New Haven residents want harsher sanctions for school principal who used 'racial slur,' as 'we're being traumatized'

Photo of Ben Lambert

NEW HAVEN — A former district principal committed an act of disrespect by allegedly using a racial slur during a racism workshop, according to activists and residents who spoke with Mayor Justin Elicker Thursday.

The group, which gathered outside of the Board of Education offices on Meadow Street at the request of Black Lives Matter New Haven, urged Elicker to foster greater accountability and healing during an hourlong conversation, instead of condoning the decision to reassign former Principal Laura Roblee to the job of assistant principal.

The school board voted 4-3 Monday to approve the reassignment of Roblee after the seven-member board, Tracey and board attorneys went into executive, or closed-door, session twice to discuss the situation.

Though the reason wasn’t publicly stated, several board members said the principal allegedly had used a racial slur this winter during a workshop on racism and inclusion.

The group speaking to Elicker Thursday said the mayor and the board had failed to appropriately represent the needs and concerns of Black and brown residents, placing greater weight on the feelings of a white person than those of the community at large and continuing a historic pattern of injustice and inequity.

The group called for Roblee to be fired, or at least be required to consider the weight of her action before stepping into another role.

“We don’t care how she feels. We don’t care how she feels,” said Delores S. Williams, co-founder and co-owner of People Get Ready Books on Whalley Avenue, noting that Superintendent of Schools Ilene Tracey had described the use of the slur as a “slip of the tongue.”

“Do the right thing, (Elicker), then do the next right thing,” Williams said.

“It’s a slap in the face. ... This principal has insulted the parents and the grandparents and the ancestors of these children,” said Teresa Williams, saying that Black and brown children that erred momentarily while in school would be treated more harshly. “This can’t stay like this. It can’t.”

Co-founder of Black Lives Matter New Haven ala ouchumare, who requested that her name not be capitalized, said Elicker had been elected, in large part, because Black and brown residents of the city saw him as someone who would respect and fight for them.

In this moment, she said, he had failed to live up to his responsibility as their standard-bearer.

“We’re being traumatized; our children our being traumatized... We’re tired of you getting this position and upholding the status quo,” said ouchumare. “We hired you; we trusted you.”

On behalf of Black Lives Matter New Haven, ouchumare offered a list of demands.

Among other requests, she said the Board of Education should release its investigation into the incident by Friday; that Elicker, who voted for Roblee to be reassigned, should issue an apology; and that Roblee should issue a detailed apology and explain her plans to learn from the incident.

Students would have to spend the summer with the thought that Roblee, after using a derogatory slur, could hold authority over them, causing fear and stress, she said.

“You are our person that holds power,” ouchumare said to Elicker.

Elicker said Tracey had told him Roblee would be reassigned to a role in the district’s central office, rather than a position within a school. She would also be required to go through sensitivity training, he said.

The district’s options in the matter were constrained by a contract with the administrators’ union, he noted; he said he trusted that Tracey, after consulting with lawyers and the union, had made an appropriate professional judgment in choosing to reassign Roblee.

Elicker said he condemned Roblee’s use of the slur, describing it as offensive, and said he would not have categorized it as a slip of the tongue, as Tracey did.

But ouchumare said Elicker and the board should heed the words of the community, placing as great a weight on their concerns as Tracey’s recommendation.

Sun Queen, also a co-founder of Black Lives Matter New Haven, said the board’s decision illustrated a discrepancy in how the educational system treats the lives of Black, brown and white people.

Roblee has not responded to multiple emails seeking comment. Tracey has declined to comment, noting the situation is a personnel matter.

Elicker said Thursday the district’s investigation into the incident would be released by Monday, which would provide context for residents.

He said he attended the gathering out of a desire to hear the concern’s of residents, noting that ouchumare had invited him.

The city, he said, was committed to working against systemic racism.

“Systemic racism is a deep, deep challenge that we all bear responsibility for addressing and I think New Haven has played a leading role in confronting this challenging conversation and making progress,” said Elicker.

Karen Dubois-Walton, also seeking the Democratic nomination for mayor, was in attendance Thursday. She said the decision was outrageous, describing it as “antithetical” to the district’s commitment to restorative justice and equity.

She said Elicker had erred in not explaining his rationale for voting for Roblee’s reassignment. Residents, she said, deserved the opportunity to better understand the decision; the situation, as a whole, could have better served as a learning opportunity.

The conversation has been posted for public consideration on the Black Lives Matter New Haven Facebook page.

william.lambert@hearstmediact.com