Christy Johnson, the mother of two children in Lee County elementary schools, did what she thought any self-respecting Black parent should do when faced with perceived acts of discrimination against her children. She filed a complaint with the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in the U. S. Department of Education.
The OCR investigators found that Johnson had justice on her side. She had complained that her daughter in kindergarten with a disability had been left to contend with conditions in the Lee County School System without the Individual Education Plan (IEP) required by the Department of Education under the Disabilities Act of 1990.
After her family’s home in the county area was damaged, Johnson moved temporarily to an apartment in Tupelo while her primary residence was under repair. The Lee County School District notified her that her children were not to be re-enrolled in the LCSD system. Although the city of Tupelo is the seat of Lee County, it has a separate school district from that of the county.
“I have two kids in that district, one in fifth and the other in eighth grade,” she says. “They both got put out, but only my fifth-grade daughter has a disability. She’s the one I was trying to advocate for and get her help. I had reached out to the district about acquiring a 504 IEP for her so that she could have accommodations for her condition and enable her learning.”
Johnson has complained mostly of the treatment she received at the hands of Dr. Megan Cates, principal of Mooreville Elementary, and District Superintendent Coke Magee.
Cates, in her job as principal of Mooreville Elementary School on Jan. 9, 2022, was named Administrator of the Year for the district by Superintendent Coke Magee.
What irks Christy Johnson most is that Cates was also in the running for statewide Administrator of the Year based on the nomination of Magee, although Cates was, in Johnson’s opinion, a major source of the problem she faced with her daughter.
“I’m trying to bring awareness to the treatment of Black students in that district and parents and their concerns versus that of white families in the district. And I want to show how the superintendent is dismissive of Black parents’ concerns, and how they want to keep their predominantly white schools white and to keep their predominantly Black schools Black.
“I grew up in that district,” Johnson says. “My family has lived there for more than 40 years. My eight siblings and I graduated from there.”
Johnson, 41, is the mother of four. The youngest is in first grade and the eldest child is 21 and has finished school. She complains that her two middle children were denied access to the LCSD services. And she filed a formal complaint about a white family from outside the district that was allowed to enroll their children in an LCSD school.
Johnson’s daughter was in the fifth grade and required medication to get through the school day. And she was already taking the maximum level of medication allowed for a child her age, her mother said.
“Her neurologist said that the school would need to accommodate her. Since she was already taking the maximum amount of medication, I needed to talk to the school district about it. But when I contacted Principal Cates, she told me my daughter did not qualify for an IEP and she denied her.
“I have an apartment inside the Tupelo School District,” Johnson said. “So, we put the kids into that school district. I said if that was the Lee County School District’s determination, then I’d have to accept it for what it was, although I felt it was retaliation.”
On March 2, 2022, the OCR sent a letter to Johnson saying her complaint against the district had been resolved.
“This is to notify you that the … Office for Civil Rights (OCR), Dallas Office, has resolved the above-referenced complaint that you filed against the Lee County School District (LCSD) in Tupelo, Mississippi. You alleged that during the Fall 2020 semester, the LCSD discriminated against your daughters on the basis of disability (traumatic brain injury) and race (Black). You also alleged retaliation.”
The letter also informs Johnson that the district volunteered to sign on to a Resolution Agreement with OCR that pretty much confirms the issues that she had complained of.
“Prior to the conclusion of OCR’s investigation, LCSD expressed an interest in voluntarily resolving this complaint,” the OCR letter reads. “OCR has determined the provisions of the Agreement are aligned with the complaint allegations and when fully implemented will resolve the issues in this complaint.
“In light of the commitments the LCSD has made in the Agreement, OCR finds that the complaint is resolved as of the date of this letter (2/28/2022). OCR will monitor the LCSD’s implementation of the Agreement to ensure that the commitments made are implemented timely and effectively. OCR may request additional information as necessary to determine whether the LCSD has fulfilled the terms of the Agreement and follows Section 504, Title II, and Title VI with regard to the issues raised.”
The Agreement, as explained by OCR, infers that Johnson is free to re-enroll her two children in the LCSD. The school district has neither confirmed nor denied this conclusion.
The Lee County superintendent’s office has not responded to a number of calls made by the Jackson Advocate Monday and Tuesday of the current week.
OCR notified Johnson on March 2 that the Lee County School District had entered into a Resolution Agreement to comply with Section 504 under Title II of the American With Disabilities Act of 1990.
While OCR does not monitor each Individualized Educational Program (IEP) devised for students within a district that receives federal funds of any kind, it has the responsibility and authority to require a school district to have such a program for students with disabilities.
OCR does not engage in formal mediation. However, OCR may offer to facilitate mediation, referred to as “Early Complaint Resolution,” to resolve a complaint filed under Section 504. This approach brings the parties together so that they may discuss possible resolution of the complaint immediately. If both parties are willing to utilize this approach, OCR will work with the parties to facilitate resolution by providing each an understanding of pertinent legal standards and possible remedies. An agreement reached between the parties is not monitored by OCR.
“The 504 IEP is supposed to be offered by all schools as part of their Special Education program,” Johnson said. “Normally, when a parent comes out of a district that does it right, when you request it, they aren’t supposed to just tell you by word of mouth, they’re supposed to actually evaluate your child and to test your child. I didn’t know that part. I was asking to speak to someone else in the system, because I knew my daughter had been seen by a lot of specialists. And she was getting a lot of help prior to moving to this state.
“I didn’t understand why the Lee County superintendent wouldn’t take control of the situation instead of leaving it up to the principal. They were just telling me ‘no’ by mouth, and not actually following the procedures they were supposed to.
“When they told me ‘no,’ they were also supposed to provide me with procedural safeguards and tell me my rights as a parent. There is a process that you go through that doesn’t leave the final decision up to school authorities. But I was never given that information.”
A lot of money has been poured into the school district, Johnson says.
“Toyota is a good partner in the community,” she says. “A lot of the school district’s business partners have shown their dedication to diversity and inclusion in the community and city. But that’s not what the Lee County School District is doing. The district needs to transform itself. They need to take Black parents and student concerns seriously. They need to treat them according to the standards set by the government and experts in the field of education.
“I want to see changes made. And if this superintendent can’t equalize conditions for all within his district, he needs to either resign or be fired. It’s just not fair to the community for him and the district to be only focused on providing education for the predominantly white schools.”
The Lee County School District contains 13 schools and 6,300 students altogether. Campuses are located in Belden, Guntown, Mooreville, Plantersville, Saltillo, Shannon, Tupelo, and Verona, according to the superintendent’s office.
The schools, school staff, and students fall along an unacknowledged, but very obvious, north-south racial divide, however. The better-staffed and financed schools of the north are predominantly white. Those to the south of the invisible line, experiencing a less assured day-to-day routine, are mostly Black.
Christy Johnson has a popular Facebook page that focuses on Lee County issues. Look her up at the hashtag #christyjohnsonspeaks.