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A racially hateful text message sent last spring by the white football coach/dean of students at Dumas New Tech High School to the black parent of a football player was a topic of discussion at Thursday's state Board of Education meeting.

Education Board member Fitz Hill of Little Rock told his board colleagues and the Elementary and Secondary Education Division staff that state leaders need to take action in both the short and long terms to defuse what a Dumas pastor told the board Thursday was a "time bomb."

The Rev. Johnny Smith addressed the Education Board during a public comment portion of the meeting, asking that the state provide options to Dumas students and parents who want to participate in sports but not under the direction of the coach, who has been identified by Smith and in earlier news accounts as Max Pennington.

Smith also asked for options for families who do not want their students to have to interact at school with the coach, who is also the dean of students.

At the end of May, Pennington sent a parent a text saying "I hate" and used a racially derogatory term, Smith told the Education Board. Pennington followed that up some 11 minutes later, Smith said, with a second text to the parent saying, "Oh my God, I meant beggars."

Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key told the Education Board on Thursday that he was contacted by several people about the text in recent weeks and that the matter has been referred to the state's Professional Licensure Standards Board for a possible investigation by that group's Ethics Subcommittee.

That subcommittee investigates alleged violations of the state's code of ethics for teachers and administrators and, based on the investigation results, makes recommendations to the state Education Board on penalties to be levied for any violations.

The subcommittee does not publicly disclose ethics complaints submitted to it nor does it publicly confirm the investigations and hearings it conducts. However, the subcommittee's recommendations for any penalties against an educator for an ethics violation are made public when they are forwarded to the state Board of Education for final action by the state board.

The recommended penalties -- which can be accepted, rejected or modified by the state Education Board -- include warnings, reprimands, monetary fines, probation, suspension or revocation of an educator's state teaching license.

Educators with suspended or revoked licenses cannot continue to work in a public school.

The Education Board acts every month on recommendations from the subcommittee.

Additionally, Key said Thursday that the Elementary and Secondary Education Division's Equity Assistance Center staff offered to provide help to the Dumas district in regard to the matter. And Key said he has personally called Dumas Superintendent Kelvin Gragg to offer state support.

"The equity assistance unit called the superintendent and had a discussion with him," Key said. "We don't force ourselves on them. This is not an investigative unit. This is an assistance unit."

Key said that Education agency help was not initially accepted by the district leaders who felt there wasn't much that could be done.

Smith told the board that Gragg's recommendation to his School Board against rehiring Pennington was modified by the local board to a 100-day job suspension for Pennington, and a requirement to undergo cultural sensitivity training and a public apology. Smith said the dates for the suspension are not known as Pennington has done some work in the summer.

A phone message and an email to Gragg and an email message to Pennington were not returned Thursday evening.

Education Board member Ouida Newton urged Key to reach out again to Gragg.

Education Board member Hill questioned Smith about the preferences of the high school families, including possible waivers of Arkansas Activities Association rules that require athletes who transfer to a new district not to participate in the sport for a school year.

Smith said options are needed but he also said the issue is dividing families whose student-athletes don't want to interrupt or jeopardize career dreams by transferring to another school. He also said that finances are an issue as some families can afford to make transfers to other districts to avoid interacting with Pennington but there are others who cannot afford any expenses associated with a transfer.

Smith also noted to the board that the 312-student high school that has a largely black student population has a predominantly white administrative leadership team.

Hill told the Education Board and agency staff members that student learning occurs through relationships and that state and local leaders must be innovative to resolve a situation in Dumas that "I'm pretty sure is not going to get better by itself."

Hill told Smith that that the issue is a hard one and everyone must try to learn from it as they work through it.

Key told the Education Board that the state agency leaders and the state board can respond to the matter in different ways.

"This is one of those areas where the law says what the [agency] can do but then you have the board -- and the general authority of what you can do collectively or individually. I think part of that is to shine the light on inequities or other issues that are interfering with the delivery of education to our students in the state of Arkansas," Key said.

He noted that he and board members have mutual acquaintances and colleagues in Dumas who could advance shining the light on the problems and shaping conversations going forward in that community.

Metro on 08/09/2019

Print Headline: Fallout of high school football coach's text aired to state board; parent of player said to get racially offensive message

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