Latrell Taft is a metro seventh grader who loves to read and research, makes straight As, wants to be a doctor when he grows up and has a goofy side his family adores. He recently celebrated his 13th birthday, and his mom Melisa Shirley gave him a shirt that says “Black King” as a nod to the family’s pride in their Black heritage.
Latrell, who attends Edmond Public Schools and has been on an A/B schedule this school year, has an at-home space for virtual school days adorned with the inspirational faces and words of Black heroes like Rosa Parks, Malcom X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Black History Month is a daily occurrence in our household,” said Melisa. “I am always teaching my son who he is and where he came from. He is very proud of who he is and he stands tall.”
Latrell attends Heartland Middle School, where the family says Black History Month has not been taught or celebrated this year. But that hasn’t diminished Latrell’s pride in his heritage, and that includes wearing his new Black King shirt to school.
Racism at school
During the last week of Black History Month, Melisa received a distressed phone call from Latrell regarding his science teacher’s reaction to his shirt and subsequent disparagement of Latrell by both the teacher and his classmates.
Melisa said teacher Rachel Brainard noticed Latrell’s shirt and said if she wore a “white queen” shirt it would have been racist and the world needs a “white history month.” Latrell said many of his classmates vocally agreed with the teacher.
Latrell responded that Black History Month is important and that they don’t have many opportunities at his school to learn about all the contributions of people who look like him.
“I’m proud that he stood up for himself and was able to express his feelings to me and tell me what happened,” said Melisa. “But he is hurt and embarrassed. It’s dampened his spirit.”
Melisa immediately contacted the school but says she felt brushed off by the assistant principal who told her to have Latrell write out a statement. After she wrote a Facebook post to express her hurt about her son’s treatment by an authority figure he should be able to trust, in a school where he should feel safe to be himself, she said the post went viral and the principal contacted her to set up a meeting.
Edmond Public Schools released a statement that said, in part, “the school site and the district began a prompt investigation which is ongoing … If it is determined that the student was the target of discrimination, bullying, or racism, appropriate and swift action will be taken as required by district policy.”
The family hopes the teacher will be removed from her duties so she cannot cause the same type of harm to other students. Melisa said while Latrell has never been the target of racism at school before, she is aware of several other students who have experienced racism from this teacher.
“Latrell has told me that he just hopes this situation will help educate others,” said Melisa. “We hope sharing our story helps the next person.”
Standing up for what is right
Melisa’s mom always taught her there is beauty in diversity, which has inspired Melisa to pass those same lessons on to her children. She wishes that narrative was more prevalent in her son’s education so that all children can see the contributions of people of all races and backgrounds.
“It’s important to educate children who are going to be adults and will have to work with all different races,” said Melisa. “It’s OK to be different and we should honor all races.”
The way Black people have predominantly been presented in her son’s education has been limited to the history of slavery, Melisa shared, yet another reason she is so intentional in surrounding her children with the stories and real-life examples of Black heroes.
“We are not just slavery … I read my son’s history books and that’s not all there is to our history,” said Melisa. “It’s very important that our kids and even adults learn that.”
Since the incident, several of Latrell’s classmates who openly agreed with their teacher, as well as their parents, have contacted him to apologize, which really touched Melisa, especially knowing what a difficult place those students were in.
Melisa has always taught her children to stand up for what is right, even if they are standing alone, and she encourages other parents to use their story to reinforce those messages with their children.
“If you see injustice or something that’s not right, don’t brush it under the rug or walk away or turn your back, speak up,” said Melisa. “It’s so hard when the bully is a teacher, but even still it’s OK to stand up for what is right. This is a lesson for everyone, and I appreciate that.”
Even if a child doesn’t feel comfortable standing up to an authority figure in the moment, which Melisa agrees is entirely understandable, they can find another authority figure or parent to report the incident to and they can show their support for the individual being bullied through their words or actions. The most important thing is not to stay silent.
As for Latrell, Melisa is helping her son continue to process the situation by asking questions, encouraging him to talk and share his feelings and reinforcing that it’s OK to not be OK.
“The fact that I sent him to school, somewhere he is supposed to be safe with teachers we trust with our kids, and he gets hurt … I was concerned this would harden his heart,” said Melisa. “He is so pure and I don’t want him to look at Caucasians differently. As a minority, you might wonder, ‘are they all like that?’ So I’ve been re-educating him, reminding him there are good people in every race and uneducated people in every race.”
According to EPS, the current investigation involves getting statements from the accused employee and any individuals who witnessed the event, as well as from the student and parent who brought the complaint.
“Once statements are received, administration, along with district-level administration and HR, work to confirm what occurred based on the statements and any other facts that can be determined. A meeting is held with the parents and student of the complaint to come to a resolution,” according to a statement provided to MetroFamily by EPS. “The goal is to discover what happened, based upon information from all parties, and then take appropriate action, should misconduct have occurred. After the investigation is complete, a meeting is held with the employee to discuss what occurred and what steps the district will take based upon the facts and taking into consideration state law [and] board policy.”
Melisa is also interested in finding out more about the district’s diversity training policies.
“Edmond is predominantly white and it’s very important that every student feels a part [of the district],” said Melisa. “Right now, that’s not the case.”
According to EPS, the district has taken numerous steps to address discrimination, including providing professional development for staff on the issue of unconscious bias and ensuring equity for all. In the past, these opportunities were voluntary and more than 2,000 teachers and staff have received diversity training. The district administration is continuing to assess the need for more training and professional development.
As the situation unfolds, what Melisa and Latrell most want other children to know is that they should always be proud of themselves, who they are and where they came from, and to not let anyone try to belittle them for simply being themselves.
“Love who you are and shine bright,” said Melisa. “Stand tall and be proud.”