In statements to the Jefferson County Board of Education Tuesday night, eight Manual students, parents and community members voiced concern over duPont Manual High School principal Gerald “Jerry” Mayes, who has been under investigation since October because of racially insensitive comments he made to students.
A JCPS spokesperson declined to comment Wednesday, citing the continuing investigation.
Mayes was reprimanded last fall for comments made to African-American students in a recorded conversation about a JCPS official. What’s more, the education website Dear JCPS posted open letters from a former student and parent of a former student at Manual airing complaints about Mayes’ conduct, accusing him of inappropriate and demeaning comments in private toward students of color and a transgender student.
Additionally, Manual alumni told the Courier Journal that Mayes has a history of offensive comments directed at transgender students.
In a statement to Insider last November when a copy of the recording was sent to IL, he apologized for including colleagues’ names in that conversation and said: “I am deeply committed to diversity and inclusion. They have been pillars of my life personally and professionally.”
A school climate audit, begun in tandem with the investigation and released in March, found the school was generally acceptable in terms of school culture, but could do more to make minority students and faculty feel comfortable. Manual’s 1,900-person student body is 14 percent African-American — the smallest African-American population at any JCPS high school.
Manual students and parents, most who are African-American, painted a different picture. One by one, in the absence of Mayes, the speakers told the JCPS board about a litany of concerns involving a toxic environment under Mayes’ leadership.
Student Sadie Finley said she felt intimidated by a teacher after Finley said she was falsely accused of cheating. While the administration investigated the teacher for bullying, Finley said, Mayes would come into her other classes and give her “evil glares” for complaining.
“All I asked for was an apology and to be treated fairly and equally in the classroom, but didn’t get either,” Finley said. “In my opinion, my principal handled my situation poorly. I say poorly because why else would this teacher feel that he could continue to treat me this way?”
Manual junior Sydney Finley recounted a similar story of bullying, saying that three boys had harassed her on multiple occasions, and that Mayes told her he couldn’t reprimand the boys because an assistant principal didn’t take down the boys’ names in the initial report.
“After this experience, I knew that my principal, a person who was supposed to believe and protect students, had no intention of doing so on my part,” Sydney Finley said.
Saying Mayes has created an “oppressive, intimidating, unstable and psychologically unsafe atmosphere,” Manual senior Darian White said she is uncomfortable in her school and thinks she will be retaliated against if she or her mother speak up.
While a minority spoke publicly about Mayes, others fear speaking out due to retaliation. A few parents told Insider before the meeting that they worried about their children getting singled out and missing school work as a result. Some said they were concerned the investigation would not tell the full picture because parents and students were fearful of speaking out.
One parent asserted the district told parents they could not speak to investigators anonymously, causing some to not come forward with their experiences with Mayes for fear the principal would retaliate against their student and hurt them academically.
“This is how a bully wins — by shutting down others’ voices,” the parent said. “So, in my mind, the district is acting like a bully who has is protecting a principal who is a bully.”
During the meeting, some students and parents asked the board why Mayes was allowed to remain in the position during the investigation instead of being placed on administrative leave, pointing out other teachers and staff members who were treated differently. White asked the board to protect students’ well-being by removing Mayes from the building, at least until the investigation was complete.
“Allowing an oppressive power to remain further oppresses the people who caused the investigation to begin,” White said. “Leaving him has sent a very clear message to students and administrators that our collective voices are unheard.”
Through tears, White’s mother, Lavonne White, said the situation at Manual made her feel “heartbroken.”
“Bullying — you don’t tolerate it from the kids, but you tolerate it from the adults,” White told the board, with some audience members signaling agreement.
Board members don’t typically respond to speakers, but chair Diane Porter told White her statement was “difficult to hear.” Porter said people do not need to wait until board meetings to come forward with concerns to the board or to superintendent Marty Pollio.
“We are at your service,” Porter said. “We are here to serve.”