SUWANEE - The president of the Gwinnett County branch of the NAACP has asked for Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks to apologize for a controversial comment made Thursday during the school board's work session.
However, Wilbanks maintains his comment, made in last Thursday's school board work session during a discussion on student discipline, was neither racist nor insensitive.
During the meeting, Jim Taylor, the district's executive director of academic support, said the number of black and Hispanic students sent before a disciplinary panel last year was disproportionate to the student population. Taylor mentioned an article published by the Chicago Tribune that said Idaho is the only state where black students are not disproportionately disciplined.
"Are there any blacks in Idaho?" Wilbanks asked during the meeting. "There aren't many."
Idaho's demographics are different from Georgia's, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The Bureau's State and County QuickFacts show in 2006 less than 1 percent of Idaho's population was black. Meanwhile, Georgia's demographics show 29.9 percent of the population was black, more twice the national number of 12.8 percent.
"Those who know me and my record are well aware of my commitment to raising student achievement and to providing safe and orderly schools for all of our students - no matter their race, ethnic origin or socioeconomic background," Wilbanks said in a statement issued Wednesday by the school district. "The NAACP certainly is aware of these efforts because we have involved them in some of our most significant efforts to ensure that our discipline policies are impartial and clear and in the best interest of all students."
Jorge "J.P." Portalatin, the president of the Gwinnett branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in a statement Wednesday he was surprised and disappointment at Wilbanks' "biased" comment.
"This type of rhetoric not only dishonors Gwinnett County Public Schools, but casts a cloud on the abilities of Superintendent Wilbanks and the school board members to lead the school system effectively," the statement says. "As the school superintendent, Mr. Wilbanks sets the tone for everyone to follow within the school system. Remarks such as the ones made by Superintendent Wilbanks are unacceptable, and quite frankly I not only expect but demand more.
"I believe as a public servant Superintendent Wilbanks should serve all members of our community without bias and prejudice. It is clear by his own words that Superintendent Wilbanks is a public servant for some, but not all."
Grayson resident June Townsend, who has a third-grader at Pharr Elementary, said she thinks Wilbanks is a good superintendent but feels an apology is in order.
"I think it was a bad case of not thinking before you speak. I would hope so because it didn't sound very good to me," Townsend said. "It insinuated to me that he could be a little biased toward a group of people."
She said that's a concern for her because she has a multiracial family. Townsend and her husband are white, but they have a daughter from China.
"It just sounded not necessarily racist but a little bigoted," she said. "It just didn't show a very professional or diverse side of him."
For Monise Seward, a Snellville resident who is trying to open a charter school in Gwinnett, an apology is not enough.
"In my honest opinion, he has to go. He's setting the tone for the entire school system," Seward said. "If that's the direction you want to set, then where are we supposed to go from here? ... How far down the ladder does it go?
"What he said crossed the line. ... You can't take that out of context. It's time for it to stop. We need to stop excusing this stuff."
Seward said she sent e-mails about the comment to Georgia Schools Superintendent Kathy Cox, as well as the Georgia School Superintendents Association. She said she's heard from several parents who were upset with the comment.
Three school board members, however, said they have not received any complained from constituents.
School board member Louise Radloff said she does not think an apology is warranted, "not if it was perceived the way it was meant to be heard," she said.
Radloff said when she heard Wilbanks' question, she wondered what Idaho is doing differently from the rest of the nation. She said she did not think the comment had a racial overtone.
"I think it was taken out of context," Radloff said. "I've known (Wilbanks) as a superintendent, as president of Gwinnett Tech, as a parent and as a grandparent, and I've never known a more compassionate person toward all children."
School board member Robert McClure said the comment was not meant to flame or cause problems. He said he thought it was a rhetorical question that suggested Gwinnett, unfortunately, may not be able to learn anything from Idaho because the anomaly may not be statistically significant.
McClure said it would be more productive to try to answer the broader question of why the disparity is happening in the first place instead of focusing on a comment that was "not uttered by a racist."
"(Wilbanks) has a real heart for all kids," McClure said. "His actions speak very clearly to that effect. ... His track record shows that's not an accurate brush to paint him with."
Mary Kay Murphy, another school board member, said she feels no apology was needed, if her interpretation of the question is accurate.
"From my perspective, no insult was intended," she said.
"The (discipline) report reflects a national problem that I believe we must solve locally," Murphy added. "That would be for the benefit of all boys and girls and for all ethnic groups."
Murphy said the disparity is a problem the school district can't solve alone. It will take the involvement of civic organizations such as the NAACP, churches and social services, she said.
The school district strives every day to close the achievement gap, but to do that students must be learning in classrooms in safe and secure schools - "achieving and not serving suspension or expulsion," Murphy said.
Radloff also said the disparity is a "great, great concern."
"This is a community issue, and we need to find a way to solve it together," Radloff said. "Ninety-eight percent of our kids are great - black, white, yellow, green and pink. ... Only 2 percent of our students are doing these things (that warrant discipline panels), but the community needs to come together and put in place things to combat this."