DuPont Manual High School

This post has been updated.

The principal of duPont Manual High School was recently reprimanded by a Jefferson County Public Schools administrator for comments made to African-American students in a recorded conversation, according to JCPS spokeswoman Allison Gardner Martin.

In addition to the letter of reprimand to Manual Principal Jerry Mayes, Martin added that JCPS would be conducting “a comprehensive culture and climate audit” of the school, in addition to having “an outside entity conduct an independent review of the recent allegations shared with the district.”

Jerry Mayes

While Martin’s statement did not identify the allegations in question, the education website Dear JCPS has posted open letters in recent days 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.

The recorded conversation that led to Mayes’ letter of reprimand from assistant superintendent Brad Weston occurred at some point in October, was between the principal and two African-American students, and was over an hourlong. Martin said that “the district” was made aware of the recording at the end of October, but did not answer whether or not acting Superintendent Marty Pollio had listened to it, or if so, when he did.

Insider Louisville has submitted an open records request for the letter reprimanding Mayes, but JCPS has not made it or other documents in his personnel file immediately available.

Jefferson County School Board member Chris Kolb told IL on Monday that he recently received a copy of the recording and had only heard its first 20 minutes, calling Mayes’ comments toward the students about race and discrimination issues “reprehensible and disgusting.”

A copy of the recording was sent to IL on Monday from a local social justice activist, in which two African-American students brought their concerns to Mayes about a football coach telling student trainers that they may not kneel on the field during the national anthem at football games — as a growing number of NFL players have done over the past year to protest racial injustice and police brutality in America.

Mayes told the students that while they have a First Amendment right to kneel, he criticized those who are only doing so because “it’s the cool thing to do” and “jump on the bandwagon,” adding that they should be careful not to be perceived as “crying wolf.”

After criticizing the performance of JCPS chief equity officer John Marshall, Mayes veered off to note that others groups have faced discrimination that is just as bad or worse than African-Americans, including himself. Mayes said that he was discriminated against for being a Protestant in a Catholic community, telling a student that he totally disagreed with her belief that blacks currently face more discrimination than Protestants.

“That’s coming through your filter,” said Mayes. “I don’t agree with you.”

Mayes went on to say that he is part Native American and that his people were forced onto reservations, then adding that “I’ve been discriminated against because I’m white” and claiming that he had lost four jobs because of his race.

Later in the conversation, Mayes said that African-Americans should not feel entitled to things because of their race, such as teachings jobs at Manual.

“I get crap here sometimes… ‘Well, you need to hire more African-American teachers.’ ” said Mayes. “I’d love to. But would you all want me to hire an African-American teacher because they’re African-American, or do you want me to hire the best teacher?”

Dear JCPS has posted two open letters critical of Mayes since Monday, adding an editorial statement that there “appears to be emerging as a systemic and pervasive pattern of discrimination that has been allowed to fester in a number of our schools under the previous administration,” and encouraging JCPS “to take swift action and send a clear message that discrimination, in any form, will not be tolerated.”

The open letter posted Monday — also sent to Pollio and JCPS board members — was from Casey Hoke, a transgender student who graduated from Manual in 2015. In the letter, Hoke said he had an encounter with Mayes that “scared and silenced me,” as the principal “asked about my body and my genitals as a transgender male,” but is choosing to speak publicly now after many years of being afraid to talk about Mayes.

“He had me sit down, asked me how school was going, and then asked me what surgeries I had done,” wrote Hoke. “This was without any warning. He asked what I had done to my body ‘anatomically.’ I asked him for what purpose this served and he really didn’t have any other answer than ‘if I get in trouble for you using the restroom.’ He probed me for answers about what was under my clothing.”

Noting that a Manual journalism student had written about him in his junior year, Hoke wrote that Mayes “fought this article and even brought my parents in to discuss with me the dangers he would face for allowing this educational article publish.” Hoke added that Mayes “even had equated it during the meeting to having an article about masturbation. He had equated my identity and self to this analogy and it hurt. However, I did not have the strength to speak up as a student who just wanted to graduate without worry.”

Hoke added that Mayes’ “patterns of private student meetings with constant probing and borderline harassment have continued for students I know in the Black Student Union (which he took credit for, but adamantly opposed its creation) and for Manual’s Gay Straight Transgender Alliance’s gender neutral restrooms that he had also previously strongly opposed.”

The letter posted Tuesday on Dear JCPS — also sent to Pollio and the board members — was from Keni Brown, the parent of a student who graduated from Manual last year and now attends the University of Chicago. Claiming that she has heard of Mayes recently intimidating and threatening students and being insensitive to diversity, Brown wrote that she “experienced this first hand as a parent.”

Brown claimed that when her daughter attempted to start a Black Student Union at Manual, Mayes “told my daughter, who was 14-15 years old at the time, that starting a BSU is equivalent to introducing weeds into good crops and would kill everything. He told her there was no reason for black students at Manual to have representation or need a club of their own. He told her that she was part of the problem with black students at the school.”

Noting that her daughter was the editor-in-chief of the Manual yearbook, she wrote that when students wanted to profile Hoke’s experience as a transgender student, Mayes “told them they could not publish the article because they were profiling a misfit who was going through a phase. He said that the lifestyle was wrong and that the students would be punished if they pursued the article.”

“I am writing all of this to say that Mr. Mayes is not a first time offender,” wrote Brown. “He has a history of using his authority to demean students of color. He has abused his power to threaten kids who have no recourse. He has a history of pulling students out of the learning environment to impose his personal beliefs.”

After this story first published, JCPS sent the following requested statement from Mayes to IL about his recorded conversation with Manual students:

I recently met with two students in my office. In an open discussion with them on a variety of topics, which was recorded without my knowledge, I unfortunately used illustrations to make a point that included colleagues’ names. I apologize for this mistake on my part.

I am deeply committed to diversity and inclusion. They have been pillars of my life personally and professionally. We at DuPont Manual High School are committed to open discussion of what can sometimes be sensitive issues. In this conversation, at one point, I was trying to challenge my students to broaden their perspectives on such issues. In the rush of this conversation, I may not have always communicated exactly as I might have hoped. I believe that the sum substance of what I said in that conversation, however inartfully I may have said it, is consistent with my commitments to diversity and inclusion. I regret that anyone may have a contrary impression.

At Manual, we raise thinkers who question and challenge. I am proud of our students, their activism and their commitment to do what’s right. I have learned an important lesson from them – to listen more and talk less.

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Joe Sonka
Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]