There’s no doubt that racism exists – and sometimes becomes very visible – at Ardrey Kell High. The school is one of North Carolina’s largest, a majority white school in a minority white district, located in one of south Charlotte’s most affluent areas.
The debate that’s raging publicly – and apparently being investigated by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools – is whether Principal David Switzer is part of the problem or part of the solution. The district confirmed Monday that he's been suspended with pay since Thursday "as accusations are investigated."
As of Monday night, more than 9,000 people had signed dueling online petitions -- one demanding Switzer's resignation over "racist tactics" and "bigoted behavior" at the school, the other supporting Switzer as a champion for racial justice.
"He is actively working toward educating people on systemic racism," English teacher Kelly Schueneman said in an interview Monday. "He is actively working toward creating an environment in our school that’s more culturally accepting. And this is what we need right now, more than anything."
In the last few years white Ardrey Kell students have shouted racial slurs at sporting events and posted them on social media. According to news accounts, Switzer said he punished the students involved, but details weren’t available.
Schueneman -- who, like Switzer, is white -- says Switzer has responded by trying to educate students and faculty about racism. She says he doesn't just address blatant slurs but systemic issues like students of color being underrepresented in advanced classes.
Critics Raise Questions
But others aren’t won over. In a staff meeting in August, Switzer was talking about racial awareness efforts when he used a term that left some staff shocked. A recording of the follow-up meeting was leaked to The Charlotte Observer, which posted it in May.
In it, Switzer apologizes to staff for saying something that gave offense, then asks exactly what he said.
"You said 'coloreds.' You identified us as coloreds," a male voice says. A woman adds that Switzer was talking about his initiative and "I think what you said was, 'Now, let's be honest. This is not about being kind to colored folk.' "
Switzer told the Observer he thought he’d said “people of color.”
Racism At The Rock
More recently, as protests of police brutality and systemic racism flared across America, Ardrey Kell students painted the rock with Black Lives Matter slogans – then found it defaced by racist graffiti a few days later. CMS police haven’t identified the culprits.
A few days later the Observer ran an article saying that nine current and former students, who weren’t named, accused Switzer of creating a culture of intolerance at the school.
The online petition calling for Switzer’s resignation had more than 3,600 signatures Monday night, about a week after it was launched. The petition, which was created anonymously, calls for holding Switzer accountable for "contributions to the continuous racist acts that devalue the experience black and brown students face at Ardrey Kell High School."
"The racism that occurs at Ardrey Kell does not happen by 'coincidence' but it is perpetuated, purposefully," the petition says.
A National Problem
Switzer didn’t return WFAE’s call for comment Monday. But last week, as students and community members gathered to repaint the rock, he fielded questions about racism at his school.
"Well, I tell you what, it’s a problem in the country, right?" he said. "I mean we’re seeing it all throughout. We talked about this a couple of years ago, this is not just AK’s problem."
Switzer said neither the problem nor the solution is just about him. "I lead this school, I’m just representative of the kids, the community, the parents."
Last week student body President Kayden Hall, who is African American, responded to questions about racism at the school by talking about systemic issues that create disparities and give schools like Ardrey Kell an academic advantage. On Monday, she declined to talk about the call for Switzer to resign.
The petition in support of Switzer had 5,400 signatures as of Monday night.
"We are not asking for exemptions from racist behavior and actions – that would be abhorrent and against our own principles. Ardrey Kell has not been, and will not be, silent against racial injustices, even and especially when they occur within our community," the unnamed creators of that petition wrote. It says Switzer encourages black student achievement and engagement in social issues and has trained staff on diversity and implicit bias.
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