“I had kids ask if my eyes were open and if I could see. The one [comment] that always made me cry as a kid was when other children would tell me that I could not be around their animals because they thought I would eat them,” said Madison Williams, who was no stranger to racist remarks when she reported one to Greenbrier High School (GHS) Principal Carla Shelton.
Williams, a recent graduate of Winder-Barrow High School took to the internet in late-March 2020 to share what she called a threatening response from the GHS principal after Williams made a complaint about a racist post made by a GHS student. Williams’ post on Instagram about the response, in addition to a post her mother made on Facebook, garnered thousands of likes, comments and shares from the CSRA community.
People in the comment sections on Instagram and Facebook called for Shelton to resign and shared stories with Williams and her mother about their own intimidating experiences with the GHS principal.
“I had to reread what she had wrote to me a couple times,” said Williams, who reached out to Shelton via email in an attempt to report a racist remark made by one of Greenbrier’s students on social media.
Williams contacted the principal of GHS with concerns about a post made on a Greenbrier student’s Instagram story. Williams, who is of Asian descent, said the student was formerly a friend of hers, but that derogatory comments her friend made about Asians and Asian-Americans eroded their friendship.
Williams’ email to Shelton discussed not only her former friend’s inappropriate behavior, but also the hardship her grandmother endured as an immigrant from Korea, trying to make a better life for herself and her children.
“This is for my grandmother and mother as well as my irrefutable love for my culture that prompted me to reach out to you. My family would like to see some sort of consequence to take place concerning this event that has transpired. Please feel free to reach out to me for any follow-up questions concerning the incident as I will provide any information you may need. Below I will attach the image she posted for hundreds of people to see. I speak for myself, my family, as well as the entire Asian community. I ask that you understand and accept what I have provided you with.
Williams’ included her phone number in the email.
Later that day, Shelton responded to Williams’ email.
“To Whom It May Concern:
I do not act on emails from senders who do not have the courage to use their real names. In addition, the student in question did not make a threat toward the school or others.
If you beg to differ with my analysis, I would suggest you contact law enforcement. In addition, I need to inform you that I have already informed them of your email to me. Please let your parents know to expect a visit in the very near future.
Williams said she was taken aback, not only by the threatening tone of the email but by Shelton’s suggestion, after Williams discussed with her a sensitive topic such her grandmother’s immigration, that Williams was a coward.
Shelton commented in a May 15, 2020 interview saying she uses the word “courage” a lot in her conversations because it is an important value to teach students before they leave high school.
Yet, Williams said she did not understand the reason Shelton took an intimidating tone in her email.
Williams also believed that Shelton contradicted herself when she, at first, stated that she did not know who Williams was, but went on to threaten that law enforcement would be arriving at her door.
Shelton addressed her assumption of Williams’ anonymity by saying that, in her time as a principal, she has received anonymous emails and emails where the sender is using an address that does not disclose their real name.
Shelton also said she looked at the area code of Williams’ phone number and wondered why someone from Atlanta would be contacting her with a concern about a Greenbrier student.
“As someone in her field, you should never assume the unknown. Rather, you ask and you reach out to get to the bottom of the situation,” said Williams.
Additionally, Shelton explained bringing up law enforcement in her correspondence, saying that since Williams had voiced a serious concern Shelton needed to contact law enforcement to document the incident.
“She made an unprofessional statement without doing her research,” said Williams, “Shelton failed to take the appropriate initiative and showed no concern whatsoever when I reached out to her.”
Dr. Pamela Hayward, a professor at Augusta University (AU) who received her doctoral degree in speech and rhetorical studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, discussed the correspondence and noted that, although she does not know Shelton’s circumstances, “it does seem like she’s getting defensive fairly quickly in some of her language.”
“Sometimes people are just direct communicators and some people can misinterpret that as being aggressive, other people are being direct communicators because they are aggressive and that’s how they express it,” said Dr. Hayward.
Dr. Hayward also said when communicating about more difficult subjects it’s helpful to let people know that you’re listening to them, even though you may not agree with what they are saying, so long as you acknowledge why they are bringing a concern to your attention.
“It’s also really easy to just want to respond right away [to a concern] and sometimes you need to step back for a day or two and maybe get someone else’s input. Maybe you think it [your email] sounds good but someone else might say it sounds negative, and you never even thought it would come out that way,” the AU professor concluded.
Shelton put out a statement to GHS families on March 30, in which she wrote, “Although it may be difficult to understand, as the principal of the school, in most instances, I have no authority or control over the actions of students outside of the school day and using their own technology devices unless their posts cause disruption during the school environment.”
On March 31, 2020, the superintendent of the Columbia County Board of Education (CCBOE), Dr. Sandra Carraway issued an additional statement.
Carraway wrote,“ Ms. Shelton’s written response was not indicative of her opinion regarding the matter, and, after speaking with her, I am convinced that she clearly did not express herself well. Her email does not reflect her actions, which included her making parental contact and her sharing the post with local law enforcement. Like her, we regret that her message has caused a lack of confidence in her, because she really does give her all to the students and staff of Greenbrier High.
Please know that we want and expect the very best of ourselves and of our students.”
After Williams shared her story and email correspondence with Shelton on social media, Shelton received numerous emails in the following days, obtained via GORA requests filed with the CCBOE, with subject lines ranging from, “Do your job Carla” and “Damn you a racist” to “I fully support you as my principal.”
Williams also received numerous messages on social media telling her that she was not alone in her struggle to speak out about racism and a few sharing their own intimidating experiences with Shelton.
Chris Kinsler, a recent graduate of Greenbrier High School, gave an interview about his experience as a senior at GHS making a complaint about racism to Shelton in Fall of 2019.
Kinsler, who is of Asian descent, said he sent an email to Shelton regarding a derogatory comment made about Asian eye shape on a Greenbrier student’s public Snapchat story.
Kinsler wrote, “The above image is from a Greenbrier High School student’s social media that I myself took a screenshot of. The amount of disrespect in what is allowed to be said is humiliating and disappointing. Do we not sign the Code of Conduct books for this exact reason? The fact that [this other student] has said things like this in the past and continues to say things such as this now, reflects directly on the environment of our school, which seems to breed nothing but intolerance and bigotry despite everything that the Columbia County school system itself was founded upon.”
The former student went on to write, “I don’t expect much out of this email, but I will tell you that this behavior exhibited by [this other student] and a plethora of other students is disturbing and disgusting.”
Shelton answered Kinsler’s complaint by emailing his parent to schedule a meeting to discuss their son’s concerns.
During the meeting, which Kinsler attended without his parent present, Shelton threatened him with expulsion for the nature of his emailed complaint.
Kinsler said an assistant principal who was in the room during the meeting talked Shelton’s threat of expulsion down to a few days of lunch detention.
“She said I shouldn’t have reported it unless it had been a threat,” Kinsler recalled.
Kinsler also mentioned that after Williams’ story emerged a number of other students of Asian descent at GHS reached out to him with concerns about returning back to school to potentially meet racist remarks brought on by misunderstanding about the coronavirus pandemic.
Although, Shelton noted that she has never had a complaint of any derogatory statements or racism against Greenbrier’s Asian students come to her attention since she has been employed at Greenbrier.
When reminded of Kinsler’s complaint during her interview, Shelton corrected herself and said she had not had a complaint of any derogatory statements or racism prior to that instance.
Shelton said she and the Greenbrier administration are actively working on ways to encourage students to identify with and feel comfortable talking to at least one adult on campus.
The GHS principal said one of her goals this year was improving intercultural communication on campus and one step she took toward achieving this was starting a multicultural club.
“One of the ways to limit racism is education. People are afraid of what they don’t understand,” said Shelton.
Shelton also said racism is a very sensitive topic for her, as she has a very diverse family and that she will continue to fight racism, “with every fiber of her being.”
Yet, Williams and Kinsler believe that Shelton neglected two important opportunities to have a meaningful and educational conversations about racism with the Greenbrier community, rather than intimidating ones with those who complained about it.
“She understands, just as the rest of us, that Asians and Asian Americans are being targeted by the public in demeaning ways,” said Williams.
Williams said Shelton has not apologized to her for the response she gave to Williams’ complaint.
The writer is an alumna of Greenbrier High School and lives in Evans.
Please note that all email correspondences mentioned were either forwarded by interviewees or obtained through GORA requests filed with Columbia County Board of Education (CCBOE). GORA does not require CCBOE to disclose the information of senders outside the district.