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Hampton Schools Plan Reforms After Family Says Racist Bullying Went Unchecked

Annie Ropeik

Editor's note: This is the first story in a two-part series. Here is part two

The schools in Hampton are in the midst of debate over how to handle racism and prejudice. 

The issue came into focus earlier this year, when the white parents of a black third-grader said school officials had mishandled their reports of racist bullying. 

This past spring, John and Julie Cochrane went before the Hampton school board to talk about their adopted daughter Kora. Their problems began in 2016, when Kora was a first-grader, and one of the few black students, at Hampton's Centre School.

One evening, she told her parents something troubling. John and Julie say they knew right away this was a big deal. They recorded their talk with Kora, and played that audio at their school board hearing in March.

“So what did [redacted] say to you in the cafeteria?” John asks. 

“'You’re the only one with brown skin in the school,'” Kora says. But she says she and the other girl, who was white, both knew it wasn't true. 

“She’s looking around to see if I am, and she knows I’m not, but she wants to hurt my feelings and tell me that 'you are,'" Kora says. 

"It was asked, immediately, how do you know your daughter's telling the truth?" --Julie Cochrane

The Cochranes say this was one of Kora's first direct experiences with her race. She sobbed the next morning, begging not to go to school. 

They managed to get her there. Then they asked for a meeting with Kora's teacher and other school officials, all of them white. Julie Cochrane told the school board how that meeting started: 

"It was asked, immediately, how do you know your daughter's telling the truth?" Julie says, according to public audio of the meeting. "And as a parent I was flabbergasted."  

It was the first of many times the Cochranes say school officials didn't take Kora's case seriously enough.

By the end, they say Kora was wracked with anxiety about school, her race and her classmates. Eventually, her parents would pull her out of the Hampton school district.  

The Cochranes' story, based on interviews and records shared by the family and through a Right-to-Know request with the district, paints a picture of how schools can be unprepared to deal with racism.

'I hate this skin'

After that initial conflict in the cafeteria, the district separated Kora and the girl she said was bullying her in class. But, as John Cochrane told the Seacoast chapter of the NAACP this past spring, it didn't seem to help. 

"She's picking at her skin -- 'I hate this skin, I hate this skin color,'" John says.

At the same time, the Cochranes were setting up Kora's special education plan for issues with reading and focus. It meant Kora was evaluated by a doctor, and told him about the bullying. In his recommendations to the school, he said the issue appeared to be giving Kora anxiety and should be addressed. 

But the school didn't take further action. A few months later, John Cochrane told the NAACP, Kora came home asking about something else that had upset her: 

“‘A hundred and fifty years ago, I’d be property, daddy,'" he says Kora told him. "I’m like, 'What are you talking about?' ‘I wouldn’t be allowed to go to school, I’d be somebody’s property.’ This is a first grader!”

The Cochranes say they'd planned to talk to Kora about slavery and being black -- just not when she was so young. As white parents adopting a black baby, John says they’d promised her birth mom they'd protect her from racism. Still, they say they never imagined problems like these. 

They hoped this slavery talk Kora was relaying to them was innocent -- maybe related to a Black History Month activity in the classroom.

The Cochranes had planned to talk to Kora about being black -- just not when she was so young.

School officials told them this was not the case. Again, the officials promised to monitor the situation, and again, they wound up moving Kora's seat in class.

For a while, things calmed down. Then came third grade, in fall 2018. Kora was in a new class at Hampton's upper elementary school, and she began to come home upset again. The Cochranes didn't know why. 

“Kora is – 'I cannot go to school, I cannot go to school, dad,'" John told the NAACP this past spring. "And at night, she was crying -- 'I can't go.' Why? And then finally she told me. 'This little girl was telling people my skin looks like poop.'” 

It turns out, school officials had known about this for at least a few weeks. Records show they got emails from at least two other parents who'd heard troubling things from their kids -- about a classmate telling Kora things like, "you must not like me because I'm white," and "my mom said I can't like black people." 

The district had told those other concerned parents they'd look into it. But they didn't immediately open a formal bullying case, or notify the Cochranes.  

“We were never made aware that this was happening at school by anyone," Julie told the school board in March.

Civil rights allegations

Throughout all of this, the Cochranes say Hampton officials were breaking their own rules.

"Kora is [saying], 'I cannot go to school, Dad.' And at night, she was crying: 'I can't go.'" --John Cochrane

They say it was discriminatory for school officials to focus on moving Kora in class, rather than her antagonists. 

And they say administrators didn't follow school bullying policy. That requires officials to open a case, inform parents and investigate within days of when bullying is reported.

The district did meet with the parents of Kora's alleged bullies. But in the end, they ruled that Kora's case didn't meet the official definition of bullying -- because, they said, there wasn't evidence the reported behavior had interfered with Kora's education. 

The Cochranes disagree. Kora sometimes missed school because of anxiety about the bullying. One of her doctors diagnosed her with possible post-traumatic stress disorder, writing a letter to the school saying the bullying could be doing long-term harm to her development. 

So in addition to working with the NAACP to lodge a formal civil rights complaint with the district, John and Julie pulled Kora out of Hampton schools this past March. They transferred her to a private school in Massachusetts, where they said she was happier almost immediately. 

'She was not believed'

Meanwhile, the Cochranes asked Hampton for what's called a manifest educational hardship designation -- basically tuition reimbursement for being forced, they say, to change schools. That was what got them their school board hearing in March. 

That meeting also gave Hampton's white school officials a chance to share their perspective. 

Kora's first-grade principal Tim Lannan talked about the cafeteria incident, where a white classmate said Kora was the only one with brown skin in the school. 

“These are six-year-olds," Lannan said. "These are differences they’ve noticed about other students in the cafeteria, such as some had curly hair and others had freckles … that Kora and another student in a different class had brown skin.”

"She was not believed. In many ways, the school system failed her." --Rogers Johnson, Seacoast NAACP

At the meeting, school officials said they did all they could and had to do to make Hampton work for Kora.  In the end, they denied the Cochranes' request for tuition reimbursement, too, saying it didn't apply to an out-of-state private school. 

Throughout this process, the Cochranes have been working closely with the Seacoast chapter of the NAACP. Here's what chapter president Rogers Johnson told school administrators about Kora's case. 

“She was not believed," he says. "In many ways, the school system failed her. There needs to be some level of understanding of what took place – not what you say took place, but what actually took place.”   

Johnson says he sees a pattern of responses like this in New Hampshire schools -- of officials, he says, trying to sweep issues of prejudice and racism under the rug. 

For Hampton, progress on fixing that problem has been hard to measure. And not everyone is convinced the district is doing enough. 

This is the first story in a two-part series. Click here to read part two: After Racist Bullying In Hampton Schools, Advocates See Slow Progress On New Equity Approach.

Annie has covered the environment, energy, climate change and the Seacoast region for NHPR since 2017. She leads the newsroom's climate reporting project, By Degrees.
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