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Systemic harassment and abuse in our educational system

Updated: Jan 28

In May of this year, Dr. Elysse Versher, a beloved Vice-Principal at West Campus High School, resigned from her job. In her letter of resignation she detailed the years of racial and sexual harassment she endured while holding that position.


Dr. Elysse Versher pictured below


It is clear from her letter that the folks who had the power to support Dr. Versher, and to work to bring healing to the trauma she experienced, repeatedly and ACTIVELY chose to ignore the situation in favor of appeasing the students, parents, and staff who had acted as aggressors

Two people within the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) are directly culpable for allowing the continued abuse of Dr. Versher: Sacramento Unified School District Superintendent Aguilar and West Campus Principal McMeekin.


As will be discussed further into this piece, they need to be held accountable for their lack of action.


Sacramento Unified School District Superintendent Aguilar pictured above


West Campus Principal McMeekin pictured above


This week, SJPC was able to sit down and have a conversation with Dr. Versher about what she's been through. We are so grateful for her time and willingness to talk with us. It is our hope that continuing to share her story will contribute in some way to finding justice for the gross abuse of power experienced not only by Dr. Versher, but by teachers/staff/administrators of color throughout the educational system.


The following report summarizes responses given by Dr. Versher to the questions we discussed.


What do you want people to know about your story?


Dr. Versher emphasized that it is not possible to understand these acts of injustice by focusing solely on her experience. This is not an isolated incident. Rather, cases like this happen to administrators of color across not only Sacramento County, but the country as a whole. She has personally noticed an uptick in racial and sexual harassment in the broader community within the last few years.


The incidents of abuse that Dr. Versher experienced within her time in the SCUSD were well-documented. The lack of response from the District has also been well-documented. It would appear that the lack of action on behalf of Dr. Versher's supervisors to address the harm empowered and emboldened parents and coworkers who had been complicit in the harm - comfortable in the knowledge that they would not face any consequences.


The indifference of the folks in leadership positions was not only detrimental to the mental health of Dr. Versher, but it also allowed for the escalation of racist and sexist attacks against her.


In regard to how this lack of support affected her, Dr. Versher simply stated


I’m not cared about

She realized that if she was to continue working her job, she would also continue to be abused.


During her first two weeks on the job Dr. Versher had already begun to experience racial harassment. She initially thought that advocating for herself would start to solve the problems. Sadly, she then realized that people might not actually care about equity, even when they said they did. She saw no action taken after she reported being threatened by a parent. She also saw that when a white male coworker experienced a much less severe incident he was immediately checked on by school staff.


It should be noted that Dr. Versher was well-loved amongst the students at West Campus High School. She had many close relationships with students who cared for and respected her. However, due to the actions of a small group of very vocal students, parents, and coworkers, Dr. Versher's time at the school was marked by instances of abuse and torment.


She emphasized that institutions are hellbent on using the correct "buzz words" to try and solve problems - with the actual problem being that they don't do anything to ensure commitment to, or follow through with, their so-called values.


Dr. Versher tried to document every incident as it happened. She would reach out to supervisors & folks in HR about what happened. In return she received retaliation from coworkers, followed by silence from the staff she had reached out to. So she stopped asking.


She didn't have anyone to go to for validation and support, no one to investigate the incidents and take them seriously

The final straw regarding her effort to maintain her mental health came when she found her parking spot covered in racist graffiti. More about that incident can be found in this Fox40 article. Dr. Versher also experienced an attack in which a photo of herself, her partner, and her children (pulled from the school's newsletter) was defaced with racist imagery.


That attack took place as Dr. Versher had returned to working in-person after campuses had shut down for Covid safety. During this time she had been going above and beyond for students stuck at home through the pandemic. She supported them when none of her coworkers did. She made the point that the District didn't give families anything to support them through the pandemic.


For Dr. Versher, another terrible thing about working in SCUSD was that it took a mass amount of media attention garnered in her support to force the District to begin to take any of her experiences seriously.


During this time, administrators of color would get together and discuss instances of abuse as they were happening. After an incident in June 2020, this group, along with Dr. Versher, met with Superintendent Aguilar to discuss the situation further. It seemed like things were moving along! Then Aguilar never followed up.


Dr. Versher believes that the lack of investigation into the folks involved in the abuse was a decision made in an attempt to force her hand so that she would leave the school. Alongside all the abuse and harassment she experienced, she was also continually pressured to take jobs in some of the worst schools in the district.


The population at West Campus High was comprised of some very privileged populations, and the culture was steeped through with racism. This culture manifested as ongoing racist acts towards people of color; daily incidents that were consistently ignored/dismissed by the principal. Essentially the principal would bend to any pressure applied by parents when they didn't want their children to face consequences for participating in said acts.


It shouldn’t take a crisis to get a reaction from folks

She was living with an enormous amount of triggers.


In early 2022, Dr. Versher completed four interviews with a school in another district. She signed her employment contract in March. Towards the end of May she got word that her contract had been rescinded. The reason? All the media attention she had garnered from the abuse she experienced within SCUSD. She was told that hiring her would be detrimental to that school's existing staff.


Are there ways in which the harms you experienced could have been prevented (on the part of the aggressors/larger systemic agitators of injustice)?


Dr. Versher responded that, when an employee reports racial discrimination, leadership should research it, and make a decision that's appropriate for the situation. Seems pretty straight forward right? She also pointed out that in many cases, simply following the district code would solve a lot of problems. There are rules in place for the type of situations she was forced into, and they were ignored. She further stated that staff should be supported in pressing charges when it's necessary.


Those in leadership positions need to promptly respond to threats and harassment. We don't need to build a new system, Dr. Versher says, we need to follow the system for responding to injustice that already exists. The District should have acknowledged the abuse, both in writing and verbally. That kind of thing makes a difference. Actively ignoring and denying the abuse amounts to gaslighting.


What does this say about our educational system? What does it say about the different values we place on people’s lives based on their skin tone?


Dr. Versher points out that there is a Black Parallel School Board operating within SCUSD because black children are not being educated according to their needs. They are not being kept safe.


She emphasizes that racism is a systemic issue. The system is set up to wear you down until you stop trying. Within the school setting, fear of losing your job can contribute to this process. Dr. Versher believes that people don't necessarily have malicious intentions, she thinks the problem is often that people just don't know what they're doing - they're not trained.


Dr. Versher investigated her own complaint of sexual harassment. Yes, that's what happened. The issue was essentially dismissed by the folks she looked to for help - they didn't want to deal with it, and they said if she wanted an investigation she would have to do it herself. In an incredibly impressive move she did investigate herself - she brought witnesses and gathered testimony about the assault she experienced. Coworkers stood up for her as she experienced events of this nature (for years), the majority of them white and female-identified. The problem was that the people responsible for the harassment were older, had been deeply embedded in the school culture for many years, and had many connections throughout the community. Essentially - they had the power. The other staff did not.


What does “justice” look like in this situation?


Dr. Versher says that on the school side, justice would be restorative. She had always hoped for students who committed the harm to be able to come forward and make amends. She wanted to understand why they did what they did, what led them to those actions. She would also want to have the opportunity to let them know how their actions affected herself and her family. If they were to repeat the behavior again in the future, she believes they should be suspended/expelled.


Regarding the District, Dr. Versher is calling for the immediate removal of Principal McMeekin & Superintendent Aguilar. They both did absolutely nothing to support and protect Dr. Versher, even though they knew what was going on.


How can community members help/support?


Make public comment at SCUSD Board meetings! Ask where the full report is on the findings regarding Dr. Versher's abuse, ask what Aguilar is going to do going forward to rectify this situation.


Recognize, and help others to recognize, that this is a systemic issue. These abuses have been happening to Dr. Versher for years, but they've also been happening to others - many just haven’t come forward yet. Dr. Versher added that she consistently has folks reaching out to her for similar issues - so it's important to look at these issues from a broad societal lens, and help wherever we can.


Dr. Versher's experience illustrates the challenges of trying to face systemic issues of sexism and racism. She has firsthand experience of how difficult it is to come forward as a survivor. She asks that we remember how challenging these situations are for the people inside them, work to empower them, and keep them safe.


She also wants effective education around issues of sexual and racial harassment to be provided to folks working within school districts. She has also called for legislation that provides safety mechanisms between school teachers, administrators and students.


Please keep Dr. Versher in mind, we will do our best to provide support as we can.

If you have any thoughts/experiences/etc. to share you can always email us at: info@socialjusticesac.org


Follow this link to the SCUSD Board meeting page.


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