JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — A school meeting that was supposed to focus on diversity and inclusion was billed as segregated, separating students of color from their white peers. It drew so much criticism in a matter of hours that administrators were forced to cancel.
It all started Tuesday evening when Douglas Anderson School of the Arts Principal Melanie Hammer sent an email to the school's families with the subject line: Student Cultural Meetings.
The email, which was sent to the Times-Union by multiple frustrated families, said the school would be hosting two meetings to discuss "cultural issues that have arisen" on campus and to "ensure that DA truly is a place for all."
The meetings were scheduled for Thursday for high school juniors and seniors, with the first timeslot reserved for students of color and the second for white students.
It didn't take long for the email to spread.
On social media and on the news, critics called out the hypocrisy of trying to push inclusion and healing while separating students by race. So much so, Principal Hammer sent a follow-up email to families that same night.
"Our diversity consultant is hosting two meetings in hopes of creating a safe space to allow students to be transparent about their experiences at DA," Hammer wrote. "This is just the first step in the process. Our consultant will continue to work closely with DA students bringing everyone together for our common goal."
Still, the damage was done.
By 11 p.m., Hammer sent out a third email apologizing for how the meeting was originally communicated and — per the school district's advice — announcing its cancelation.
"District staff have been very involved with Douglas Anderson, and together with students, they have taken many positive steps at the school," spokesman Tracy Pierce said in a statement to the Times-Union. "Last evening, when district leaders became aware of what was communicated, we took the step of deciding that the event as planned could not go on."
In Hammer's third email, she wrote, "We now realize that the communication around the event and the manner in which the event itself was organized are contrary to our values and to the goals we have for improving our culture."
"Therefore," she continued, "we are revisiting our approach with our consultants and will develop a new strategy for leading our students through these sensitive topics and conversations. The events scheduled for Thursday are being canceled while we reconsider our approach."
How did this happen?
According to Hammer, the meetings were going to be run by third-party diversity consultants, Tammy Hodo, who runs a local educational consulting company that focuses on diversity, equity and inclusion and Ulysses Owens, a musician, Douglas Anderson Artist in Residence and alumnus. Hodo is biracial and Owens is Black.
The point of the separate meetings was to give students of color a safe space to air grievances and not feel like they need to educate their white peers about their struggles.
This is a tactic that has been used in educational settings before.
At the beginning of this school year, Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton hosted a series of diversity discussions that were also separated by race. While initially criticized by students, administrators said the rationale was to provide a safe environment for candid feedback.
Chris Janson, Director of the University of North Florida's Center for Urban Education and Policy called the practice "common to antiracist programming and education."
Still, the criticism was swift.
"I believe the message was lost in translation," Hodo told the Times-Union Wednesday morning. "The point was to create a safe space to allow honest dialogue and transparency."
Hodo says after concerns were heard at both meetings, the plan was always to bring both groups together.
According to Hammer, the point of the meetings was to serve as an introductory session to help bring the school community together, following "cultural issues that have arisen" on campus.
Last school year, Douglas Anderson was one of several Duval County schools that faced a racial reckoning steered by current students and alumni for allegations of systemic racism on campus.
Alumni Jade Collins and Madison Kiernan collected dozens of testimonials from students about examples of racism and microaggressions experienced on campus and turned them into Hammer.
The statements included accounts of a student at the performing arts school being cast in a play as a slave and criticisms that shows didn’t feature Black main characters.
Hammer promised Collins and Kiernan that change was coming. The school implemented a new curriculum to embrace diversity this school year — including theater of color, African American studies and gospel choir classes.
"If last year taught us anything it is that we still have a lot of work to do regarding race relations as a nation and a school," Hammer said.
These tensions aren't new.
"It has been tense for a while now," said Auggie Pulliam, a junior at the school who is Black. "Students have started to express concerns as of late because of comments from the student body."
Pulliam and other students tried to express their concerns through an email to school administrators detailing grievances as well as short and long term goals for the school.
The Times-Union obtained a copy of the email students sent last month.
Listed issues included that Douglas Anderson is "exclusive" and "unknowingly hurts Black and Brown communities," that the school disproportionately punishes Black and brown students, that students of color are often silenced, that racial slurs are said freely, that there is a lack of diversity in both staff and students and more.
The students demanded the school acknowledge its failures, that it establish a Black Student Union, that it starts a monthly town hall series, start engaging more with local Black communities and more.
Independently, the school hired Hodo and Owens to help with reparations. Hodo's work started over the summer, she says, when she led faculty courses on diversity, equity and inclusion.
The school's Culture Updates newsletter discussed partnering with Hodo and Owens as part of its plan to work on diversity issues. Other announcements included the forming of a culture advisory group, student advisory groups, a strategic diversity plan and a teacher book club that kicked off with the reading "Why Do All the Black Kids Sit Together in the Cafeteria."
Owens told the Times-Union he joined the school's efforts because he understood how it felt to be a Black male student on campus — particularly in the performing arts department, which he says faces an added layer of racial tension. He and Principal Hammer conducted internal audits.
"We heard issues department by department, from students not feeling like they're being appreciated, to students being overlooked, to gender disparity issues," he said. "I also pointed out the lack of representation with faculty and staff."
Over the summer, the school's staff became more diverse, Owens said. Still, there were problems.
"We changed all this stuff and then starting early this year, we had issues with white students throwing racial slurs at some of the Black students," he said. "Though we had changed all this stuff, students were still saying 'yo students are still calling me the n-word,' and that's not ok."
Owens said the decision to separate meetings by race was to give "both sides of the party the chance to be heard," with the ultimate goal of having a "unity meeting" with everyone at the end.
"Students felt that they had not been heard," Owens said. "White students said they felt villanized, that not all of them are racist and many are allies."
Owens said that while the messaging could have been different, at the end of the day people would still be upset.
"The messaging could have been different but to be honest, the fact that we wanted to separate the students and hear them, we could have sung the message and they still would have been upset," he said. "The truth is, we need to teach students how to protest, how to disagree, how to be. They're upset and wanting to be heard. it's an emotional fest right now."
Students like Pulliam disagree with the approach.
"I think that the meeting they scheduled for Thursday was an attempt at fulfilling our [the students'] needs," he said, "but due to the lack of consultation of Black students, it missed the mark completely."
Former Douglas Anderson students like Nicole Hamm, who gained local notoriety when she ran for City Council last year, say racism on campus isn't a new issue.
What's changed, Hamm says, is the students' volume as they push for change.
Districtwide, Duval Schools has witnessed prominent, student-led campaigns. Just last month, high school students across Jacksonville pushed for Black History to be better integrated into school curriculum.
Hamm said her phone started blowing up Tuesday night with Douglas Anderson alumni group chats criticizing the way the school handled announcing its diversity meetings.
"I just want the school to get back to listening to the students," Hamm said Wednesday. "And the staff themselves need to do an evaluation on how they support and work through these issues."
Hamm hope this series of events doesn't lead to a loss of diversity and skill at the arts school.
"It's messy work but so necessary for these kids," Hamm said. "I'd hate to lose talent because they feel unsupported or unheard."
Tiffany Clark, a Douglas Anderson parent who is Black, said watching her daughter navigate her way through protests, meetings and misunderstandings on campus has been "exhausting."
She said the racial divide on campus is palpable — "it's as real as the air we breathe" —and criticized Principal Hammer's series of emails, calling them poorly written and distressing for Black families.
"All I saw was COLORED, WHITE and SEPARATE," Clark said in a Tweet about the incident. She added that the school district should have reviewed the email before it was sent to families.
Clark told the Times-Union she takes issue with how Douglas Anderson opted to host separate meetings in response to the students' request for direct conversation with administration. She called the approach indirect.
"With good intentions, they are passing on the responsibility to address the racial divide at DA to others," she said.
"Douglas Anderson School of the Arts has a long road to achieving racial reconciliation," Clark added. "The bridge on campus that divides our black students, our administration and even our parents has been paved by men and women that refuse to believe race is a problem at DA."
Duval Schools released a statement Wednesday morning in response to Tuesday evening's events.
“We recently became aware of this communication and this event, and we are equally dismayed," the district said. "The Thursday event is being canceled, and we will be assisting the consultants and the school with a more appropriate plan going forward.”
Principal Hammer also apologized to families through a phone call Wednesday morning and to faculty and students Wednesday afternoon over the school's intercom.
"In collaboration with and on behalf of our consultants and our school, we apologize for the lack of clarity with which this was originally communicated and that our path forward was not more thoughtfully considered," Hammer said in a voicemail obtained by the Times-Union. "Our commitment to this work with our students and our staff remains steadfast and I will provide additional information as we revise our plan consistent with our goal of providing a safe space so all students feel comfortable sharing their voices with their peers and with school leaders."
But voices behind the scenes, like Owens, are frustrated with all the backlash.
"What's unfortunate is Ms. Hammer is one of the few principals taking this fight on when she doesn't have to," he said. "It's unfortunate that messaging is calling her work to be seen in vain. This is a woman who is fighting but seeing backlash daily. As a Black man who has been in white spaces for many years, to see this woman literally there trying to have meetings — this is somebody that's committed to the work."
Hammer could not be reached for comment. Wednesday, she sent another email to families.
"From the bottom of my heart, I want to apologize," she said. "I look around this school, and I can see the hurt and pain. I truly don’t know what to say except I care deeply about each and every one of you, and the experience you have at DA. And you each deserve to have the best possible high school experience. I remain 100 percent dedicated to working together with you to improve the racial and cultural experience of our school."
"We are fractured, but we are family," she closed. "The work is hard, and I have made mistakes, but I love each of you. I do hope you forgive me, and we continue strengthening our family together."
Thursday, in lieu of the diversity meeting series, Owens says the school's student advisory committee plans to meet.
"They still want to talk," he said. "The reality is there are students who still want tot know what to do and want to know how to navigate their feelings. We went from trying to get a solution and having a plan, to having no solution and no plan. We've been doing this work for almost a year now and that's all getting undercut by this messaging."