10/24/2011 // Paris, Texas, US // TiffNews10 // News Desk
Paris, Texas – In an article from The Paris News dated Aug. 19, 2011, the Diversity Task Force, an organization began in Paris, Texas following accusations that systematic racism played a role in the national headline making sentencing of a 14-year old African American female student in 2007, announced that their mission of promoting diversity in the infamous town had been completed after four years. However, some are questioning the merits of their efforts, their true intended purpose, and whether stated achieved milestones indicate that they really have done anything to promote racial diversity at all?
Paris local civil rights organization CCFRE (Concerned Citizens for Racial Equality) and the Tarrant County Local Organizing Committee (LOC) arranged a meeting with an official from the office of Texas State Representative Erwin Cain on Friday, Oct. 21 to discuss issues pertaining to their claims of racism being a factor in the treatment of students within the Paris Independent School District as well as in Lamar County courts.
The group took to the meeting a copy of a formal complaint filed by Lone Star Legal Aid with the United States Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, and requested further investigation into several alleged miscarriages of justice including the attempt to pursue criminal action against an African American teen who sustained severe injuries after being attacked by a fellow student, the actions of PISD following the roping of a black autistic student during class by three white students, a case involving the alleged dragging death of a 24 year-old black male for which the Paris D.A.’s office now claims to no longer be in possession of any related records, and the case of an 11 year-old mixed race student who was charged with “indecency with a child” and forced to register as a sex offender after she and a white student allegedly “pantsed” a male student. Aikin Elementary school faculty were reportedly the ones to pursue criminal charges against the child, not the parents of the male student. The white student was not charged with an offense.
CCFRE asserts that in more than one of the incidents listed in the complaint, the school has had video surveillance tape to confirm what took place, but refuse to release or allow parents to review it claiming they are restricted by FERPA regulations. The organization says the school is hiding behind the federal law to deny responsibility for their actions. The group also asserts that the Paris Diversity Task Force was created as a means to help clean up the town’s image as opposed to enacting real change in bridging the racial divide.
In another article by The Paris News, dated Sept. 22, 2011, achievements of the Task Force were credited as including holding church pulpit exchanges, diversity dialogue dinners, meet and greets between children and law enforcement, and block parties. Members of CCFRE state these events were merely social gatherings aimed to portray a certain image of an attempt to endorse change, but were not effective; particularly in the case of the diversity dialogue dinners during which guests were restricted with regards to the issues they were allowed to discuss.
As reported by The Paris News, diversity initiatives, for which a $59,000 budget has been allocated, will now be in the hands of the Lamar County Chamber of Commerce and the Paris Economic Development Corporation. Some, however, are doubtful that any genuine effort will be put forth by either organization due to statements publicly made by members, which indicate more interest in painting the town in a different light than helping to resolve race related issues.
Steve Gilbert, Executive Director of the Paris Economic Development Corporation is quoted as stating to The Paris News, “We have a community need to stand up and show the world we are not what we have been accused of…Paris must change the misconceptions and prove to the world once and forever it is a diverse community with people who work together.”
Gilbert further noted, “We have been perceived as a community filled with racism, and that has hurt our ability to attract business and industry here. We have to start now to change that perception. It is not true and we have to work to prove that. The PEDC is officially taking over the work the volunteer Paris Diversity Task Force started four years ago.”
The Concerned Citizens group states that their focus is now on getting people who are genuinely concerned about improving the circumstances for victims of discrimination in the town to listen. At the top of their list of those they are seeking to help are students who attend schools within the Paris Independent School District whom they believe have been victims of racial discrimination.
Two of the schools in the district have been rated academically unacceptable according to a report released by the Texas Education Agency this year. The poor reading, math, and science scores of African American students were a significant contributor to these ratings. Members of CCFRE assert their belief that had diversity initiatives of the task force been based on a genuine goal of improving the racial divide, then education gaps should have been included on the list of priorities. They further suggest efforts should have been made to listen to complaints regarding unequal treatment made by several parents of black students in the district’s schools since the organization’s inception four years ago, which could have improved the quality of education for students in trouble.
Referring to a statement made by Diversity Task Force member Marva Joe in the Nov. 26, 2010 issue of The Paris News in which she declared, “The Task Force is not a civil rights organization, it is not a political party or religious organization. Its purpose is not to solve specific racial problems, political problems, religious problems or any other specific problems that individuals or individual groups might have,” CCFRE members point out that the task force seemed to lack ever having a task, even in its latter stages.
Prior to the task force’s creation, Joe insinuated that there was never really a problem with the quality of education granted to black students in PISD in another Paris News article, dated Aug. 6, 2006, stating “After the trouble back in the winter and charges made against PISD of racism, it’s important that people know that the majority of the black students from PISD have done well and have succeeded since they have graduated.”
PISD Superintendent Paul Trull is quoted as stating in the same article following a racial discrimination complaint, “Our stats will stack up against anyone else out there. At PISD, the graduation rate for all students is 87 percent and 90 percent for African American students. Black students hold leadership positions and meet or exceed high academic standards for all students.”
With this year’s release of the Texas Education Agency’s school ratings report; however, Trull had a different tone. He is quoted as stating to the Paris News in an article dated July 30, 2011 “It is a sad state of affairs that we have schools ranked with the lowest marker they have.”
Mark Hudson, Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum and Student Services is further quoted as stating in the same article, “Akin only missed the next highest rating by one point in the African American reading category. Paris Junior High missed in African American math and science. We have worked hard with the kids and they have shown great progress…you do not get rewarded for bringing the kids up, it is a backwards system. You get penalized for poorest performing groups instead of the best you have.”
With regards to the performance of African American students, CCFRE and Tarrant County Local Organizing Committee members express concern that statements such as those made by Hudson exemplifies an overall mindset of school leadership in which the district is choosing to blame the students as opposed to take responsibility for their failure to properly educate them all, with LOC member Jim Blackwell stating, “Feeling they should be rewarded when there are a lot of kids struggling in some areas shows how much they really care about helping students who do not perform well.”
The complaint filed by Lone Star Legal Aid presents evidence suggesting the district has doctored records of some African American students in an attempt to receive higher ratings by the Texas Education Agency for their schools after the TEA began counting dropouts for their ratings system. The group alleges the district is also facilitating a school to prison pipeline system for students of color as well as those who are economically disadvantaged with excessive write-ups and punishments that are later utilized by Lamar County courts as criminal records.
The members of CCFRE say they hope their recent meeting at Erwin Cain’s office will prove fruitful in getting long awaited change; however, they are prepared to take their voices to Washington, D.C. if it is proven that their pleas to the state representative have fallen on deaf ears.
Keyon Mitchell Sr., whose son received a life sentence in prison based on the testimony of alleged co-conspirators in a drug related case, in which no physical evidence was reportedly obtained against him, says of The Diversity Task Force’s recent passing of the torch, “Now that their backs are completely turned, we need to continue to look for people who will take our issues seriously and help us get real positive change for the people in Paris who still suffer the effects of injustice.”
Says Blackwell, “we will continue to work until conditions are improved for people not only in Paris, but everywhere and showing an appreciation for diversity is more than just a joke or business move for those in positions of power. This is our lives. Our children are human beings. We are human beings.”