Superintendent addresses SPS attacks, negative perception

Published 6:47 pm Friday, March 17, 2023

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Suffolk Public Schools Superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III sat down for a candid discussion on the negativity that he and the school division continually deal with and the racial motivations that he believes are driving it.

In a Thursday, March 16 interview, Gordon said it is clear that SPS is consistently painted in a negative light. 

“What has occurred is, because individuals cannot attack our work, they then try to attack our character,” he said.

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Gordon pointed to the racial makeup of the School Board and the division’s staff as a leading reason behind this.

“We actually have individuals that come to our school board meetings that actually count the people that are being introduced as leaders in our school division to try to determine how many of them are African-American and how many of them are White,” Gordon said. “If you’ve ever noticed, we have the same individuals that regardless of what’s going on, never have anything good to say.”

He said division officials don’t mind criticism. 

Gordon pointed to a few of the many successes the school division has made, including securing $15 million in student scholarship money and its investment in the district’s infrastructure, with whiteboards being in “every classroom.”

“Every student, including pre-K, has access to a Chromebook that they can take home and that we have replaced millions upon dollars in infrastructure of roof replacements and HVAC,” Gordon said. “And then because I understand the importance of what motivates our kids because I talk to them, that starting new clubs and activities, redoing gym floors, every track and the installation of synthetic fields, has had an impact.”

Gordon spoke on making SPS a Nike School Division at each of its 21 schools. After meeting with basketball coach Boo Williams of AAU and other phone calls that followed, Gordon was soon able to get a deal from the Nike distributor BSN and was able to get SPS to have a Division 1 apparel contract. 

Gordon talked about how despite the contract, criticisms followed. 

“Those are the types of things that really bother me, because you’re criticizing us on something that our students love. As a former player and coach, if you look good and feel good, you play good,” he stressed. “You play good, you win. And this is part of the reason our band, and all of our sports teams, are winning all of these awards, because we’ve established a uniform cycle for not only the sports teams, but for the band and other groups too.”

He explained his belief in investing in the whole child, because so many SPS students don’t always come from situations where they can afford to attend private schools. 

“And I take it extremely personal when people take a look at someone and makes up their mind about the person based on how they look,” Gordon said.

He reflected on a school safety audit presentation that was planned for last year that did not go public after the School Board reviewed the person behind the presentation.  

“The School Board was smart in receiving the presentation and not officially making it public, because the person that was in-charge of the School Safety Audit Committee in the group decided that because this 14-year-old student made one poor choice in their life, that we have to bring in ex-convicts and the Sheriff’s Department to scare them straight, and that the only thing they were going to have for their future was a trade,” he explained. “At 14-years-old. Extremely, extremely offensive.”

The implicit bias that is often experienced in this city is the part that people don’t want to understand, he said.

“They pushed back when we put in an Equity Policy that was mandated by the state. They pushed back when we put in a Transgender Policy that was mandated by the state,” Gordon said. “Because I knew from my connections that I had at the state level that cultural responsive instruction was beginning to become a part of performance and evaluation standards for teachers, administrators and superintendents, I brought in Dr. Zaretta Hammond for professional learning. I brought in Dr. Chris Emdin for professional learning. People that were experts in the field across the nation, so that when it came time for us to add that to our evaluation protocol, our staff already had it.”

Despite this, he went on to stress that they always want to find something to be negative about the school division. 

“We have spent too much time really trying to defend what we know is right,” he added.

Gordon also discussed how the negativity has affected both SPS students and staff.

“The challenge is, it’s a tactic. There’s certain political organizations that at the beginning of their organizational meeting, the very first agenda item is Suffolk Public Schools, and who’s going to speak at the School Board meeting, and here are the talking points that we want you to say so that people will believe that the school division is terrible,” Gordon said. “It’s affecting our students and it’s affecting our staff, and I was very, very clear to folks I will be extremely aggressive when it comes to protecting Team Suffolk.”

The difference is, he explained, there have been other leaders in the school division who may have been introverts that are not going to say anything about it.

“But that’s not the way I’m built,” he said. “So I’m always going to let them know, first of all here’s the evidence and the facts. They never apologize for being wrong, they just move on to the next thing.”

Gordon desires for everyone to work together, but disavows the disrespect given to those in the SPS School Division.

“They have to understand that we are trying to work with everyone, but the challenge is going to be when you are disrespectful, when you give blatant lies — I’m not even calling them false narratives — when you give blatant lies, when you try to undermine a democratic process on how school board members are elected, and then you try to do whatever you can to defame and slander the leaders of the school division, not just including me but others who look like me, that’s when I’m going to say something about it,” Gordon said. “This is a situation that has gotten swept under the rug so much.”

Gordon also spoke on the attacks having spilled over to the city’s former mayor.

“When we had Linda Johnson, the former mayor, speak at the School Board meeting, do you know that those same individuals are now attacking her? Because she told the truth?” he said. “Nothing was being said about the leadership in Suffolk Public Schools when the leadership was predominantly white, but now all of a sudden that the leadership is predominantly black, now we have to be under scrutiny. Now you have to be able to second guess.”

Gordon called out microaggressions levied at the SPS leadership.

“They’ll address us in email or address us in meetings and downgrade our titles and call us ‘Mr. Gordon.’ Things that I call out every time,” he said. “It’s just so interesting how that was accepted until Oct. 14, 2019, when John Gordon was brought to this city. There’s a fear amongst the African-American community because of all the harassment that we’ve received, that many of our leaders are going to end up leaving the school division.”

And Gordon contends that this is the group of individuals’ goal.

“To harass as much as they can so that you just give up. It’s affected everybody,” he said. “But at the same time, it lets me know that’s what my purpose is. My purpose is to make sure that we are going to continue to serve as role models for the 56% African-Americans, 31% Caucasians, 6% Hispanic and 6% multi-racial. 

And don’t get me wrong. The overwhelming majority of the City of Suffolk is not like that. It just so happens that the people who grab the microphone are,” he said. “It makes them so, so uncomfortable to look up on that dais and see representation that matches the school system. A lot of people can’t handle that. But then if someone else who doesn’t look like me says the exact same thing, then all of a sudden it’s accepted.”

Gordon said this is what they’re battling against. “That’s what we’re fighting here in 2023. And it’s a damn shame that we’re still fighting this in 2023,” he concluded.

Editor’s note: Updated third quote and 16th passage at 8:37 a.m., Saturday, March 18 to reflect accuracy.


Editor’s note: Updated 11th passage at 2:56 p.m., Saturday, March 18 to reflect grammatical correction.