Black parents accuse Atlanta of retaliation after they fought segregation of classrooms

Assistant principal admitted black children were stuck with a worse teacher to keep them together in school.

Updated: August 12, 2021 - 10:58pm

Atlanta Public Schools retaliated against parents after they objected to the intentional racial segregation in their children's school, according to a federal civil rights complaint.

An assistant principal at Mary Lin Elementary told Jason Posey, the school psychologist, that Posey's daughter "P.P." could not be placed with his preferred teacher because all black second-graders had been placed in their own classrooms. 

Seven months later, the district confirmed to Posey's wife Kila Posey that Mary Lin Elementary's principal Sharyn Briscoe, who is black, set up the two black-only classrooms. White second-graders had their choice of six different classrooms.

Briscoe's page on the school website was taken down sometime after Wednesday afternoon, as evidenced by an archive of the page. She didn't respond to an email seeking her response to the allegations and confirmation of her status at the school. Her LinkedIn page lists her as assistant principal in Atlanta Public Schools.

The Poseys' lawyer Sharese Shields shared audio recordings of their phone conversations with administrators with Just the News. The recordings were also submitted with their July 22 complaint to the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The parents told OCR they recorded conversations because they didn't trust administrators or Atlanta Public Schools to take seriously their concerns .

"OCR may not confirm complaints prior to the opening of an investigation," according to a statement provided by department spokesperson Jim Bradshaw. He pointed Just the News to its database of open investigations, last updated July 30, a week after the Poseys filed the complaint.

The most recent federal Title VI investigation of Atlanta Public Schools was opened in November 2018.

Kila Posey added a handwritten plea at the end of the OCR complaint. "I would like the school to end the practice of designating certain classes as the only classes that black students can be placed in," she wrote. She called on the district to "remove the entire leadership team" at Mary Lin Elementary for their "poor professional judgment."

The dispute apparently started because P.P. had been inexplicably placed in the Early Intervention Program, which serves students "at risk of not reaching or maintaining academic grade level."

In a call with assistant principal Mary Benton on Aug. 5, 2020, Jason Posey asked why that placement was made at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. He said the daughter's teacher confirmed she was "on grade level when we left for the pandemic" that spring.

As a school employee, Posey can request a specific teacher for his two children at Mary Lin. He recounted Kila and himself talking to Briscoe about the teacher they wanted for P.P. 

The principal warned that his daughter would "be the only black kid in the classroom" with that teacher, and recommended instead two others who run "our black classrooms," Posey told the assistant principal. "And we were like 'What?'" 

He asked why not "evenly distribute" the black kids among the classrooms. "And she was like, 'I don't see it like that,'" Posey claimed.

"Those were [Briscoe's] decisions," Benton responded, explaining this was partly the result of the small number of black kids at the school, which sits across from a golf course, and the in-class services needed by some black students.

Benton admitted that one of the teachers for the black classrooms was "on a different planet sometimes," while the teacher the Poseys wanted was "phenomenal." Posey responded: "You just took the words out of my mouth."

The complaint alleges that Briscoe made this segregation decision without informing parents of black students, "relegating them to only those classes she deemed appropriate."

The Poseys next brought their complaint to Yolanda Brown, the chief academic officer for the district, in November.

In a March 12 phone call, Kila Posey darkly chuckled "get your popcorn" as Brown prepared to discuss the racial segregation the investigation confirmed.

"Sharyn uses specific classes to put black students in" because "she was trying to create community," Brown said. 

"Somehow there was some communication that said your child can't go in this class because [that's] not the black class," she continued. "It is very clear that that practice cannot and will not" continue at the school.

The parents' continued criticism of Briscoe's racial segregation provoked the principal to try several times — unsuccessfully — to get Jason Posey transferred to another school, the complaint alleges. School district officials recently intervened to prevent Briscoe from evicting him from his office, according to the Poseys.

The principal allegedly tried to get the district to cancel its contract with Kila Posey's after-school services provider, The Club After School, but Brown informed the mother that district officials were on the lookout for Briscoe's retaliatory efforts.

The complaint alleges Briscoe committed retaliation by proxy. She convinced the principal of Springdale Park Elementary, her "close personal friend" whose school shares a "cluster" with Mary Lin, to cancel its contract with Kila Posey's organization "out of the blue."

It was "a bit shocking that in 2021" a black administrator would impose segregation, Shields, the Poseys' lawyer, told NBC News. "As an administrator, she should be well-versed in the law and know that you can't treat one group of students based on race differently than other groups of students."

Atlanta Public Schools initially issued a carefully worded public statement that implied race can be an appropriate factor in classroom assignments. The district does "not condone assigning students to classrooms based solely on race."

The district said it "conducted a review and took immediate and appropriate action at that time to resolve the issue" at Mary Lin, but didn't specify when it opened the investigation or what the action was.

It changed its tune Thursday night. "Using race as a method for assigning students to classrooms is unacceptable," the district declared in a statement provided by spokesperson Ian Smith. "APS does not support or condone this behavior."

The district provides "high-quality, equitable teaching and learning environments" and has made "historic investments in this area, adopting a comprehensive Equity policy and creating the Center for Equity & Social Justice," the statement emphasizes, and APS works to identify and remove "barriers to success for all our students, including our students of color."

District spokespeople didn't answer queries on whether it confirmed Briscoe's actions toward the Poseys amounted to retaliation and whether officials were already keeping a close eye on her, as the Poseys alleged.

Just the News Spotlight