The first few weeks of school in the towns of Durham, Lee, and Madbury have been clouded by allegations of racist bullying on a school bus.
NHPR’s Jason Moon recently sat down with the superintendent of the school district and the parents of the alleged victim to hear how each are grappling with the situation.
On a Friday afternoon early in September, Benjamin Caudill was waiting at the bus stop to meet his son at the end of the school day.
The Caudills recently moved to New Hampshire from Kentucky and for their 7-year-old son, this was just his third day of school in a new town, in a new state.
When the bus arrived, Benjamin says something wasn’t right. The bus driver motioned for him to come onto the bus.
“So I came over there and [our son] was on the bus crying and I asked the bus driver, ‘what’s wrong?’ and she looked at me and said ‘it’s bad, it’s that.’”
“And what is ‘that’? ‘That’ is our skin color,” adds Grace Caudhill, Benjamin's wife.
Skin color and what it can mean is something the Caudills have wrestled with more than most.
Grace is black and originally from Jamaica, though she’s lived in the U.S. for more than 20 years. Benjamin is white and grew up in Kentucky. The couple has five children who, as Grace puts it, are of all shades of the rainbow.
When Grace got a new job at UNH, they moved to Durham and enrolled their kids in the local schools.
Their 7-year-old son was on his way home from his new school when he said a boy sitting next to him on the bus bullied him with racist language, telling him that quote ‘whites are over blacks’.
“Me being the dad, I get instantly angry and protective. I step up into the bus and I’m like ‘who said this to my child?’”
Benjamin says eventually a boy came forward. He asked him what happened.
“This little child looks me in my eyes and says, ‘I didn’t want to sit beside dark-skinned people.’… And so I looked at him, and I told him ‘the same blood that goes through your veins, goes through [my son's] veins, the same heart beats in your chest, beats in [my son's] chest…He looked downcast and dejected. I think it was more from the shock of ‘[his] dad is Caucasian.’ I really do believe that. And here I am telling him ‘you’re the same.’”
Later, Grace watched video of the incident from a surveillance camera on the bus.
“From what they showed me, it was 48 minutes of terror on our child. You could hear the aggressor making gorilla grunts at my son. My son had no idea what it meant.”
Grace says the video also showed the boy hitting her son with a baseball and a backpack.
Along with the shock of the incident itself, the Caudills have also been upset with how the school district has handled the situation so far.
Oyster River Superintendent Jim Morse says he has tried his best to respond to their concerns.
“The family came in with 15 requests of me and as of today, we’re meeting every single one of those requests.”
Those requests included seeing the video of the incident and paying for counseling sessions for the child.
But the Caudills say the video they saw wasn’t complete and that the number of counseling sessions is limited. They remain in contact with the district about additional steps they say need to happen.
One thing they all agree on is that this goes beyond what happened between two boys on a school bus – that it requires a broader, community-wide response.
Morse says a review of the district’s curriculum as it relates to diversity and inclusion is underway. He says a similar review of the district’s discrimination policies is also ongoing. All staff members will be required to participate in diversity training over the next few months. And a community forum is being scheduled for some time next month.
“We want to be the model. We want to be the system that believes in inclusion, and believes in diversity, and believes in acceptance. This really gave us a shot in the arm to get going.”
For the Caudills, while their son is no longer on the same bus, they still worry about what they will hear from their kids when they get home each day. Just one day after the incident on the bus with their son, their daughter told them she had been the target of racist jokes in a classroom.
But the Caudills haven’t been alone in all this. Since they began speaking out, Grace says other parents from across the state have reached out to them, offering sympathy and support.
“These are parents who are just like us. Mom or dad is Caucasian or dad is African-American and their children have experienced moments of racial denigration and racial hate in school.”
Grace says her son wasn’t alone on that bus either. When she watched the video she saw several children speak up on his behalf. Grace says one boy even moved seats to put himself in between her son and the bully. She says she’s not sure if the parents of that child know how brave he was.
Note: The child's name has been removed from this story at the request of the parents.