Hate speech targeting black school administrator
Genoa Wheelbarrow | Observer Senior Writer
A local black school administrator has been hospitalized twice after a week of racist incidents against her.
West Campus High School vice-principal Dr. Elysse Versher suffered a number of seizures on Wednesday and Thursday that caused her to rush to Kaiser South for medical attention.
“I’ve never experienced anything like it,” Dr. Versher told The OBSERVER on Thursday morning. She was taken back to the hospital later that day.
Dr Versher says she suffered three seizures on Wednesday, the first within 30 minutes of leaving a meeting with members of the school’s Black Student Union. They had met to discuss how to move forward and heal after it was discovered that someone had marked a wall near his assigned parking spot with the n-word. Staff were alerted around 4 p.m. Monday that the wall facing the football pitch had been defaced, but it was seen as early as last Saturday.
The words, written five different times, have since been deleted, but the pain they evoked for Dr. Versher and the black students at West Campus remains. It was the stress of hearing her beloved students empathize with her that proved too much for Dr. Versher.
“They were traumatized, sad, angry, and I think the most hurtful thing is that they, especially the older people, expressed their sense of immunity to this type of racism, because they lived it,” she said.
She has also had to have difficult conversations with her own eight-year-old daughter in recent days. “She saw the news. She knows what the n-word is, because I don’t believe that as a black woman you should prevent your black children from knowing what the history of this country is,” Dr. Versher explained.
“What she yelled at me was ‘Well, mum, why did they see you as the n-word?’ She sees me as the greatest person she knows.
“You Better Fight”
When it was first announced that she had won the vice-provost position at West Campus, Dr. Versher said another black woman posted online: “Sistah, you better get involved ”, referring to problems there. Others act as if nothing had happened.
“West Campus is literally a utopian bubble, in terms of staff and parents, and the perceptions of other students at the school,” Dr. Versher said. “It’s a great school academically, but they feel like things just aren’t happening at West Campus.”
These recent incidents are believed to be linked to the suspension of a student for wearing a crop top against the dress code policy. Threats have also been made against Dr. Versher on social media, including posting his home address. According to a letter sent to parents on Tuesday, threatening emails were also sent directly to his family.
Additionally, Dr. Versher says two adults, believed to be siblings of a friend of the punished student, came to campus last Friday and made threats in person. Threats that were taken seriously, with the district beefing up security on campus, SacPD dispatching a CSI team, and traveling to Dr. Versher’s home. Incidents may be considered hate crimes.
The FBI Sacramento Field Office issued the following statement: “We are aware of the incident at West Campus High School and are in regular contact with local authorities. If, during a local investigation, information comes to light about a potential federal violation, the FBI is ready to investigate.
Special Agent in Charge Sean Ragan addressed hate crimes in a guest commentary that appeared in The Sacramento OBSERVER last month.
“Hate crimes have a devastating impact on our communities by instilling fear in those who live there,” Ragan wrote. “These crimes hurt everyone in the community. We cannot allow these acts to continue any longer. Don’t let hate win.
Dr. Versher does not hesitate to simply label the degradation of the wall as graffiti.
“We have to call him. This is hate speech,” she said. “It’s not graffiti. Reducing it to graffiti makes it seem trivial.
It’s not a dress code either, she argues. “It’s about race and racism and white privilege and the fact that students have been allowed to be empowered in a very disrespectful way since I’ve been there,” she said of her three very successful years in school.
“The dress code was just a coded effort to use racism and target me.”
where i need to be
Although traumatized, Dr. Versher says she will not be bullied and chased away like local black headteachers have been on other area campuses. “I won’t let racism drive me from where I know I belong.”
African-American students make up just 5% of West Campus’ student population.
“They look at me and I know it’s a turning point in their own lives. How I respond, how I act, how I react, is going to be a lesson for them,” she said.
For many, Dr. V, as they affectionately call him, was the only black educator they had in their entire K-12 school experience.
“If I fail in my reaction, what other example will they have?” she said, fighting back tears.
“It’s a lot of pressure.”
The Greater Sacramento NAACP and Voice of the Youth leader Berry Accius have both reached out to let her know she is not alone.
“They contacted me to affirm that I am safe, to affirm that I matter,” she said of the local NAACP.
“We cannot continue to cover up a culture that has a long history of inflicting hateful violence on African-American students and teachers in the school system,” said local president Betty Williams. “We, the Greater Sacramento NAACP branch, hope the District takes these threats seriously and acts in a way that creates a safe and engaging environment for all staff and students.”
Dr. Versher knew Accius through his efforts to resolve a similar incident of hate speech at Kit Carson International Academy in June, when a college Spanish teacher was filmed using the n-word.
“It was really important to have this black male response from him to say, ‘We’re going to protect you and your students,'” Dr. Versher shared.
The NAACP describes recent incidents at the school, including students who have not been disciplined for renaming their classmates as the n-word on Zoom meetings, adults threatening to wait for Dr. Versher in the school parking lot and students referring to her as, “black nigger, black female dog, black Hitler.
Although hate is at the root of the problem, the lack of representation on campus also plays a role. “There are no black teachers. Not a single black adviser,” Dr. Versher explained. “The only black representation that students get, like a credentialed person, is myself. Aside from me, the care community for black students would consist of our attendance attendant, our plant manager, and a handful of dynamic black women in the cafeteria.
Male and female student-athletes are also under the guidance of an all-black basketball coaching staff.
The school’s BSU, previously headed by Dr. Versher, now has a white counselor. The counselor conveys the feelings and experiences of black students to other white staff members. Feelings which, according to Dr. Versher, had, until now, largely “fallen on deaf ears”.
“This individual has flagged and shared with staff the impact of listening to their meetings on her and how she feels there needs to be more urgency with staff to learn about the Black student experience.”
Despite Principal John McMeekin’s assertion that such racially motivated behavior “has no place on West Campus,” Dr. Versher said little has been done to make that statement anything but lip service.
As vice principal, she investigated incidents where students used the n-word and imposed disciplinary action. The white parents understood that it was Dr. Versher who had administered the punishment.
“They banded together and demanded multiple meetings to negotiate the consequences, and they were successful in those efforts. They go straight to the principal,” she explains. “They’re basically saying, ‘We don’t have to deal with Dr. Versher, we don’t have to buy into his consequence, we’ll go to Principal McMeekin. It will undermine the consequences and parents and students can walk away without any responsibility.
Her colleagues, in general, she says, support her leadership. “They’ve been like that since day one. I think the challenge this incident posed for them was that it was not a one-time event. I think when I share with staff a trauma I experienced with regards to race at school, they consider these to be isolated incidents.
But, literally, the writing is on the wall.
“I think it broke that bubble that, OK, now we really see that because we didn’t step in to help Elysse, that we didn’t step in to reinforce the fact that we find her publicly, that gave her consent students and parents to believe that they can say and do anything without recourse.
While at the local high school, Dr. Versher said she was “very intentional in having conversations about race.”
“The aftermath of George Floyd’s murder was a culture shock and forced staff to be really more inclusive, but it was still like a ‘one-off’. It was like, ‘We’re fine, we’re going to have this one conversation. Check the box. Alright, we talked about it. ”
Talking is cheap, says Dr. Versher. “I try to be nice, but I’m so tired. I just feel like the conversations happened and people chose not to listen,” she said. “Ultimately what will change West Campus is justice.”
Justice, she says, finds out who wrote the n-word five times in front of her parking space. She is also confident that with the attention the SacPD has given to social media threats, the culprits will be found.
“I trust SacPD,” said Dr. Versher. “I know it’s a hard thing for a black person to say, that I trust the police, but I can say the police at SacPD were urgent on this. They have gone above and beyond in my opinion, coming to my home, to make sure I am safe, to build rapport with my children and to let them know they are safe.
A rally in support of Dr. Versher and Black West Campus students is planned outside the school on Tuesday, November 16. The rally is scheduled to begin at 3:07 p.m., after the dismissal. Participants are requested to respect the security measures related to COVID-19.