Man calls out school board member after she's caught shopping during hearing on racism

Imagine the gall it takes to sit in a meeting where community members are sharing their personal stories of racism and scroll through an online store on your computer. Now imagine the gall it takes to not just be in that meeting, but to be one of the people running it and decide your new clothing needs are more important that the concerns of Black community members.

Gary Chambers, Jr. caught East Baton Rouge Parish School Board member Connie Bernard on camera shopping online during a hearing on changing the name of Lee High School—as in Robert E. Lee— on June 18. As community members shared their feelings about having a school named for the general of the confederate army—the one who fought for the South's "right" to enslave Black people—Bernard appeared to be pondering what color dress she was going to buy.

When Chambers' turn came up to speak, he said he had intended to get up and talk about how racist Robert E. Lee was, but instead was going to talk about Connie Bernard, who was "sitting over there shopping while we're talking about Robert E. Lee." Holding up his phone, he said, "This is a picture of you shopping, while we're talking about racism and history in this country."


Chambers pointed out that it was only white members of the board got up from their tables while people in the community—which Chambers says is 81% Black—were talking. "Because you don't give a damn, it's clear," he said.

He did explain how racist Robert E. Lee was: "Not only did he whoop the slaves, he said, 'Lay it on 'em hard.' And after he said, 'Lay it on 'em hard,' he said 'Put brine on 'em so it'll burn 'em.'"

"And you sit your arrogant self in here," he said, addressing Bernard again, "and sit on there shopping, while the pain and the hurt of the people of this community is on display. Because you don't give a damn, and you should resign."

The entire video is gold, with Chambers explaining how Bernard should have resigned two years ago when she was caught on video choking a student, and how she should now walk out and resign, "because you are the example of racism in this community."

The mic drop moment at the end brought the point home: "We built this joint for free," Chambers said. "And we're done begging you to do what's right."

When Chambers mentioned Bernard "talking foolishness" on TV the week before, he was presumably referring to a June 10th interview with WVLA-33 in which Bernard said that people who didn't like the name of the school needed to brush up on their history.

"I would hope that they would learn a little bit more about General Lee," she said, "because General Lee inherited a large plantation and he was tasked with the job of doing something with those people who lived in bondage to that plantation, the slaves, and he freed them."

After understandable backlash, Bernard issued an apology in a written statement:

"My comments last week about the naming of Lee High School were insensitive, have caused pain for others, and have led people to believe I am an enemy of people of color, and I am deeply sorry. I condemn racial injustice in any form. I promise to be part of the solution and to listen to the concerns of all members of our community. I stand with you, in love and respect."

However, she also told The Advocate that what looked like her shopping was just a popup ad that she hadn't closed out. "I wasn't shopping," she said. "I was actually taking notes, paying attention, reading online comments."

But Chambers wasn't having that nonsense either—he had receipts in the form of a 20-second video of her scrolling through a full screen of clothing while one of her fellow board members—a Black woman—was speaking.

Another attendee at the meeting, Arthur Pania of Baton Rouge, corroborated Chambers' account on Facebook, "I personally watched her for about eight minutes, attempting to decide between a beige and red dress," he wrote. "The only thing I had issue determining from my sight was if it was a short dress or nightware."

People with this much blatant racism in their bones and a willingness to blatantly lie in an attempt to cover up that racism has no business making decisions for anyone, much less school children in a community of mostly Black families. As Chambers wrote on Instagram, "Our children deserve better, our community deserves better. If she remains it gives permission for others to do the same."

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

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Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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