A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools principal apologized for referring to people as “colored folks” during a staff meeting, according to a secretly recorded audio tape recently obtained by The Observer.
During a follow-up staff meeting in August, Ardrey Kell High School principal David Switzer apologized for offending anyone with his remarks at the earlier meeting and said that he does not use racially insensitive language. A person in the second meeting recorded it.
“I thought I said persons of color,” Switzer said in the recording. “That was my context. And so again, I apologize, I really do… I don’t say that ever. I don’t say the N-word either.”
The school has been at the center of a string of racist incidents, including in November when a white athlete compared her black teammate to a monkey on Snapchat.
During the 23-minute recording, one teacher says that Switzer’s comment evoked images of the Jim Crow South and segregation with its similarity to the phrase, “coloreds only.”
A teacher who attended both staff meetings and asked not be identified for fear of professional consequences told The Observer that it was stunning to hear Switzer use the term, which the teacher said could be associated with the discrimination faced by an earlier generation.
“It’s highly unacceptable,” the teacher said. “It should never be tolerated.”
In an interview Thursday, Switzer told The Observer that he did not use the term in reference to any specific group, but he did not say what he was referring to. He said he made the comment while emphasizing the value of a “cultural proficiency” training group he had invited to come to speak at the school.
Switzer said he was highlighting the training available to staff. Over the summer, he had bought copies of the book “The Hate U Give” for all his employees, which tells the story of a black girl attending a predominantly white school after she is a witness to a police shooting.
As he was concluding his remarks, Switzer said, he emphasized that discrimination of any type would not be tolerated at Ardrey Kell. But he acknowledged that he may have gotten swept up in the moment and had a slip of the tongue, saying “colored folks” instead of “people of color” as he had intended.
Shortly after, Switzer said his assistant principal invited all the teachers of color to the second meeting where he apologized for his comments.
“If something came out of my mouth, it was not intended in any way to be a hurtful remark or insensitive or something to that effect,” Switzer said on the recording. “The gist that I was trying to make is just that this isn’t a white black issue, right? This is a total diverse everything issue.”
Switzer then asked employees to “be the brakes, not the gas” and invited them to talk to him directly about things they may hear at school.
“If something was taken out of context, I apologize for that,” he said. “I do know that the remark that people took, whether it was out of context or not, was geared towards African Americans and persons of color so I just wanted to make sure I kind of clear the air on that.”
On the audio, Switzer says he does not remember exactly what he said, and asks if anyone can tell him what they heard. Audible gasps were heard at the first staff meeting when the comment was made, a teacher tells Switzer in the recording, and some of the people who most visibly reacted to the comment were white.
“I think what you said was, ‘Now let’s be honest, this is not about being kind to colored folk,” a female staff member says. “I think it was like a sarcastic comment that you were making from the perspective of someone who might think that all that we’re doing is focusing on how everyone has to be nice to black people.”
In an email, CMS spokeswoman Renee McCoy said that nine months ago, Switzer reported concerns expressed by his staff to his supervisors. She said that he worked with leadership to address those concerns, and that CMS is committed to training its staff members in cultural awareness and sensitivity. CMS said that the district had no record of disciplinary action taken as a result of the incident.
“The district supports any staff members’ decision to bring items of concern to immediate leadership to adequately address reported concerns,” McCoy wrote in an email.
RACE AND ARDREY KELL
Switzer has been the principal at Ardrey Kell since 2010. In his decade leading the school, he has been widely praised for managing one of the state’s largest high schools and juggling the pressures of overcrowding in south Charlotte.
He was named Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools principal of the year for the 2013-2014 school year, and was recognized nationally in 2017 when he earned an Excellence in Educational Leadership Award from the University Council for Educational Administration.
Ardrey Kell has consistently ranked among the top schools in the district, scoring well above average on end-of-year testing. Under Switzer, Ardrey Kell’s graduation rate climbed steadily and the school has excelled in performance metrics. But in recent years, Ardrey Kell students have been involved in a number of racial incidents targeting black students.
Roughly 53 percent of Ardrey Kell’s student body is white, while 12 percent are black. About 22 percent of students are Asian and 10 percent are Hispanic.
The district as a whole is made up of approximately 27 percent white students, 36 percent black students, and 27 percent Hispanic students, according to CMS data.
In November, a white athlete sent her black teammate a picture of the girl next to a monkey and a message on Snapchat saying, “U look interesting.”
The same student had previously made a similar comment to another black teammate, The Observer reported. The student was disciplined, but officials did not provide specifics.
In March 2019, a white Ardrey Kell boys basketball player used a racial slur in a Snapchat post before the school’s playoff game against West Charlotte High School, which is predominantly black.
The post included a message of violence and referred to playing “in the hood.” It was captured and shared across social media, the Observer previously reported. The student was not allowed to play in the the playoff game against West Charlotte, though he returned for offseason summer camps and was on the team again this year.
In 2017, during a football game against Hough High School, Ardrey Kell students yelled racial threats at a black middle school student visiting from Community House Middle School, which feeds into Ardrey Kell, the Observer previously reported.
“Black boy, you better watch your back! Black boy, you better keep your head on a swivel,” some of the students chanted.
John Cash, an Ardrey Kell parent who is involved with the school leadership team, said that he had not heard about Switzer’s comment and while he found it antiquated, he did not take offense to it.
“I don’t see him as being insensitive to diversity,” said Cash, who is black. “It could have been a slip of the tongue. I’ve known him for four years and he has high character.”
Cash said he was an advocate for CMS and appreciated the school and district’s leadership. Still, Cash said he spoke to his daughter after the West Charlotte basketball incident and asked her if she felt intimidated or uncomfortable at school. He was taken aback when she said that what happened did not surprise her, and that the athlete was just the first to get caught.
Switzer said that Ardrey Kell has been facing discussions of race “head-on,” and that it was a top priority for the school. Ardrey Kell is not unique among American schools for struggling with racial issues, though recent incidents have received heightened publicity, Switzer said, adding that “our work is never done.”
On the recording, Switzer said that many of CMS’s cultural proficiency efforts are “causing more gaps than making things better because it is constantly a white black issue.”
When asked what he meant by that, Switzer told The Observer that he was sharing feedback he had heard from Asian and Indian teachers who told him they did not get much out of the training that focused on race as a binary issue.
A teacher can be heard telling Switzer that while the issues may not be “a black and white thing,” the recent incidents at Ardrey Kell have all involved black students being targeted, according to the audio. The teacher said that though he has not yet taught his first class, school alumni have already told him to be prepared for black students seeking him out for advice.
“I just think naturally AK is in a racially charged space right now,” he said.
“Or, America,” Switzer responds.
“Yeah, America,” the teacher said, pausing before going on to say that he came from a school where the staff was predominantly black and did not need to have the same conversations about race. “But I just feel like at AK, (those conversations) would have to be more intentional in order for it to happen.”