An Environment So Hostile, No Reasonable Person Could Endure It

Photo credit: NBC29

by James A. Bacon

On June 11, 2021, after a series of orientation meetings and training sessions to discuss “anti-racism” at the Agnor-Hurt Elementary School, Albemarle County officials held a final training session. A presenter showed slides showing a disparity in the racial breakdown of the school division’s employees and new hires.

Responding to the presentation, Emily Mais, an assistant principal at the school, suggested that it would be useful to compare the racial breakdown of the hires to that of the applicant pool to determine if the racial disparity was due to the district’s selection process or to the lack of minority applicants. In her remarks, she was thinking “people of color” but she inadvertently used the word “colored” instead. She immediately apologized for her slip of the tongue.

The verbal miscue prompted a response from Sheila Avery, a teacher’s aide who presented herself as a representative of other Black employees. In Mais’s rendering of the story detailed in a lawsuit filed in Albemarle County Circuit Court, Avery accused her, in the complaint’s words, “of speaking like old racists who told people of color to go to the back of the bus.” Avery’s verbal abuse was so severe that several staff members expressed their alarm in communications to Mais during and after the session.

And so began Mais’s surreal journey through a school system that, in the name of expunging racism, has elevated racial consciousness and racial grievance to levels not seen in decades, demoralized White teachers by impugning them as racists, compelled Mais to make a forced apology to the school staff, and through her example cowed other employees from expressing reservations about the anti-racist training.

What follows here is Mais’s side of the story, as detailed in her lawsuit against the Albemarle County School Board. Presumably, school authorities will take exception to particulars contained in the suit. But if Mais’s version holds up in court, it exposes the ugly, bureaucratic authoritarianism of the “anti-racist” movement.

From as early as she can remember, Mais wanted to be an elementary school teacher, according to background information contained in the lawsuit. She has had a lifelong passion for helping children grow into their best selves. One of the greatest joys has been watching hundreds of children develop a passion for learning.

As a Christian, she believes that “all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God,” and that as image-bearers of God, “all people are endowed with inherent dignity and titled to equal respect.” She believes that treating people differently because of their race is wrong because it “denies the equal dignity and respect that all people deserve as children of God.” Throughout her career, Mais has worked to instill the values of “fairness and equal treatment” in her students and her own children.

Mais started her teaching career in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., but after her three-year-old daughter was diagnosed with kidney cancer, the family relocated in 2016 to Albemarle County in the hope of finding a simpler life. They bought a three-acre lot, built a “tiny house,” and looked forward to being part of a close-knit community. In 2018 Mais began working as Assistant Principal of Agnor-Hurt Elementary School outside Charlottesville.

In February 2019, the Albemarle school district adopted an “Anti-racism” policy with the stated purpose of eliminating “all forms of racism” from the school system. The policy, and the orientation and training to implement it, was heavily influenced by Critical Race Theory, as I detailed in a post yesterday. The curriculum and materials “stereotyped, demeaned and dismissed white people as perpetuators of systemic racism,” according to the lawsuit. “Materials were replete with pejorative stereotypes of how white people think, speak, and act, as well as stereotypical descriptions of ‘whiteness,’ ‘white culture,’ ‘white talk’ and ‘white racial identity.'”

Early in the training, some Agnor-Hurt employees began complaining about the racially hostile environment created by the training materials and pejorative comments made by participants about Whites. When Whites spoke about their experiences, they were allegedly treated contemptuously because people with non-Black backgrounds were “irrelevant and not worth discussing.”

Mais expressed these concerns to Ashby Kindler, a former administrator who was tasked with leading the training. Kindler did not — and likely could not, observed the complaint — alter the program to abate the racially hostile environment.

Word leaked about the nature of the training. On May 27, 2021. several Albemarle County parents expressed concerns about the anti-racism policy. They suggested that the schools’ approach “was perpetuating the very racism the Division purported to abhor.” The training, said one parent, “creates division and conflict rather than positive relationships and mutual respect.” Indeed, the ideas and philosophies “preach an unending cycle of conflict.”

The next day Bernard Hairston, the assistant superintendent in charge of the schools’ anti-racism policy, addressed a mandatory administrators’ meeting, which Mais attended. According to the lawsuit, he responded to the parents’ comments.

Dr. Hairston noted his ancestors were slaves owned by a wealthy Virginia family.

Dr. Hairston stated that he received the parents’ comments as if they were slave owners who had raped his mother and sister, beaten him, and were telling him not to talk about it.

Dr. Hairston further said that the parents who spoke were promoting systemic racism, and he called them protectors of practices (“Pops”).

By “Pops,” Mais understood him to mean protectors of racist practices. Further, Hairston declared that Albemarle’s anti-racism policy was non-negotiable. Superintendent Matthew Haas and other district leaders in attendance supported Hairston’s statements.

Mais inferred from the meeting that “any good-faith attempt by a white person to be constructively critical of the training would be branded a racist act and would likely adversely affect the employee’s career.”

About two weeks later, on June 11, the final training session took place in which Mais uttered the words “colored” instead of “people of color.” The bureaucratic response was swift.

Shortly after the session ended, Mais received an email from Emily Holmstrom, the school’s guidance counselor, asking if she would like to “unpack” what Mais had said during the training session. As far as she was concerned, Mais had said nothing that needed “unpacking.”

Days after the training session, Hairston demanded that Mais meet with Avery and him. Because of the school system’s “full-throated embrace of ‘anti-racism,'” Hairston’s comparison of concerned parents to rapist slaveowners, and other statements Hairston had made, Mais was afraid how the meeting would go. To preserve the conversation for an objective review, she asked that the meeting be recorded.

Hairston later told Mais that he had discussed the request but that the school system’s attorney had advised against it on the grounds that the contents of the meeting could be leaked to the press. That surprised Mais because she had never contemplated the idea of talking to the media.

Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the meeting, fellow employees relayed that Avery and her friends were openly calling her a racist. According to these second-hand reports, the slurs included calling her a “white racist bitch” and “two-faced racist bitch.”

When Mais complained to Principal Michael Irani, he refused to take any action, the complaint says.

On August 6, 2021, Mais took part in the required unrecorded meeting with Hairston, Avery, and Ms. Holmstrom, who attended as Avery’s “ally.” In Mais’s version, Avery chastised her throughout the meeting for the “colored” remark, and Mais offered multiple additional apologies. According to the lawsuit:

When Ms. Mais tried to explain herself, Ms. Avery continued to berate her. Ms. Avery also stated that she assumed participants did not speak as freely in the training sessions as they would at home, giving as an example that she assumed some participants used the N-word at home but not during the training. Ms. Mais explained that she did not appreciate that assumption, as she would never use that word and did not use the word “colored” outside of the slip of the tongue for which she had already apologized, and she apologized again….

When Ms. Mais tried to explain the detrimental effects of the training on staff morale, the racial divisions the training was causing within the school, and the increasingly racially hostile environment that had resulted, the participants reacted with disbelief and dismissed her concerns.

When Ms. Mais explained that many white participants were afraid to speak during the training sessions for fear that they would say the “wrong” thing and be branded as racists, Ms. Holmstrom stated that they should be afraid to speak if what they were thinking was “not appropriate.”

Mais was struck by the double standard. No apology was asked of Hairston for comparing White parents to rapist slave owners, or of Avery for making racially charged statements about White people and (allegedly) slandering her with impunity, but Mais was required to issue a public apology for making a slip of the tongue. By the end of the meeting, she was in tears.

Emotionally distressed, Mais took three days off. She discussed the situation with Principal Irani, but he did nothing. She talked to a Division HR employee, but she kicked the complaint upstairs. She met with Assistant Superintendent Clare Keiser, who expressed empathy but provided no concrete plan of action. Keiser, who is black, shared that she had difficult interactions with Hairston and had concerns about the anti-racism training, but there was nothing she could do, according to the complaint.

The upshot of these interactions was that the Division “was requiring Ms. Mais to attempt to lead a group of employees who were empowered to curse about her, call her vulgar names, call her a ‘white racist bitch,’ attempt to turn other employees against her, and create an environment in which employees dared not appear to support her or be close to her,” states the complaint.

Finding her situation impossible, Mais submitted her resignation August 29, effective Sept. 10, 2021. At the Division’s request, she agreed to send a letter to Agnor-Hurt families concerning her departure. She was asked to say that she was leaving to explore another career opportunity, which was untrue. To stay on good terms with the school division, which was necessary if she sought employment elsewhere as an educator in Albemarle County, she agreed to state in the letter that she was leaving to be with her family. School officials, she inferred, did not want parents to know the real reason she was leaving.

On top of the letter to parents, school officials wanted Mais to make an apology to staff. Again, she complied so she could leave on good terms. She spent “anguished hours” drafting the apology. “She wanted to be open and honest with her colleagues about the totality of her experience in the hope that something good would come of it,” says the complaint. That included a discussion of the emotional toll the incident had taken on her.

On Sept. 8, Mais presented the draft to Irani, Avery and Ms. Holmstrom. Before she could finish reading the draft, Avery cut her off. Mais could not discuss her feelings “because no one cared about them,” Avery said. Holmstrom told her that alluding to her hurt “was inappropriately acting in racist fashion like a typical defensive white person,” as described in the training materials.

“By muzzling Ms. Mais and preventing her from sharing her true beliefs with her colleagues, the Division engineered the apology session to be nothing more than a ritual shaming of Ms. Mais for a slip of the tongue for which she had already repeatedly apologized,” said the complaint.

Mais delivered the apology in a specially called meeting after the students were dismissed for the day. All teachers were summoned, but, “upon information and belief,” states the complaint only Black teaching assistants were invited. The teaching assistants wore camouflage pants and black t-shirts, and sat near Mais as she spoke, which she interpreted as intending to intimidate her.

After Mais, Avery was given an opportunity to speak. According to the complaint, she attributed Mais’s verbal slip to “white privilege,” accused staff members of mistreating students of color, and warned staff members that she was watching them for perceived misbehavior. She told the assembled teachers and staff that they could either be on her side, or Mais’s side, but there was no in-between.

Following the ritual shaming, states the complaint, numerous White employees were visibly crying.

On Mais’ last day of employment, Avery stood near Mais’s office for approximately an hour, presumably watching who came in and out to say goodbye. There were no work-related reasons for her to be there, states the complaint. At other times, she sat in the lounge beside Mais’s office. Mais complained about Avery’s “watchful and intimidating presence,” but Principal Irani did nothing. Fearful of repercussions to anyone who was friendly to her, she confined herself to her office for the rest of the day.

After the workday, Mais’ colleagues held an informal going-away party off-campus, in which they expressed their appreciation for her leadership and expressed sympathy for her ordeal.

The lawsuit contends that Albemarle County schools retaliated against her for communicating her views, allowed subordinates to harass her with impunity, forced her to apologize repeatedly, and subjected her to a ritual shaming session in front of her peers. In sum, the school system compelled Mais to affirm messages that violated her deeply held beliefs and drove her into quitting.

“These actions created an objectively hostile environment in which it was clear that Ms. Mais would be subjected to continuing harassment, abuse, and public humiliation because of her constitutionally protected speech,” states the lawsuit. “The environment was so objectively intolerable that a reasonable person could not be expected to endure it. and would be compelled to resign.”