D.C. Public Schools is currently investigating an incident of verbal harassment directed at the 6-year-old grandson of social activist and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, who was verbally threatened at his elementary school. The incident led the professor to initiate a larger discussion on race relations in the United States.
A first grade student initiated a verbal altercation and used racial slurs against Dyson’s grandson, Maxem Dyson, at Horace Mann Elementary School, according to Dyson. The student threatened to acquire a gun from home and shoot Maxem and another classmate, according to a Metropolitan Police Department incident report.
“A young white student called my grandson a b—h and then he called him n—–r and then after delivering such vicious epithets, he threatened to go to his home, retrieve his father’s gun and come back to the school and shoot him,” Dyson said in an interview with The Hoya.
Dyson’s son and Maxem’s father, Mwata Dyson, notified professor Dyson about the altercation at approximately 2 p.m after hearing about the incident. Dyson and his wife decided to meet their son at the school to address the incident with Horace Mann Principal Elizabeth Whisnant later that afternoon, according to Dyson.
Whisnant told MPD Officer Cody Coleman that the altercation came after one of the three students involved cut the lunch line, according to the incident report.
Dyson is a sociology and affiliate African American studies professor at Georgetown. Dyson has written 17 books, including multiple publications about racial politics in the United States such as “What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America.” He is also a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, has appeared on television shows like the “Today” show and “Real Time With Bill Maher” and serves as a political analyst for MSNBC.
In the meeting with Whisnant, Dyson expressed concerns that white privilege influenced the handling of the altercation by school officials, according to Dyson.
“I said, ‘The fact that this young man hasn’t been you know at least extracted from school and seen by an officer of the law is a reflection of some kind of white privilege, because if it had been a black kid, threatening to go home and get a gun to kill and to return to kill his classmates, I don’t think he’d be in school right now,” Dyson said.
During the 2017-18 school year, 66% of the Horace Mann student body was white, 12% was black, 12% was hispanic or latino, 7% was asian and 3% was of multiple races, according to the DCPS website. Dyson also communicated to Whisnant in an email that racial slurs were used in threats against his grandson, according to the professor.
Whisnant, however, said the incident did not include any racial or ethnic slurs, in an April 30 email to the Horace Mann community.
“It is true that harmful language was used today in school,” Whisnant wrote in an email obtained by The Hoya. “The incident did not include any language about race or ethnicity.”
While Whisnant did not respond to multiple requests for comment, a representative from DCPS confirmed she had received emails from The Hoya and directed us to DCPS for comment.
Dyson sent an email with the subject line: “unfortunate email” to Whisnant later that night disputing Wishant’s original message to the university, according to the email obtained by The Hoya.
“We even said today in your office that the “N” word was used — my son, me and his mother all said so,” Dyson’s email to Whisnant’s email said. “Perhaps amidst the hullabaloo you missed that, but we calmly indicated it to you. To state in bold letters that no such incident took place is doubly injurious to Max, and re-victimizes him and us.”
After Whisnant’s original email to the community, Instructional Superintendent of Horace Mann Janice Harris sent a separate email to the Horace Mann community May 1.
Harris specifically states in the email that it is unclear to Washington, D.C., whether racial language was used in the incident and the exact details are still under investigation by DCPS.
“At this time, we cannot affirm with confidence that no racial slur was used, and an investigation has been launched,” Harris wrote in her email to the community.
After hearing about the incident, one Horace Mann parent pulled her daughter, who is in Maxem’s class, from school for five days out of concern for her daughter’s safety after the incident. Whisnant indicated she would excuse the absences in a May 1 email obtained by The Hoya.
An investigation into the investigation was opened by the D.C. Public Schools Comprehensive Alternative Resolution and Equity Team, an organization responsible for resolving discrimination claims in DCPS. DCPS will work with the Horace Mann community to address the incident and provide resources for affected students, according to DCPS officials.
“DCPS’ Office of Equity is in contact with the school to implement restorative and trauma-informed practices to support the school community in response to the incident,” DCPS officials wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Maxem has not been contacted by the school for meetings or counseling since April 30, though he has returned to school after taking a day off after the incident, according to Dyson.
“My son says besides meeting the day of the incident with Max, the school has not had any follow up meeting or support or counseling with him,” Dyson said. “Disappointing in the extreme.”
After the incident, Dyson posted a series of tweets detailing his side of the interaction with the school in a series of written posts and videos. Dyson wrote that while the incident ended in favor of his grandson, many similar situations have had negative outcomes for families and welcomed stories and concerns from his Twitter followers who experienced similar problems.
On social media and in media interviews, Dyson has also argued that the incident speaks to the larger issue of racial oppression in the United States and offered advice to parents and families of students of color navigating problems in school administrations.
The young child’s alleged use of a racial slur speaks to a broader environment of bigotry, Dyson said in an interview with FOX 5 D.C.
“Unfortunately this represents for us the deep and abiding roots of white supremacy that are set loose in this country,” Dyson said. “How can a 6-year-old kid know to call his classmate the N-word?”
This article was updated May 15th with statistics on the racial demographics of Horace Mann Elementary School.