Utah NAACP president asks DOJ to investigate allegations of discrimination at Salt Lake City school board

Last year, the district hired its first Black superintendent. Now, the NAACP alleges, the board is ‘trying to chase him out’

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake City branch of the NAACP, during the announcement of new joint initiatives with the NAACP in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 14, 2021. Williams has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to launch an investigation into alleged discrimination and harassment by the Salt Lake City School Board.

The head of Utah’s chapter of the NAACP has asked the U.S. attorney’s office and the Department of Justice to launch an investigation into alleged discrimination and harassment by the Salt Lake City School Board.

Jeanetta Williams, president of the Utah chapter of the civil rights group, said the school district’s first-ever Black superintendent, Timothy Gadson III, as well as his assistant superintendent and other Black officials in the district, have been subjected to a hostile work environment by board members.

“It’s just blatant discrimination. The community needs to know what is going on,” Williams said Monday. ”I just want the Department of Justice to come in and have it stopped. They need to be held accountable for some of the discrimination that is going on.”

Gadson was hired as the district’s superintendent last July. His top deputy, Gwendolyn Johnson-White, who also is Black, was hired a month later.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) New Salt Lake City School District superintendent Timothy Gadson III, center, is joined by Melissa Ford, Salt Lake City Board of Education President and Leeson Taylor, Executive Director of School Leadership and Performance as they tour East High School on the first day back for the fall session on Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021.

“We have, the first time ever, an African American superintendent in the whole state of Utah and they’re trying to chase him out, as well as an assistant superintendent and some of the cabinet members,” Williams said.

District spokeswoman Yándary Chatwin said Monday that allegations of discrimination are “something the board takes very seriously,” and has a policy in place prohibiting discrimination, but as of Monday afternoon the district said it had not been formally notified of any concerns.

School board member Mohamed Baayd said Monday that the board has received some complaints against Gadson claiming he was “hiring his Black friends,” was intimidating and loud and not committed to staying at the district. The board hired the law firm of Kirton & McConkie to investigate and Baayd said “the investigation came out clean. There was nothing to support what they were claiming.”

Then another board member received an email alleging that Gadson had taken a trip paid for by Grand Canyon University — a violation of the district’s ethics policies, if true. But Baayd said Gadson produced records showing he had paid for the trip himself.

In Baayd’s mind, that should have put the issue to rest, but he said board members have continued to press the issue and push for Gadson’s ouster.

“Their mind is basically made up,” Baayd said. “This is me talking as a Black man here: It smells and it stinks with racial bias in this case here, or basically blatant racism. None of this happened before because we never had a Black superintendent before.”

Separately, James Evans, a former state senator and former head of the Utah Republican Party, who also is Black, said he wants the state’s new Ethnic Studies Commission, created by the Utah Legislature last session, to look into the school board’s conduct and equity in education.

“The history of the Salt Lake City School District has been one of ongoing tension between what has been deemed the ‘haves versus the have nots’ and the Salt Lake City School Board’s inability to bridge this divide,” Evans wrote in a letter to Baayd on Monday. “There appears to be information detailing board members’ efforts to quiet the discussion and/or implementation of accountability measures to ensure students from underserved communities and students of color are being educated effectively and treated fairly.”

Williams, with the NAACP, said the district has also violated the rights of students with special educational needs by failing to conduct the annual reviews of Individualized Education Plans — or IEPs — as required by law. In some instances, she said, plans have not been reviewed for nearly three years.

“Something like this needed to be done before now,” she said. “It’s just gotten to the point that there needs to be some transparency, where the community knows what is going on and that these students are being neglected.”

Chatwin said that, in discussions with board members since Williams went public with her complaint about IEP, members were surprised to hear it was an issue.

“Obviously it’s something they’ll look into,” she said.

Over the last several weeks, the board has held two closed-door meetings. The agenda for those meetings, said the board, was meeting to address “character, professional competence, or physical or mental health of an individual; and/or deployment of security personnel, devices, or systems.” No other information was provided.

The school board holds its regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday.

Correction, 12:57 p.m. • The story has been updated to correct the spelling of Yándary Chatwin’s name.