Monday, July 22, 2024

After investigation, questions remain about use of n-word in Pender schools

Pender County Schools Superintendent Steven Hill looks at his calendar as PCS Board of Education Chairman Don Hall speaks at a June board meeting. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
Pender County Schools Superintendent Steven Hill looks at his calendar as PCS Board of Education Chairman Don Hall speaks at a June board meeting. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Warning: This article includes the use of offensive racial slurs.

BURGAW — A three-month investigation conducted by a Raleigh law firm has culminated in a 243-page report of its findings regarding the use of verbal and written racial slurs by Pender High Principal Caroline Godwin and English teacher Karen McGowen. The investigation did not show any confirmed allegations of a school employee using a racial slur to directly describe a student.

Attorneys of the firm Blue LLP found McGowen had violated the district’s standards of professional conduct while Godwin had not violated those standards. It also concluded the school administration’s investigation of the complaint against McGowen “was not fully compliant with Board Policy.” Pender County Schools released the firm’s partially redacted report late Wednesday afternoon.

RELATED: Protestors ask Pender Board of Education why it waited months to investigate racial slurs

The investigation was sparked by two documents posted on Facebook by head basketball coach and teacher Ray Hankins, who is Black. One was a note taken by Godwin after a large fight involving law enforcement in the fall of 2018, on the first day students returned to campus following Hurricane Florence. In the margin, next to the names of two students who were attacked during the fight, was written the word “n—ers.” But the investigation revealed that Godwin submitted the same note to district officials, only that “my n—ers” was written instead to reflect the term repeatedly used by a student to describe his friends attacked during the fight.

Hankins himself was a subject of the investigation, which found his social media posts had not violated school policy. While Hankins was an important witness, it’s not clear why his whistleblowing behavior itself was investigated since the report was supposed to focus on the use of racial slurs.

Another document showed the written summary of a teacher claiming McGowen visited her office and said she had to “send a student out today because he got mad when I said n—er.”

“He says it all the time I don’t see why he got offended when I said it,” according to the teacher, who the investigation identified as McGowen’s colleague and former student Sararesa Hudson.

The investigation also found that the investigation conducted by a school administrator “was not fully compliant with board policy,” because she had failed to interview one of McGowen’s students, who submitted a complaint to an assistant principal after the incident.

A spokesperson for Pender County Schools — Alex Riley, who first notified Principal Godwin of the social media post — said he was still gathering information when asked Thursday morning if McGowen would face any discipline because of the report’s findings, including possible termination or suspension.

Two versions of the principal’s notes

One version of the principal’s notes shows the words “my n—rs” in the left margin, while another (posted by teacher Ray Hankins in early June) shows no “my” before the racial slur. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Blue LLP)

The report failed to conclude who had altered Godwin’s notes. Goodwin claimed the original version included “my n—ers” written in a margin next to two students’ names who were allegedly involved in the fight.

However, a photograph of the same note, pictured still attached to a legal notepad, does not include the “my” before the racial slur. (The report does not clarify whether the note was written in pencil or ink, although it appears to be the latter.)

“It has always been a hush-hush environment to work in, not anymore. “Who am I to keep quiet? The people would love to hear your excuses,” Hankins posted to his Facebook account on June 8, tagging Pender County Schools.

In the course of the investigation, both Goodwin and Hankins denied altering the notes, according to the firm, and an assistant principal who was with Goodwin during the fight’s aftermath told investigators he didn’t “recall her saying [the slur] in private” while discussing the fight. That administrator, Jack Poulos, also told lawyers he was in Godwin’s office shortly after the post was published, when she received a phone call from the chief human resources officer for Pender County Schools, Dr. Alfreida Moore. He said he heard the call because it was on speakerphone.

“While Dr. Moore and Ms. Godwin were talking, Mr. Poulos says that he saw Ms. Godwin retrieve her notepad with the note from her files. He observed that the note on the pad and what had been posted on social media were different,” according to ‘findings of fact’ published in the report.

The two versions of the note have another key difference: while the version posted by Hankins lists an eighth individual, the version purported by Godwin to be her original note only lists seven students involved in the fight.

“Ms. Godwin said during her interview that she took a picture of her original note,” according to the report. “She said that she did not copy the note in physical or digital form … Mr. Poulos said during his interview that he did not observe Ms. Godwin alter her notepad in any way.”

Ray Hankins, center, arrives at Topsail High to speak at a Pender County Schools Board meeting a week after he published the two documents. His father stands to his left. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Dr. Moore told Godwin to bring the note to her office, and during a subsequent meeting with Superintendent Steven Hill and Moore she “provided information consistent with what she told us during her interview,” according to the report. Hill suggested the note be sealed in a Ziplock bag, and Godwin signed a separate document “reflecting the chain of custody for the note.”

The investigation concluded that Godwin’s note accurately reflected a student who continued to refer to his friends who had been attacked during the fight as “my n—ers.”

Hankins, on the other hand, “declined to disclose how and when he received the notes,” which he denied altering and stated during his interview with the firm’s attorneys that the document he published is the only version of the notes he had seen.

A summary of his interview said that Hankins had no “personal knowledge of who wrote the notes.”

“He declined to answer: whether the person who provided the document to him gave any information about it; whether he was provided the document in physical or digital form; and when he received the document,” according to the report.

He also said that he reported them to someone “above” the school at the county level, but would not identify that individual, according to the report.

“Although one of the images that he published has been altered from its original format, he states, and there has been no evidence to the contrary, that he has not seen any other version of the document and did not alter it,” according to the report’s conclusions.

Discrepancies among teacher, colleague, student, parent

Meanwhile, investigators said McGowen, the English teacher, said “n—er” or “n—a” on two separate occasions — once in a classroom full of students and the other in the presence of a student.”

The email from a fellow teacher describing the incidents, later posted by Haskins and attached as an exhibit in the Blue LLP report, said McGowen showed up to her office to check in on a student she had dismissed from her classroom shortly before. After she recalled using the word “n—er” in the classroom, according to the email, McGowen’s colleague, Ms. Hudson, and the student “were just quiet.”

But in an interview with the attorneys, McGowen said she told the same student to stop using the word “n—a.”

“Ms. McGowen explained during her interview that after attempting unsuccessfully to stop [redacted student’s name] from repeating the word, she said to him, “just stop saying n—a … She reported that she knew immediately that she should not have used the word and that she knew [the student] was upset because of her reaction. She claims that she responded by telling him that she did not call him the slur.”

However, McGowen told interviewers she “did not recall” dismissing the student from her classroom. (Documents received by Blue LLP confirmed that she did, including an instant message she sent to the assistant principal, Poulos, stating she had just dismissed the student from her class.)

But she did not dispute saying “n—a” in Hudson’s office while a student was present, according to the report — although Hudson said she had, in fact, used the version of the word ending in “er.” She also emailed the student’s mother, but did not admit to using offensive language during her interactions with the student.

The mother wrote back, according to the report, “[H]e actually just sent me a message saying that you called him a n—a. I told him that I do not believe that and he was probably saying the word and you asked him to stop using it,” to which McGowen responded, “Yes, that is exactly what happened.”

The student submitted a note to Poulos, the assistant principal, that read, “I’m in class talking to my folks & we talking how we talk not even loud but Ms. McGowen says out loud ‘I’m tired of the word N—er wit a hard R,” according to the report.

“I felt threatened,” the student wrote.

A section of the “Findings of Fact” section of Blue LLP’s report. (Courtesy Blue LLP)

Administration’s response ‘not fully compliant’ with board policy

Both instances of McGowan’s use of the racial slur were reported to school administration, according to the report, after which Assistant Principal Shanika Mack immediately began an investigation. She completed her work on October 15, five days after the incidents, after which “administration issued Ms. McGowen a letter of reprimand.”

Blue LLP investigators said the administration’s investigation, although “substantial,” did not fully comply with PCS Board policy because Mack had failed to interview the student who made the complaint.

“Although the administration responded promptly to [the student’s] complaint and took it seriously, no one interviewed [the student] or had a substantive conversation with him about his allegations,” according to the report.

Additionally, the administration “did not inform the complainant of the ‘investigator’s determination and the process for addressing the complaint.'”

“Likewise, no information was provided to [name redacted] as to whether the complaint was substantiated,” according to the report.

In addition to its findings that school administrators’ investigation was “not fully compliant,” the report also concluded that Pender County Schools’ investigation of the circumstances surrounding Godwin’s notes was “sufficient” and that Hankins’ social media post did not violate board policy.

Blue LLP attorneys said the board’s respect of “the right of employees to use social media as a medium of self-expression” overrides a policy that prohibits language that “could reasonably be anticipated to cause a substantial disruption to the school environment,” language that the attorneys believe was vague and subjective.

“Mr. Hankins explained that in publishing both documents, he sought to publicize what he believes to be discrimination at PHS,” according to the report. “Moreover, what Mr. Hankins published ultimately is true — PCS employees have, in fact, verbalized or written racial slurs under varying circumstances.”

Read the full report below:

Blue LLP Final Report (Redacted)

Send comments and tips to the reporter at or (970) 413-3815

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