Fighting for Brayden: Federal officials investigate alleged racial discrimination in Talladega County Schools

Alabama News

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Lately, Brayden Wilson has not been himself.

A 7th grader at B.B. Comer Memorial High in Talladega County, Brayden has always been an eager student.

Now, though, he sometimes dreads even going to school.

Brayden is the subject of what his family claims is illegal racial discrimination by Talladega County Schools and a mathematics teacher at B.B. Comer. Federal education officials have confirmed they are investigating the family’s allegations and whether the school system’s actions violated the Civil Rights Act.

Brayden’s father, Dr. Jeffrey D. Wilson, said his concerns began when his son said he wasn’t learning much in his math class.

“He was frustrated because he wasn’t getting any information,” Wilson said. “So we reached out to the teacher.”

Brayden has always been a high achiever in the classroom. A dedicated learner with his sights set on Harvard, he has won his school spelling bee year after year. So the Wilsons want Brayden to be challenged.

Wilson’s wife, who is also a teacher at the adjacent elementary school, requested a conference with Brayden’s math instructor. The same day, the Wilsons said the teacher confronted the 12-year-old in the lunchroom in front of other students “in a hostile manner” demanding to know why Brayden’s parents had requested a meeting.

The math teacher had that conference with Brayden’s parents on Sept. 14 during which they expressed their concerns. Before the conference, Wilson and his wife checked Brayden’s grades in the class online — All As, as usual. Within an hour of the conference’s conclusion, though, two of Brayden’s assignment grades were changed — from As to Fs.

Concerned, Brayden’s parents returned to B.B. Comer the next day. Jeffrey Wilson said when he left his son’s school, he was followed from B.B. Comer to his own driveway by four law enforcement officers.

“Here comes one; here comes two, three, four,” Wilson said. “They followed me. Every lane I went into, they went in.”

That’s when Wilson informed Talladega County Schools’ central office about the issues.

Around the same time, Brayden’s parents were told that the math teacher had made racist comments concerning their son in 2019.

A former school custodian said that in Sept. 2019 the math teacher had approached her daughter, a white girl, who’d been sitting with Brayden earlier that day.

“Why was y’all sitting with them brown boys?” The math teacher had asked, according to the child and her mother, who said she notified at least one school official about the incident.

Jeffrey Wilson said his complaints to school, county, and even state officials have gone unaddressed.

Wilson provided CBS 42 with e-mails between himself and school officials that show both B.B. Comer and county school administrators were notified about the issues with Brayden.

Now, Wilson has filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). According to a letter from the federal agency dated Oct. 21, the office is investigating “whether the school system subjected the student to different treatment on the basis of race” and “whether the school system retaliated against the Complainant.”

“The Complaintant alleged that the Student is one of just a few Black children in his mathematics class and that the white children in this class are not treated the same way the student has been treated,” the letter said. “[White students] have not been threatened with detention, yelled at in front of peers, or had grades withheld or changed.”

The letter said the office would not consider the allegations regarding the “brown boy” comments because the incident occurred in 2019.

In the letter, OCR officials do not make conclusions about the merits of the Wilsons’ allegations. Instead, they outlined the claims and confirmed investigators are looking into the case.

Wilson said since he filed the civil rights complaint, the school has retaliated again, this time against Brayden’s sister, who also attends B.B. Comer and works as an office assistant.

The day OCR served school officials with the complaint, Wilson said, his daughter was asked to sign a “confidentiality agreement” to continue working in the office.

“What is said in the office, stays in the office,” the agreement said.

Jeffrey Wilson immediately reached out to the school about the document.

“She has been an office assistant since August, and we are quickly approaching November,” her father wrote in an email to B.B. Comer’s principal, Judson Warlick, which was also forwarded to Talladega County School Superintendent Suzanne Lacey. “Why was this not done at the beginning of the school year?”

Brayden’s sister was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement the day the school found out about the family’s civil rights complaint, Wilson said.

Warlick responded by saying that a school staffer had only recently realized that the students had not signed the confidentiality agreements at the beginning of the school year.

“If you would like your daughter’s copy of the agreement, we can certainly send it home with her but she will still be expected to follow the rules of confidentiality,” Principal Warlick wrote.

Neither Wilson nor his wife was asked to consent to the confidentiality agreement.

There are signs that Brayden’s case isn’t entirely unique. According to OCR’s website, the federal office is currently investigating 41 claims of discrimination in Alabama schools.

Students of color are also routinely punished more severely than their white counterparts, data shows.

For example, OCR data shows that in Talladega County Schools, Black students more frequently faced in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions and expulsions than white students. In 2017, the most recent year data was reported, Black students made up only 33% of the school’s population but composed 49% of in-school suspensions, half of out-of-school suspensions, and 42% of expulsions.

B.B. Comer Memorial High, like many Alabama schools, also lacks diversity in its faculty and staff, something Wilson said is also worth addressing.

“If you can’t identify with someone, that makes a big difference,” Wilson said. “There’s no one that you can say ‘Okay, I want to be like them’ or ‘If they did it, I can do it.’ I think it has an impact [on students] in a negative way.”

He said he believes the lack of Black teachers in local schools is because of discrimination in hiring.

“They don’t want to hire them,” Wilson said.

On the whole, Jeffrey Wilson said he is primarily concerned with Brayden’s mental health. Recently, Brayden approached him with a disturbing question.

“If I died,” Brayden recently asked his father, “where would you bury me?”

“He’s never asked that question before,” Wilson said. “It’s getting to the point now where I’m having to get him counseling. You can only get screamed at so many times.”

Wilson said he’s had to have hard conversations about racism with both of his children.

“You just have to tell them straight,” Wilson said of his children. “Everybody is not going to love you. The color of your skin will play a role in some things, but you just have to keep the standard high. Push your way through and don’t allow anything or anyone to stop you from reaching your goals. You have to persevere.”

Jeffrey Wilson said he thinks justice for his son should include a pink slip for Brayden’s math teacher.

“She needs to be terminated,” Wilson said. “I don’t even think she should work around kids.”

Asked if he thinks Brayden deserves an apology, Wilson said yes and no.

“Yes, because it may make him feel better, but no, because I know it won’t be sincere,” he said. “If they’ve made excuses this long, then there’s really no care for the child.”

Local and state education officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Brayden’s case.

Dr. Suzanne Lacey, Superintendent of Talladega County Schools, returned a call on the subject but said she was unable to comment.

“I wouldn’t be able to comment on that matter because it is a pending legal matter,” Lacy said. “I just wouldn’t be able to make a comment due to the nature and pending legal status of that matter.”


You can read the OCR’s full letter on Brayden’s case below.

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