Sep 25, 2023 - Education

Cobb schools unresponsive to issues important to students, parents say

CCSD students speak against book bans

Cobb student Haya Fatmi speaks during the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition's press conference before the Sept. 14 Cobb County Board of Education meeting. Credit: Kristal Dixon/Axios

In 2020, several students in Cobb County began an effort to rename Wheeler High School, which opened in 1965 and was christened after Confederate General Joseph Wheeler.

  • The students spoke at Board of Education meetings and even conducted research on the history of the school's naming and Wheeler's background.
  • Their requests were not taken up by district officials, as well as the Republican majority of the school board.

Flash-forward: Last month, the outside conservative activist organization Libs of TikTok emailed the district asking if two "pornographic books" in school libraries were "appropriate" for students.

  • The district responded to the group's email and within days, removed both books from nearly two dozen school libraries.

Why it matters: The speed at which Cobb schools responded to the request of an outside group has some parents wondering why the district remains slow to address issues brought forth by local students and parents.

State of play: A majority of Cobb County voters since 2016 have backed Democratic presidential candidates, and since 2020, nearly all countywide elected positions have flipped from Republican to Democratic control.

  • The Cobb school board is the only Republican-controlled elected body in the county.
  • The request to change Wheeler High School's name will most likely not be considered, at least not while it remains under Republican control.

What they're saying: Zoe Shepard, a Spelman College student who graduated from Wheeler High School in 2022 and was among the students who pushed for the name change, told Axios that the school board appears to be more concerned about banning books and firing teachers than addressing issues like literacy rates.

  • "I think it's because there's a lack of accountability," said Shepard, who has a sibling still enrolled in the district. "There's a lack of care for constituents… who don't have particular views."

Parent Melissa Marten, whose children attend a Cobb elementary and middle school, told Axios that the district's actions weren't surprising "because it's just additional examples of the recklessness and harm our district seems to stand for and the complete lack of regard for responding to parent and community member concerns."

  • "To completely ignore student demands – students that take a brave step in addressing this district and board in public in front of a lot of people – is just completely unacceptable," she said.

The other side: The district told Axios in a statement that there's a difference between "not being heard and disagreeing with a decision made by the district."

  • "Everyone in Cobb is heard, including a vocal minority of political activists who disagree with our decision to keep sexually explicit content out of schools and have been attempting to flip the political majority on our board for years," the statement said.
  • "We will continue to keep our schools focused on academic excellence, not political games."

Yes, and: Superintendent Chris Ragsdale said in a lengthy speech during the board's Sept. 14 meeting that the district is not banning books because of particular viewpoints, and its media centers will include books "from a multitude of perspectives, cultures, and experiences."

  • "Our students will continue to be exposed to a vast array of diversity experiences, backgrounds, attitudes, and beliefs," he said, adding that it was his "professional and moral obligation to protect Cobb's students from being exposed to vulgar, lewd, sexually explicit, obscene, and pornographic materials."

The big picture: Cobb students, parents and stakeholders for years have come to the Board of Education, asking the district to address a wide variety of issues such as racism, questionable spending practices and antisemitism.

  • While the school board did pass a resolution condemning antisemitism in 2021, its members, who were majority white at the time, failed to collectively agree on a separate stance against racism a year earlier.

The bottom line: Michael Garza, who has a daughter enrolled in the district, told Axios that Cobb is rapidly changing from a Republican stronghold to a county whose voter base is more demographically and politically diverse.

  • "We deserve to be listened to, the students deserve to be listened to, and at least hear what we're saying," he said. "And know that you're actually taking that into account whenever you're making decisions, and that's just not what's happening."
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