JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Two recent graduates of a prestigious Jacksonville magnet school have released the testimony of dozens of students who say they experienced racism and other inappropriate behavior at Douglas Anderson School of Arts, a school named after a local black civil rights activist.
Following nationwide protests that called for justice after the police killing of George Floyd – recent graduates of the arts program Jade Collins, 19, and Madison Kiernan, 20, wrote separate posts asking classmates to comment or message experiences of racism within the school.
The response was dozens of people, current students and alumni, writing about being discriminated in the casting of musicals and plays put on by the school, microaggressions and other alleged inappropriate behavior by both school officials and students.
“We were both kind of separate entities saying give me your story at DA, because we both had been witnesses to things that happen,” said Jade Collins, a black former student.
The post published by Kiernan, a white former student at the school, had almost immediately caught the attention of the school’s principal Melanie Hammer.
“I was very surprised. I just didn’t think it would happen that fast,” said Kiernan.
Hammer asked if Kiernan would like to talk things over on a Zoom call. Kiernan invited her former classmate who had also solicited experiences of students of color to join the call.
“The call I recorded it. It did not go terrific,” said Kiernan. “It was a lot of when students come back there will be a change. But when we pressed to see what that change would be, she said we can’t tell you at the moment.”
About 30 minutes before the call, Kiernan and Collins sent a Google folder with all the testimony collected since their post. The list was unredacted and mentioned the names of students and faculty at the school. The Google Drive sent also contained text conversations allegedly showing students using the n-word and a screenshot of a student in blackface.
The principal told both young women she had read every word they sent.
In an email later sent to students, Hammer wrote: “These past few weeks have reminded me that we do not live in a perfect world. This forces me to reflect on the fact that DA has room for growth. More importantly, I acknowledge the pain and frustration with the ways in which some students feel that we at DA have missed the mark of creating an inclusive environment that bridges the difference among all people.”
Hammer said the school will create a Student Culture Advisory group to help improve the culture at Douglas Anderson.
“I am looking for students who want to partner with me to create an environment of equity and inclusivity. This group of students will serve as advisors and leaders in the work we must do to move our school forward and live up to our beliefs of bridging differences among people,” Hammer wrote.
Collins wasn’t sold on the idea.
“One of the students sent me her statement which is an idea to create a student culture council where they meet once a week, once a month with the principal to talk about I don’t know racial injustices. I thought that was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Why is it the student’s job to protect themselves? Why is it their job to make sure that their environment is safe?” said Collins.
It was then – that both young women – decided to post the document sharing the experiences of alums and students at Douglas Anderson to Instagram, and eventually Facebook.
The stories add to the growing trend of students and alumni in Jacksonville and across the nation who are calling attention to racism in their schools as protests demanding social justice flood the streets.
“I’ve been out of DA for a year now. I’ve just been able to think about the insane stories that I’d heard from people, the insane things I witnessed I’ve been a part of and how easily we could all laugh them off going there,” Collins told News4Jax. “But I’m telling different people who I now go to school with and I’m realizing how incredibly insane and wrong a lot of those things were.”
Collins, a first-year student at the University of Central Florida, shared the stories with News4Jax. The 11-pages of posts are anonymous, so News4Jax can’t independently verify the comments or who is behind the post.
“The only ‘black’ show that was done in my 4 years there was at a whole different theatre because the ‘language’ but we did at least two shows in my time there were black people were cast as slaves,” one of the testimonials reads.
“Our senior year I noticed a particular person started to openly say the N word and she was not a person of color. Then she posted a picture of her with a black child from Africa on social media and her comment was along the lines of ‘I’m not a racist because I’ve been in several mission trips and I don’t see how people could have that much hate,‘” another post reads.
“Douglas Anderson was originally a black school NO one acknowledges that nor do they appreciate it and instead throw it under the rug,” another post reads. “They tell us to audition in the theater department only for us to be turned down year after year show after show...let’s not forget that we only have ONE African American teacher...”
Other testimonials call out staff at the school, but their names were redacted by Collins and Kiernan.
Both the Duval County Public School District and school leaders said they are aware of the posts.
“Yes, I am aware of these concerns, and it absolutely breaks my heart,” Principal Melanie Hammer wrote in a statement to News4Jax.
Douglas Anderson School of the Arts was established in 1922 and was originally named the South Jacksonville School. According to the school’s website, at the time, it was the only school on the city’s Southside serving black students. After he died in 1936 at the age of 52, the school was renamed to honor Douglas Anderson, a black civil rights activist who helped acquire land and build the original building. He was best known for his efforts to provide transportation for black students, operating the only bus service for them in Duval County.
“DA was an all-black school. That curriculum doesn’t show it. The student body doesn’t really reflect that,” Kiernan said. “The curriculum does not reflect that, the show’s chosen do not reflect that, and the faculty do not reflect that. I think it’s time for more diversity in faculty, more diversity in curriculum and more diversity in a season. It was needed yesterday, but today works.”
On Wednesday, News4Jax reported that students and alumni of color are also posting about their experiences with racism at three elite private schools in the Jacksonville area including The Bolles School, Bishop Kenny and Episcopal.
“We’ve spoken to the superintendent and change is happening, but there’s still so much more that needs to be done,” Kiernan wrote on Facebook. “To those that shared their stories with us, thank you. To them and to the countless others who walked away from Douglas Anderson School of the Arts with trauma of the racism they experienced, we promise that change is coming. DA will, and MUST, be reformed.”