school board meeting, Virginia

Original Black Panther Party Members Speak at Virginia School Board Meeting Over Alleged Hate Speech Response

A white student allegedly wrote “I KILL N----R” on his arm.

After the Powhatan County (VA) Public School Board called a 3-hour public meeting to address the district’s lack of a response to hate speech, which many parents in the community believed constituted a death threat, members of the Original Black Panther Party spoke.

As The Daily Beast reports, hundreds of people attended the meeting, including Original Black Panther Party National General Mike Pain. Those who attended spoke out about racism they felt the district was allowing to fester.

Pain told the outlet, “The Original Black Panther Party has heard the cries of the Powhatan community. When the community hurts, we hurt. Our initial step was to confront the school board and allow them the opportunity to do right by the victims of not just this one terroristic threat but all the accusations that had been presented at the school board meeting.”

Pain continued, “If the Powhatan School Board continues to ignore these racially charged situations, we must move forward in protecting the students ourselves, by mentally arming them and their parents with new strategies to combat a racist environment.”

The Original Black Panther Party also released a statement to The Daily Beast, “We need people in these positions who will do right by all the children. Sweeping racial activity under the rug and ignoring the pain placed upon the students can not continue. The Original Black Panther Party will offer mediation to assist in bringing unity back to Powhatan County Public Schools. We also will offer a class on race relations for all the kids, parents, faculty, and staff.”

The tension originated from an incident at Powhatan High School where a white student allegedly wrote, “I KILL N—-R” on his arm as well as on another white student’s arm. A Black classmate took a photo.

The Black student’s mother, Mikki Owens, told WRIC that she was proud of her son for stepping forward and taking action by taking a picture of the student’s arm. 

“Without this picture, we wouldn’t be here now because it would have been their word against [my son’s],” Owens said. “So, I’m proud that he took the picture. I’m proud that he was brave enough to take the picture and come forward with it.”

According to WRIC, several parents and community members expressed outrage on Facebook that the student who allegedly wrote the messages on their arm was only suspended for three days. Others, including Owens, expressed that there is a culture of bigotry in the district’s other schools. 

It wasn’t until March 10 that Powhatan Public Schools Superintendent Beth Teigen sent an email that addressed what happened, “Hateful speech and actions will not be tolerated. Period,” Teigen wrote.

A school board meeting was finally held March 18 after a meeting scheduled for March 12 was postponed due to the Fire Marshall raising concerns about the crowd size. This was after the local NAACP conducted its own meeting on March 7. 

One Powhatan Middle School student, Yasmine Smith, a Black eighth-grader, told the school board, “Ever since I moved to Powhatan… I felt out of place because of the color of my skin. … Kids have said the N-word right to my face. I feel as if I can’t report anything because y’all will keep it on the low, give it little investigation and consequences.”

In a criticism of the all-white school board, a running theme during the meeting, according to The Daily Beast, former Powhatan School Board member Rick Cole, who is white, said the problems in the schools are representative of the problems in the community. 

“We’ve failed to acknowledge that our school system reflects our community. This is not just a school problem; this is a county problem. This is a society problem. This is a Virginia problem. This is a United States problem,” Cole then directed the board, “Don’t stack committees with people who look just like you.”

In addition to the skepticism of the Original Black Panther Party that the school board will make the necessary changes, Powhatan’s NAACP branch told The Daily Beast that they had engaged with the board for years to no avail. 

Powhatan Branch President Gail Hairston and Education Committee Chair Chiara Hoyt told the outlet in a joint statement, “We have no faith that they will make any of the necessary changes without sustained pressure and accountability. Many of them still have not responded formally to our organization, even after multiple emails, some of which included direct policy suggestions.”

They concluded, “Many of their final (and myriad other) comments indicate to the community that they are not equipped to lead in this moment, they do not understand the depth and complexity of the issues our marginalized children are facing, and they desire to remain willfully ignorant so that they do not have to go against their politically-motivated policy positions, even if that means continued harm to our children.”

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