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Allegation that charter school student used racial slur, flashed a gun on FaceTime raises concerns

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Allegation that charter school student used racial slur, flashed a gun on FaceTime raises concerns

Nov 15, 2023 | 6:00 am ET
By Greg Childress
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Allegation that charter school student used racial slur, flashed a gun on FaceTime raises concerns
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Discovery Charter School (Photo by Greg Childress)

This story contains racist language that might upset some readers.

A white seventh-grade boy who attends Discovery Charter School in Durham allegedly called a Black classmate a “monkey” and another racial slur, and then flashed a rifle to several students during a FaceTime chat, Arssante Malone, the father of the Black student, told NC Newsline.

But when Discovery Charter officials learned of the incident, Malone said, his son Yusef told him they forced a student who recorded it to erase it from her phone.

The incident, which occurred off-campus on Sunday, Sept. 17, raises questions about whether public schools, including charters, have the legal authority to erase content from a student phone and whether schools can discipline students for inappropriate speech when it takes place off-campus.

Malone contends the student’s phone held the only physical evidence of what happened that weekend. He’s confused about why a school administrator required the student to delete it.

“If an alleged crime has taken place, regardless of where it has taken place, on or off-campus, why wouldn’t y’all [Discovery Charter leaders] keep a record of what took place, so parents can take the necessary legal action?” Malone said he asked school leaders.

Allegation that charter school student used racial slur, flashed a gun on FaceTime raises concerns
Arssante Malone questions how the school responded to his son’s ordeal. (Photo by Greg Childress)

Discovery Charter officials told Newsline they are not aware of a recording of the FaceTime chat. They acknowledged that a student took screenshots of exchanges between the students during the chat.

Yusef also told his father that the student with the phone recording was called into the office later that week so school leaders could more thoroughly wipe the incident from her phone.

NC Newsline could not independently verify that a school official ordered a recording of the incident to be destroyed. Several attempts to contact the student’s mother to confirm Malone’s account of the incident were unsuccessful.

Malone’s version of what happened, however, was corroborated by at least two parents who spoke to Newsline about the incident and their concerns about how Discovery Charter officials handled it and other racially charged incidents involving their own children and other students of color.

In a video address to parents, Discovery Charter Principal Toni Shellady confirmed that the white student did show a firearm during the FaceTime incident.

“We had kids on a call together and two of them are getting into it, and they threatened to fight each other, and one of them does show in the background his house that there is a gun but never does it [the student] say I’m bringing a gun to school,” Shellady told parents.

Yusef saw the video Shellady sent to parents. He said he was disappointed that she didn’t mention the racial slurs or display empathy for Black students who were targeted.

“She just keeps talking about the school,” Yusef told his dad. “I don’t feel she cares.”

The white classmate who allegedly hurled the racial slurs at Yusef was absent from school for a few days, Malone said. He was not sure, however, whether the child’s parents kept him out school or he was suspended by Discovery Charter. Sheallady would not say whether the student was disciplined, citing student privacy laws. Malone never asked the school to discipline the child, only that its leaders share plans to ensure students are safe.

Toni Shellady
Principal Toni Shellady (Photo: DiscoveryCharterDurham.org)

A week after the group chat, Malone filed a formal notice of grievance with Discovery Charter’s board of directors on behalf of Yusef, in response to Shellady’s handling of the incident. He asked for an apology and that his son be given space in alignment with the school’s restorative justice practices until he is comfortable interacting with Shellady and other school leaders who he feels didn’t show the proper level of care after the incident.

“Our grievance is around the lack of accountability on the back end of Ms. [Toni] Shellady’s lack of care, consideration, and racial insensitivity concerning how our family was assessed in her Facebook video, the level of unprofessionalism shown when Ms. Shellady attempted to spread rumors about her and my wife’s exchange on the phone, and her attempt to dismiss the gravity of our son experiencing a hate crime,” Malone wrote. “Our exchanges with Ms. Shellady, as we already shared with her, were extremely insensitive and tone deaf.”

Shellady could not immediately verify whether a school administrator ordered the student’s phone erased. She did acknowledge that students’ phones are routinely confiscated and content erased if a student disseminates material, such as a school fight, that disrupts school.

“So, a couple of things with any school incident, like when kids record a fight or they record anything that happens in school that they’re not supposed to record, then any staff member can make them delete it so it doesn’t get distributed because distributing it is against our code of conduct,” Shellady said. “I want to be clear, the school has authority to delete information from a kid’s phone, even if they don’t have parental permission to do so.” 

Shea Denning, a professor at the UNC School of Government, addressed the cell phone question in a 2017 blog post.

Denning wrote that to be lawful, the school must have “reasonable grounds for suspecting that the student has violated or is violating the law or school rules.

“The ensuing search must be reasonably related in scope to the circumstances that initially justified the interference and must not be excessively intrusive in light of the age and sex of the student and the nature of the infraction,” Denning wrote.

Discovery Charter officials contend that because the incident occurred off-campus, they have limited authority to discipline the student who allegedly made the racial slur and flashed a weapon during the group chat.

Shellady pointed to a 2021 Supreme Court decision in which the nation’s high court ruled that a cheerleader’s profanity-laced, online tirade about her school was protected speech under the First Amendment. 

However, the Court also ruled school leaders can punish student speech that occurs online or off-campus if it disrupts the school. The justices agreed that the cheerleader’s online profanity did not rise to that level.

The weekend group chat did not disrupt the campus, Shellady said. It was a parent’s social media post and a call to law enforcement to report a potential active shooter on campus later that week that caused the disruption, she said.

The call to which Shellady refers set off a panic at Discovery Charter on Sept 21, four days after the FaceTime chat. Rumors spread over social media that there would be an active shooter threat on campus. Law enforcement officials arrived at Discovery Charter, followed by terrified parents who picked up their children. 

“It didn’t spill over into school because of the kids,” Sheallady said. “It spilled over into school because parents posted on social media that there was an active shooter here and it created this huge, much bigger safety issue for our kids.”

Shellady threatened to ban parents from campus who make unsubstantiated claims about school safety. She also urged parents to stop buying smart phones for students to reduce the amount of  “mess” from cell phone usage off-campus that too often spills into the school setting.

“I strongly suggest either not getting your kid a cell phone,” Shellady said in the video address. “either get them a flip phone, and if they do have a smart phone with all the messaging and video and apps to send pictures, if they do have that, that you are monitoring it very closely.”

Discovery Charter parents who are critical of the school’s handling of the incident contend administrators are more concerned about the school’s image than the welfare of children of color and those with disabilities, who are sometimes bullied and called racial slurs by white classmates.

Malone and other parents say Discovery Charter administrators are quick to dismiss racial incidents as typical of middle school behavior and are insensitive to the emotional damage Black students suffer when they are racially attacked and when they feel unsupported by school leaders.

“I think that this school wants to be such a prestige school that they don’t want any bad light to be shined on it,” said Danielle Thomas, the mother of an biracial eighth-grader who has autism.

Thomas said her son is sometimes mistreated and called anti-gay and racial slurs by classmates. Administrators and teachers are tone deaf to such incidents, she said.

Discovery Board Chairman Carl Forsyth made it clear in several email exchanges with Malone that he and the board supported Shellady’s handling of the incident.

Carl Forsyth
Carl Forsyth (Photo: Discoverycharterdurham.org)

“As has been repeatedly shared with you, your child was not subjected to any conduct or communications that falls under the school’s jurisdiction,” Forsyth wrote. “The situation occurred in your home outside of school hours, and at no time has your child been in danger on our campus. The situation has been handled with all applicable laws and in consultation with our school attorney.”

Forsyth rejected Malone’s request that school administrators not interact with Yusef.

“Please remember, we are a school of choice and you are welcome to make a different choice,” Forsyth wrote. “DCS [Discovery Charter School], however, we will not be modifying how it operates.”

Malone shot back in an email that Yusef feels unsafe. In addition to the FaceTime incident, Yusef said fellow students had shoved him in the restroom.

“I appreciate you reminding us of Discovery Charter being a school of choice and despite there being clear evidence of a student antagonizing another through racially motivated hate speech and physical harassment, you will not be modifying how you operate,” Malone said.

Despite the FaceTime incident, Malone said Yusef is thriving academically at Discovery Charter and he has no plans to remove him from the school. The family also has children in traditional public schools, which, Malone said, handle disciplinary issues much better.

“This might be an over-exaggeration, but charter schools can be like the wild, wild West sometimes,” Malone said. “The governance of charters are a lot looser than [traditional] public schools. In traditional public schools there is a clear chain of command and clear procedures around how these kinds of situations are handled. At Discovery, it’s the board of directors and if the board is on board with the principal, who do you go to? We’ve reached out to the Department of Public Instruction and they’re aware what’s taken place but parents are kind of left to their own devices.”