Dr. Shawn Joseph Unchained

His Truth: A Dysfunctional Board and the Jerry Springer Media

At one of his more than 400 school visits, Dr. Shawn Joseph looks on as an elementary student works on a class project.
At one of his more than 400 school visits, Dr. Shawn Joseph looks on as an elementary student works on a class project.

By Tribune Staff Writer 

NASHVILLE, TN — As the highly tumultuous period of leadership for the city’s first African-American Director of Schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools comes to a shameful end, Dr. Shawn Joseph showed class all the way while the city will have to watch and see if the Board of Education will claw the new black Director of Schools. The city of Nashville was forced to watch the media and some board members driven by personal agendas viscously attack his more than 20-year career, his name, and his character. With such heavy focus on Dr. Joseph, the priorities and educational concerns for the more than 85,000 school children took a backseat. Non-African American reporters worried about the type of music he liked and how he was being transported to his numerous meetings, but failed to report, discipline or fully expose school board members that invoked Klu Klux Klan behavior by recommending that folks wear masks to a meeting to protest this educated Black man. 

With grace and professionalism, Dr. Joseph faithfully stood by his impressive and proven track record demonstrating gains in math and reading scores, the creation of new STEAM magnet programs at the elementary level and at 18 middle schools and the establishment of an Early College High School program. Like the first Hispanic Director of Schools, Dr. Pedro Garcia, Dr. Joseph had to wade through school board mess left by previous white male superintendents even though those who felt his leadership was questionable failed to realize there were no complaints about Dr. Joseph ever raised by any of the city’s mayors. 

Now that Dr. Joseph can become unchained, he can share his truth. He spoke with The Tennessee Tribune in length and shared insight into several matters of interest to the community providing answers to questions that often went unasked and were severely misreported such as sexual harassment allegations, contracts, that the leaks of confidential information and the infamous request made by a board member encouraging people to come to meetings wearing masks which felt like a modern-day lynching. 

Tennessee Tribune (Tribune): “Dr. Joseph, for your supporters and the many residents of Nashville who care for you and respect your leadership, they want to know how you’re doing?”

Dr. Shawn Joseph (SJ): “I definitely want to thank everyone for the support and prayers. I want them to know that I’m doing fine. Prayer does move things. My name is Joseph, and Joseph, was a mighty person that went through some things and the Lord always took care of him.”

Tribune: “The Tribune also saw that you gave a parting quote from the late artist Tupac.  How should that expression ‘I ain’t mad at cha’ be interpreted by the board and the community?”

SJ:  Prior to that, I was talking about the walk of Jesus, and He teaches us that we have to forgive those that have done us wrong. I wanted the board to know from the bottom of my heart, and genuinely, that I’m not mad at cha.  Things happen as they’re supposed to happen and for times, such as these, it was time to part our ways.”

Tribune: “Do you recall the exact moment when things started to go wrong and you thought things may go in a bad direction?”

SJ:  “What I would say is that I noticed from the time I came to Nashville, I noticed that people aren’t used to strong African-Americans, particularly male leaders and there aren’t that many in Nashville. From the inception, there has been lots of infatuation with how we did the work, why we did the work and things of that nature.  There is also a news group that is also very Jerry Springer-like running around chasing a story and trying to make news when there is no news.”

Tribune: “Are there any job-related moments that caused early shifts in the board members attitudes?”

SJ:  “When we began to discuss equity and putting dollars in schools for the neediest kids and when we started making tough decisions as around budget cuts, a few board members begin to change but the majority understood. We couldn’t stay focused and have the needed communication in order to get through some of the tough decisions.”

Tribune: “Would you say this is when the board began their plans to sabotage and discredit you?”

SJ: “I wouldn’t say it was planned in the beginning but over the last year there have been key individuals who had a mission to destroy my reputation and destroy the great work we were doing in order to keep us off focus. With another year and a half on my contract, I didn’t think the city should sit through another year of fighting.”

Tribune: “What did you think you were going to accomplish in Nashville?”

SJ: “I didn’t come here for that. I came to Nashville to improve reading outcomes for kids and achievements for gifted and talented students, see fewer kids getting suspended, helping kids get certifications, adding early colleges and improve ACT scores among many things. We did these things in a short time frame with a strategic plan to connect the school system to the community. There was a disconnect when I got here, and they never saw the superintendent in the community and the schools. We have to love the children we have and not those that we hope come back.”

Tribune: “You were clear when you said you came here to deal with the children and not the adults. What was in your presentation to the board members at your March 26, 2019 State of Schools meeting?

SJ: “This was at our last board meeting where I communicated that it would be beneficial that we come to a mutual agreement and separate. I also communicated that in the areas where people have continuously tried to say I had done something wrong, I needed to present the facts.”

Tribune: “What were those areas?”

SJ: “I needed to be accurate and clear about sexual harassment, contracts, and other issues that kept coming up. Again, you have these Jerry Springer and Geraldo wanna be newscasters who continuously try to present re-runs. With over 800 meetings in the community, how many times are they going to keep talking about the fact that I have a driver? I’ve never been in a place where people are doing audits of audits.”

Tribune: “What is the final point you want the community to know regarding all of the investigations and allegations?”

SJ: “You can’t make something happen that didn’t happen and it’s clear that nothing illegal, immoral or unethical was done as we were simply trying to do the work. If anything, I pushed too hard and too fast with too little resources.”

Tribune: “What about the mistakes”

SJ: “People make mistakes. Moral mistakes, and it’s not what Shawn did because I was responsible for 11,000 employees and a lot of people in the organization made mistakes. As the superintendent, I’m responsible for what happens. It was on my watch and people worked really hard to connect things to me that weren’t connectable.”

Tribune: “Can you provide an example?”

SJ: “There were two people in Human Resources that didn’t report things to the state.”

Tribune: “Who was the person that was tasked to ensuring the reports were made to the state and to the board and were they terminated?”

SJ: “The person was a human resources employee in Human Relations, and we asked him to resign or be terminated? He resigned.”

Tribune: “So you were stuck holding the bag on infractions that should have been reported to the board?”

SJ:  “Yes, you could say that.”

Tribune: “What did you actually do as a leadership position amidst the sexual harassment claims?”

SJ:  “Unfortunately, bad things happen and the organization must take swift action. The same individual that didn’t turn in paperwork, also had files that contained lots of information and we believe that information was shared with the media and it snowballed into a mess. This was a manufactured crisis that was created.” 

Tribune: “Did any sexual harassment issues really happen?”

SJ: “Clearly there were some issues of sexual harassment that happened and each individual was addressed and the situations thoroughly investigated and evaluated.”

Tribune: “But what about instances directly reported to you?”

SJ: “When an employee came to me directly and communicated a concern, at that exact moment while he talked to me, I sent a message to human resources and he was in the human resources office the next morning getting his information investigated. My responsibility is to report it to human resources and then they follow-up.”

Tribune: “Is there a human resources report or audit in writing on the sexual harassment issues?”

SJ: “There was an audit and the information found there was no substance in the issue after an investigation. However, the report showed different processes but not consistency in the process because people do things different ways. It still goes back to having a news channel and school board members trying to connect you to something with no substance. Just pray for them and hope they understand you don’t do people that way.”

Tribune: “If I’m not mistaken, there’s data that shows you spent less money than your predecessor, Jesse Register?”

SJ: “Yes, we spent millions less. Even with the contract issue, we invested in the right product and our children deserved world class products. These are reasons our reading scores in early grades are growing and ACT scores are up because we put the right investments in the right places to get better outcomes for kids.”

Tribune: “Isn’t this what you were hired for?”

SJ: “The original board hired me because I worked in districts that had gotten better results than Nashville public schools. To make an assertion because I know of a certain product is foolish.”

Tribune: “Was any documentation ever provided to show you the data that lead to their conclusions?”

SJ: “The board received a confidential report from the attorneys, and we were supposed to meet, speak to the lawyers and clarify how they came to their conclusions, but instead, the board sent it to the media before we talked to the law firm and the media reported on it. I had a lot of questions about the report that were broad and dangerous.”

Tribune: “How do you feel about the three board members that gave you all the same unsatisfactory marks on your evaluation?”

SJ: “I think there was definitely inconsistency and definite evidence to suggest these scores were lower than they should be. But the evaluation system was weaponized to do bad things and to blame which would make a system not want to use the evaluation tool. The evaluation system failed because the board wasn’t able to properly evaluate the areas for improvement. We need rubrics so people can’t give a one where it should be a four.”

Tribune: “So basically, all of the evaluations were consistent except three which looked as if they did your evaluation while mad, crying and in the dark?”

SJ: “Those are your words, not mine.”

Tribune: “You presented an attractive budget to the board that included pay raises, money for Pre-K and raises for bus drivers.”

SJ: “The budget was conservative at $31 million considering we only received $5 million last year because we didn’t have money as a city. Student and adult needs were balanced but the board doubled the request asking for 10 percent raises for teachers which is historical. I wouldn’t place the funding for children against adults and now the budget has to be approved by the Mayor and they will have to take the budget they recommend.”

Tribune: “Were the children neglected while so much was being done in this Dr. Joseph witch hunt?”

SJ: “A majority of the board members tried to do the right things. Dr. Sharon Gentry,is an excellent President and Will Pinkston was a strong advocate for the children. Only a few were not focused so the children were not neglected.”

Tribune: “Like cancer, if these board members are not removed what is the difference between you and the new minority leader and so they won’t do this to her?”

SJ: “I don’t know. I hope this board rallies around Dr. Battle so that she can focus on our kids.”

Tribune: “Could the Mayor’s office have provided more support, or did they come too late?”

SJ: “I appreciate David Briley. He cares about the city and about the kids. He’s running for election and you have to be thoughtful about the political environment that you’re in. Ultimately he came out and did the right thing and said we need to focus on our kids.”

Tribune: “What do you think about Vice Mayor Shulman being on the forefront initially and the Mayor didn’t come forth until the heat turned up?

SJ: “I don’t have an opinion on that.”

Tribune: Well, do you have an opinion on what the disadvantaged citizens who don’’t have the platform you do are suppsed to do?

SJ: “This is a moment to become more unchained and begin to be more socially active and use our voices to advocate on behalf of our children and ourselves.”

Tribune: “At one point, two people on the board called you vindictive and tried to get scared teachers to show up like the Ku Klux Klan by hiding their faces in masks?”

SJ: “One of the things that disturbed me the most was the fact the board member referenced masks.” 

Tribune: “In 2019, this is more than wearing a mask because with number 45 in the office this goes straight to the KKK.”

SJ:  “Her lack of humility and sensitivity did not lead her to apologize for the anger and hurt she caused to the community as she shrugged us off like our feelings didn’t matter. This sent a message that we didn’t have a huge outcry from the entire community. 

Tribune: “So in 2019 she basically encourages the cowards to come out with the torches wearing a mask? Anybody that encourages that type of behavior is wrapped in racism.

SJ: “I don’t know because I never imagined having that experience here in Nashville. There’s a way to do things and that definitely wasn’t it.”

Tribune: “If they had shown up in masks and all would you have prayed to Jesus and said forgive me for I know not what they do? Would you have remained calm?”

SJ: “My fraternity taught me, that we’re not afraid. It takes a whole lot to scare Shawn Joseph or make me jump.” 

Tribune: “You know the Bible and like John the Baptist, these people wanted your head on a platter, but they didn’t come to see it cut off.”

SJ:  It’s our job to model civility and show people what right looks like. I am now free to be more outspoken since I’m no longer the superintendent but there is still a God inside of us and we have to model manhood, scholarship and perseverance.”

Tribune: “Seeing a face like yours in the school system in your position gives young black boys goals. When you leave there will be a huge deficit.”

SJ: “I was able to reduce the school suspensions significantly among black males. Kids experience a lot of stress due to disparities and this must continue to be addressed.”

Tribune: “Since you’re no longer the superintendent, what happens when you have to engage with one of the former board members?”

SJ: “I’ll treat them as people and be courteous. These aren’t my friends, so I don’t have to do a lot of talking. The focus is on the kids, always.”

Tribune: “You’re going to, of course, land on your feet. What’s next on the horizon?”

SJ: “I will definitely stay in education. Look for me on April 28th at 1 pm on WQQK-FM 92.1 radio station. I’m finalizing some things and hope to give updates on where I am in my thinking. I will continue to be an advocate for schools, families and parents.”

Dr. Shawn Joseph wishes everyone in Nashville well. He has plans to continue helping the kids of Nashville become future leaders and changemakers. He looks forward to staying in touch on numerous social media platforms and can be reached on Twitter @UnchainedJoseph.

Editor’s Note: Tribune readers may also learn more about the progress of supporting children in Nashville by following these social media sites as well: Facebook @supportnashvillechildren; Twitter @supportnashkids; and Instagram @supportnashvillekids. 

This article originally appeared in The Tennessee Tribune

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