Football star Brent Johnson recently asked administrators to remove his name and likeness from the Bexley Athletics Hall of Fame, citing frustration that the district has been slow to react to a series of attacks levied by current students against classmates earlier this year
Brent Johnson grew up in Bexley, first moving to Sheridan Avenue with his family when he was a toddler and then relocating to Cassingham Avenue a few years later. At Bexley High School, Johnson starred at running back for the football team, setting a school record for yardage from scrimmage and going on to play linebacker for Ohio State University following his high school graduation in 1988.
After college, Johnson returned to Bexley to raise his family, settling in a home on South Roosevelt Avenue in the hopes that he and his then-wife could provide their children with an experience equal to the one he had as a kid coming up in the East Side suburban city.
“One reason I moved back is because I did have a very good experience growing up there,” said Johnson, who has since divorced and no longer lives in Bexley. “I had a lot of friends, and, growing up around white people, most of my friends were white. … I had a couple of incidents — nothing major — where someone decided to call me outside of my name. And how I was brought up and raised, if someone called you outside of your name, you had every right to teach them a lesson. So I had very few fights, but in general I heard more racist comments from the people and teams that we played than I did from the people in Bexley.”
Considering his own experiences, Johnson said he was initially taken aback when he learned in early summer that one of his children had been a target of a social media harassment campaign undertaken by a group of students from Bexley High School and Columbus Academy. The group, which for a time dubbed itself The George Floyd Brotherhood, its name taken from the Black man killed by Minneapolis police in May, would entice select classmates to join a private Snapchat chat and then berate the individual with racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic slurs.
“When I was growing up, if you wanted to make fun of somebody, or say something to somebody, you pretty much had to say it to their face,” Johnson said. “There wasn’t this anonymity of being able to go online.”
Johnson said he was aware of past instances where his child was subjected to racist words at school, and that he had previously instructed them to report those exchanges to an administrator. “And I can’t say [they] went to an authority figure every time, but I know [they] went a few times,” Johnson said. “The thing is, when it keeps happening, and when nobody ever does anything about it, after a while you’re not going to tell anyone.”
As the months passed after Johnson learned about the Snapchat attacks, and the administration’s investigation dragged on, the Bexley alumnus started to worry that these incidents, too, would be overlooked.
In mid-September, believing the administration lacked urgency and concerned that meaningful actions had not yet been taken, Johnson contacted Bexley City Schools Athletic Director Eli Goldberger and informed him that he wanted his name and likeness to be removed from the Bexley Athletics Hall of Fame (Johnson was inducted in 2011) and his existing records scrubbed. Johnson also said he would no longer serve as a member of the school’s Hall of Fame board in light of what he viewed as Bexley administrators' heel-dragging approach to addressing not just the abuse, but issues of racial disparity within the district. (Reached by phone, Goldberger confirmed the call with Johnson but declined to speak on record.)
“We feel deep regret in removing Mr. Johnson’s legacy and contributions, but we respect his request and have complied,” a spokesperson for Bexley City Schools wrote in an emailed statement in response to an inquiry from Alive.
“With all of this going on, I didn’t want people being able to go up in the school and look at my picture. I didn’t want to be associated with it at all,” said Johnson, who would like to see Bexley take more proactive steps to address racism and bullying within the schools, in addition to offering mental health counseling and addressing the lack of diversity within both the school board and the teaching ranks. “If you want to know the truth of the matter … this is just me taking a stand. I’m not going to try to force them to do anything, and I don’t think they care enough that [asking to be removed from the Hall of Fame] is putting any pressure on them. … In the end, it’s just a way to show [my child] that some things are more important than accolades.”Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter
In the days following Alive’s July report on the George Floyd Brotherhood, Bexley City Schools released a brief statement in which administrators expressed concern regarding the contents of the article. The release, posted on the district's website, also said that officials would be expanding their investigation into the attacks.
At the same time, numerous white parents posted comments on social media that the article had led them to have difficult but necessary conversations about race with their children — conversations that have long taken place early within Black families both in Bexley and beyond.
“This is nothing new for us,” said Jonathan Baker of the Bexley Minority Parents Alliance, a group that offers support to Bexley students of color and their families. “Living in a white community, you just do certain things, right? I taught my kids years ago, when the police go by, we wave to the police. And when I see someone on the street, I talk to them, so they can more or less trust that I live here. [My kids] grew up with the understanding that there’s going to be an extra ... responsibility and a caution that we carry living here.”
As these wider conversations unfolded, Kristen Oganowski, a parent of a Bexley student, said she started to notice that when the internet attacks were discussed in her circles of white friends, inevitably someone would say something to the effect of, “They’re just kids. Why are people out for blood?”
“And in those conversations, nobody was talking about the targeted kids, who were also just kids,” said Oganowski, who then felt compelled to write a letter to administrators pressing for accountability and transparency in regards to the students who orchestrated The George Floyd Brotherhood. With the help of a friend, Oganowski turned the letter into an online petition, which generated more than 230 signatures. “I wanted to make sure there were more white voices speaking out, supporting the kids who were targeted.”
Baker noted a similar trend of people dismissing the attacks as “boys will be boys,” which he said offered cover to a failure in parenting and neglected to acknowledge both the serious nature of the harassment and the insidiousness of the words deployed. Rather than dismissing the perpetrator’s actions, Baker said parents, and specifically white parents, should be duty-bound to reinforce any anti-racist instruction offered by the school at home so the lessons can be more fully absorbed.
“I think some of these perpetrators, in people’s minds, are just nice white boys,” Oganowski said. “And they can’t figure out how these nice white boys can also be perpetrators of racist cruelty, which they were.”
On a Friday in mid-September, Oganowski joined a small group in a conference call with Bexley City Schools administrators, including Johnson, Baker and representatives with the Bexley Anti-Racism Project, among others. The call was orchestrated by parents of one of the abuse victims, with Baker serving as a liaison, of sorts, and was designed to press the district for updates, to get a better sense of what had been learned in the course of the investigation and to ascertain if any discipline had been meted out.
“It felt like the communication [from the school] was fragmented. … And I think when you don’t have that transparency, and when it becomes a long, drawn-out process, you lose the faith of the people you’re supposed to serve,” said Baker, who described the overall tone of the phone call as somber. “I think that’s something the district could learn from, or rethink, at least, in terms of how you can be swift, thorough and transparent.”
Baker, like others interviewed, believes the investigative process was slowed, in part, due to the social and financial statuses of the families of the kids involved in the online attacks, which he believes led the school to proceed with additional caution. “Money provides buffers between you and discipline. Privilege, money, power. People can hide behind it,” said Baker, who also pointed to the generational prestige a white family living in Bexley has been able to accrue over generations. Black families, in comparison, were long prevented from buying into the neighborhood due to redlining policies, meaning that there are relatively few Black students in the school system who were raised by parents who also grew up in the neighborhood. This, Baker noted, makes Johnson, whose children are second generation residents, a rarity in the community.
Johnson and Oganowski were both also frustrated that the school has chosen not to inform the public about any punishment levied on the attackers, with administrators citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). “We acknowledge that it can be frustrating for people to not know the details of the investigation and subsequent discipline because we have to protect the education and privacy of students involved in accordance with federal law,” a Bexley City Schools spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement.
“I’m an educator, and I’m trained in FERPA laws every single year. Why can’t you simply communicate the generic way you held them accountable? You don’t have to name what grade they’re in, or their gender, or even how many of them there were. If you’ve suspended them from sports, you don’t even have to name the sport. Just say they were suspended from extra-curricular activities,” Oganowski said. “There is not this clear communication about how they’re holding people accountable. And that’s a failure to the kids who were targeted and their parents. It’s a failure to any student in Bexley and their parents. And it’s a failure to white kids and their parents, as well. Let’s be real about what teenagers witness and the message they take in. If they’re not seeing accountability with their own eyes, the message they’re internalizing is that this is no big deal.”
In an email, administration officials countered that Bexley’s small-town stature meant that releasing even vague information could risk identifying the offenders. “Due to our district and community size, and since this was an issue discussed on social media prior to the report being made to the district, we run the risk of potentially identifying students and violating FERPA even if we vaguely state the punishments,” a spokesperson wrote. (Oganowski noted that officials made a similar argument in the September conference call. “And to that my response was that FERPA doesn’t protect small town gossip,” she said.)
While those interviewed registered disappointment in what they view as the administration’s poor handling of the situation, a parent of one of the targeted kids said that their child, while disheartened by the school’s seeming inaction, was “extremely encouraged” by the outpouring of support from friends, fellow students and families in the Bexley community. “[They] know that [they] are not alone,” the parent wrote in response to an email inquiry from Alive.
A week after the September group conference call, Bexley City Schools emailed a second, more detailed statement to parents in the district. In it, officials said the investigation into the Snapchat attacks had been completed and the offending students disciplined. The statement also summarized a series of action steps the school said it had taken, including holding moderated conversations on race with students, establishing a series of future parental panel conversations covering topics such as microaggressions and implicit bias, staff training, and the September creation of a 22-member Bexley City Schools Anti-Racism Task Force. The task force will be focused on establishing and refining the school's anti-racist policies, directing implicit bias training for teachers and collecting feedback from students, parents and staff, among other duties.
In an email a few days after our initial interview, following the updated statement released by Bexley officials, Johnson credited the school for being more decisive in its language, though he said the new statement had arrived almost three months too late. He also said he was going to maintain his Hall of Fame boycott pending documentable institutional change.
“This is a start, but I need to see action,” Johnson wrote. “Until teacher and administrative positions are filled with some minority staff [and] real programs are put into action … I will wait. [It’s] too easy to print words. But I hope they are serious.”