By Jordan Askew and Anoshka Ramkumar
Gwinnett County Public School System Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks has been presiding over the schools in the county for the last 25 years. Mr. Wilbanks is the founder of Gwinnett Technical College and as stated by the Gwinnett County School’s biography, “has been tapped by three Georgia governors and two United States Secretaries of Education to help craft significant education-reform legislation at the state and federal levels.” However, Mr. Wilbanks’s position as superintendent has been the most recent subject of debate within the school board due to his alleged inability to enforce equity in the school system. According to an article written by Elliot Brack of GwinnettForum, a petition started by an anonymous group of residents was shared during the last week in January with a goal to convince the Gwinnett County school board to replace Mr. Wilbanks.
“A widely circulated petition entitled ‘Termination of Employment,’ comes anonymously from ‘We, the concerned stakeholders of Gwinnett County Public Schools’ to terminate Mr. Wilbanks’ contract.”
Brack also states the petition mentions that “students of color from low-income families and students with disabilities have been abandoned by GCPS. It also maintains that black students are overrepresented in discipline and under-represented in academic opportunities.”
Many concerned parents and public officials within the board of education have commented, but one question remains: how will Mr. Wilbanks’ termination impact the students who will be the most affected if a change in leadership is decided?
The North Gwinnett Voice gathered the opinions of a small group of GCPS students varying from both North Gwinnett High School and Lanier High School through an online survey. The survey asked for each student’s racial identity and included questions asking whether they’ve been discriminated at against at school or have witnessed any discrimination at school, and to note their experience if they listed “Yes” for either of those questions. Out of these students, 33.3 percent are white, 27.8 percent are Asian, 27.8 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 5.6 percent are black and 5.6 percent are American Indian or Alaska Native. In the survey, 27.8 percent of this group said they have felt discriminated against at school and 50 percent said they have witnessed discrimination at school. The majority of the experiences listed were discrimination-based bullying between students, but one listed a quote from a former teacher saying, “‘I only let my daughter hang out with white, Christian people’ — previous social studies teacher.”
Another student described their experience with a substitute teacher saying, “I had a substitute teacher who said that schools with mainly black students are less behaved and she said ‘I could walk into a classroom and just by seeing the students with one glance I can tell it will be a hard class to sub.’”
When asked, “What do you think the school board can do better in terms of equity amongst students?” responses included “promote reporting of things students experience” and “address these issues and stop brushing them aside.” Many of the responses noted that in order for the problem to be resolved, it has to start at home.
Although many students have expressed concern about the treatment of students in schools, it seems a majority of students think it is the home environment that plays a key part in how racism develops in the opinions of their fellow students. The students have spoken. Will Mr. Willbanks be able to create an equitable school environment despite the inability to control the home environments of his students?