checks.

DeGruy’s sister-in-law speaks up on her behalf, first to the cashier and then the store manager.

“So you see, she used her white privilege,” DeGruy says. “And even though Kathleen is half black and half white, she recognizes what that means, and she made the statement. She pointed out the injustice and she, as a result of that one act, influenced everyone in that space.”

But some critics say conversations about white privilege can make people feel uncomfortable and accelerate racial conflict.

Last fall, Kansas Rep. Kristey Williams of Augusta, a top Republican on education issues, told a committee she feared that students “internalizing shame” about racial guilt could lead to more depression among youth.

Watkins, the Derby board member, did not offer specifics about why he thought the video was not appropriate.

“I do believe that racial issues exist, not only at DHS but in our community. However, I think we have to be very careful how (we) address those issues,” Watkins said in an email.

“I do realize some face greater challenges than others on a daily basis, but everyone faces challenges.”

Support for Hamblin

Included among the board emails were several from Derby High School employees voicing support for the principal.

“The topic of racism makes people uncomfortable; it should; it is a terrible truth in our society, again proven quite clearly on social media,” wrote Adam DeVault, director of bands at Derby High School.

“As a society if we fail to discuss difficult problems in an educated, civil way, we will never find solutions. … Most of the staff viewed the training as helpful and necessary.”

Christy Higginbotham, Derby High’s school nurse, called Hamblin “the strongest, fairest, most conscientious and inclusive leader I’ve ever worked with.”

Another letter was signed by 75 teachers and staff members.

“The majority of DHS staff is white and the entire school board is white. If we truly believe in the power of education, we must believe in the ability to learn empathy and compassion even if we personally have no idea what it is like to worry about walking down a street after dark,” it says.

“The fact that members of this board felt the need to demand an apology is frankly despicable.”

Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

KMUW submitted a request under the Kansas Open Records Act for all emails between Derby school board members and Derby High School principal Tim Hamblin from Jan. 1 through Feb. 10. The district charged $132 for the request, which included about a dozen emails and replies totaling 28 pages. In his explanation of the charges, board attorney Calvin Rider said the charge was based on two hours of staff time by Assistant Superintendent Becky Moeder, at a rate of $66 an hour. Portions of the records, including students’ names and other identifying information, were redacted because of exceptions in the Open Records Act regarding personal privacy, Rider said.

Suzanne Perez is a longtime journalist covering education and general news for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. Suzanne reviews new books for KMUW and is the co-host with Beth Golay of the Books & Whatnot podcast. Follow her on Twitter @SuzPerezICT.