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Saturday, December 2, 2023
Dec. 2, 2023

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Olympia school board directors say repair work is needed after president used N-word


OLYMPIA — Olympia School Board director Talauna Reed alleged in a recent candidate forum that the board’s president, Darcy Huffman, said the N-word during a conference last November.

Huffman confirmed with The Olympian she said the word, and she said she apologized when it happened. But other members of the board say more needs to be done to address the situation.

Reed first brought the incident to light July 18 during an election event for candidates of color, hosted by Showing Up for Racial Justice Olympia. She said she has experienced members of the public, students, and even a board member use the N-word. Later, in a post on her public Facebook, Reed said it was Huffman who said the word in November, and that two other board members were present when it happened.

Where the word was used

Reed told The Olympian the incident happened around Nov. 16 in Spokane. She said Huffman and director Hilary Seidel were present, as well as former board president Maria Flores. Reed said the group was talking about what she had been going through, being a new board member and receiving hateful comments from the public.

Reed said Huffman began telling a story when she used the N-word. Reed said Seidel told Huffman she couldn’t talk that way, and Huffman continued on with her story without apologizing. According to Reed, Flores turned away from the conversation.

Minutes passed, and Reed and the others were seated for a portion of the conference. Reed said she told her partner, who traveled with her, about the incident.

“I mean, the nerve, and the shocker was, it was just so casually said, like she didn’t even say anything,” Reed said.

Since the incident, she said she has had few one-on-one interactions with board members, alleging Huffman and others ignore her, despite requests to have the incident addressed.

Reed said she decided to share the incident at the candidate forum because her requests so far to have it addressed have been ignored. She said she emailed the board with no response. And questions regarding tackling racism and inequality in schools pushed her over the edge.

She said she hopes the situation can be viewed as a learning opportunity for Huffman, but she’s unsure of how it should be addressed now. Either way, she said it needs to be used as an example for kids in the district who could be exposed to this type of language.

“What’s happening to me is no different than what our students could go through because my kids went through it,” Reed said. “And so it makes me really sad.”

Reed said she’s filed a formal complaint against the district office and staff.

Hilary Seidel responds

Hilary Seidel said her recollection of the incident is a little different from Reed’s. She said she remembers the word being said, though. It happened at the beginning of the conference, before dinner.

She said Huffman was talking with her about the comments and correspondence the directors received in the wake of Reed’s appointment to the board. She said the board had decided, at Reed’s request, not to share those comments with Reed because of how harmful they were, but they often spoke to each other about them.

“But we often talk about those things with each other because it’s really hard to hear those and you don’t want to be the only person that holds those really negative comments,” Seidel said. “The ‘sorrow shared is half the sorrow’ mentality.”

Seidel’s recollection was that Huffman shared one of the comments from the public with her, which included the N-word. And after, Huffman said that kind of language was permissible when she was growing up, but it obviously isn’t now.

“And I did say, ‘Even when you’re repeating what someone else is saying, I’m just not comfortable ever hearing that word,’” Seidel said.

She said Huffman apologized and said she wouldn’t say that word again. Seidel is unsure if Reed was present for the conversation, but understands she heard it either way. And she said Flores wasn’t there at all that day, contrary to Reed’s statement. She had arrived at the conference late.

Seidel said she has no recollection of receiving a request from Reed to address the incident further, other than an email this past week.

“I’m certainly happy to have that conversation with her,” Seidel said. “And do whatever repair work she feels is still necessary. It’s her right to request that.”

Seidel said the board will have to work collaboratively to move forward from this. And it will require having the conversation in the public view, she said. But there are challenges with making that happen and when to do it, since the incident happened in a closed setting.

On top of that, she said Reed has to be comfortable with having that conversation in public.

At the same time, Seidel said Reed’s most-recent email to the board asked that they not address the situation for now. Seidel said as the board vice president, she feels the obligation to coordinate a board retreat where the conversation can maybe start.

“But I really think that part of it is we need to hear from the person who wants the repair work to begin what feels supportive to them,” Seidel said. “It’s not their job to do the repair work, but it is our job to listen and hear what feels supportive to them in that situation.”

Maria Flores responds

Maria Flores said the July 18 forum was the first time she had heard about the incident in November, and she was the board president at the time.

Flores asked Reed for more information about the incident during the forum, and Reed told her she was present during it. But Flores said she had arrived at the conference the following day and missed the conversation entirely, and she said no board members told her about it.

She said she reached out to her fellow board members this last week to learn more about what happened.

“I was not present. If I had been present, I would have also said something to Darcy about that language being totally inappropriate and to apologize,” Flores said.

Flores has been on the record in the past talking about what it feels like as a board member to experience racism, sexism, homophobia and more. She’s the first Native and Latina person on the board, and Reed is the first Black person to be appointed. She said even their student representatives of color on the board have been verbally attacked during public comment periods.

“We have a lot of restorative work to do to repair our relationships and build back trust,” Flores said. “So I have some ideas on how we’re going to need to do that together.”

Flores said she expects Huffman to publicly apologize, and that it’s never too late to address racism. She’s requesting the board have a meeting or an anti-racism training retreat facilitated by an outside consultant. She said it’s needed to address this wrong, as well as a broader number of issues.

“I know as a board member there have been times where I’ve asked my white colleagues to stand up for me, or, ‘Can you say this so that I don’t have to say it,’” Flores said. “And we’ve had those conversations and board retreats before, of what it means to constantly feel like you’re under attack. And their role as white allies is to stand up.”

Flores said she also wants to personally talk to Reed to repair their relationship, because despite the fact that they’re running against each other in the Aug. 1 primary, they don’t see it that way.

“We both got dual endorsed by the Thurston County Democrats. And at that meeting, she said, ‘You know, we’re gonna remember, I’m not running against her, we’re just both running to defeat the far right,’” Flores said.

President Huffman responds

Darcy Huffman recalls that at the conference she was clearly upset about some emails and texts that had been sent in about Reed and she quoted one of the messages containing the racial slur. She admitted saying the word, and she apologized after Seidel told her it wasn’t OK to say.

“I just really didn’t think about that,” she said.

Huffman said she’s not sure where Reed was at the time of the conversation. And having her bring it up all these months later has shocked her.

“I’m really sad that it’s taken her so long to bring all of this up, and that maybe it’s been in the back of her heart,” Huffman said. “Obviously had she talked to me about this, I would have definitely apologized and done whatever it is that I could do to create the healing between us.”

Huffman said there’s nothing more important to her than the board being able to work together to improve education for kids, and to give each person in the community a sense of belonging.

Huffman said she didn’t receive any correspondence from Reed prior to this week asking to address the situation. But she said it’s her intention to learn from the situation and deepen her understanding of what it means to be anti-racist and a better human being.

Whether there will be a larger conversation about the situation is unclear, Huffman said. She said she’s unsure if it’s a board or district issue that needs to be addressed in an open public meeting, but she has no issue going that route. But, as the other directors said, Reed’s most recent email asked them not to address the situation any further.

“I don’t know what that’s going to look like, but I, at this point in time, I think that if Director Reed wants to bring it up, then I think the ball is in her court, she has asked us not to discuss it anymore,” Huffman said. “And I think that I have to honor that request.”

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