MOULTRIE, Ga. — An elementary school principal in rural Georgia says he lost his job in retaliation for emailed comments he made speaking out against racial injustice.
Former Cox Elementary Principal William Leamon Madison is alleging racial discrimination and retaliation in the Colquitt County Board of Education’s decision to not renew his contract this year.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is investigating Madison's complaint, according to his attorney Julie Oinonen of Georgia Association of Educators, which filed an Open Records Act complaint on his behalf in Colquitt County Superior Court Oct. 15.
Madison, a Black man who worked in the district for 17 years — the latter eight years as Cox’s assistant principal and two as its principal — alleges he was let go by the board after he sent an email to staff last school year “speaking out against injustice and discrimination in a positive affirming way” in the wake of the May 20, 2020 murder of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody.
The email was sent to staff June 4, 2020, according to documents obtained by CNHI through an Open Records Request.
"Do we intentionally avoid conversations about such matters and not educate our students on how to properly conduct themselves when interacting with law enforcement, especially those that look like me, Mr. Nate or Mrs. Taylor as they are usually the ones who could very well lose their lives from a routine traffic stop?" Madison's email reads in part.
In response, the complaint states the superintendent Doug Howell met with Madison to discuss the "George Floyd" email and informed him that several Board of Education members were upset by the email and are "calling for his job.”
BOE member Jon Schwalls sent an email to his colleagues July 29, 2020 calling for Madison to immediately be removed from his leadership position.
"[Madison's email] is propaganda at its highest from. Not one shred of evidence nor data supports this," Schwalls said in the email. "These are purely statements of bias, political agendas, and racist points of view...His job is to facilitate education, not indoctrination and fear of different races nor the law enforcement that so valiantly serves us."
Two days prior during a July 27, 2020 BOE meeting, Colquitt County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Austin Cannon spoke during public comments about Madison’s email stating the email essentially teaches students to be scared of police. The email, Cannon said, falsely misrepresents law enforcement.
“It will be so hypocritical of us to allow our Black males in the great city, state and nation to be brutally attacked and killed by the very people who are charged with protecting and serving them, while teaching them that racism no longer exists,” Cannon said of Madison’s email during the meeting. “Ignore the fact that Black males, even unarmed, are attacked and killed at an extremely higher rate by police than any other race of males.”
Cannon cited national statistics that he said demonstrates unarmed Blacks are killed at a lower rate than whites; While praising Madison and viewing him as role model for students, Cannon said the email brings unnecessary attention to the issue in schools.
“We’re teaching them to be scared of police,” Cannon said at that meeting.
Madison's attorney refuted comments regarding what was referred to as the "inaccuracy" of Madison's email.
"Numerous objective studies have showed that Black men are 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police during their lifetime. Black people who are fatally shot by police seemed to be twice as likely as white people to be unarmed," said Oinonen, referencing studies by the National Library of Medicine and the Wiley Online Library. "All [Madison] did in his email was encourage staff to be supportive of students, as well as speaking out against racial injustice in a positive affirming way."
Oinonen said the district's retaliation violates Madison's right to free speech and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibits employers from retaliating against those speaking against discrimination.
Madison’s complaint alleges that he went on to endure retaliation throughout the school year and stated that the board specifically voted against his contract three days after he reported that a staff member threatened to lynch him.
A white teacher allegedly told Madison, “We’re going to lynch you.” The teacher denied the allegation, according to the complaint.
On March 22, 2021 according to BOE minutes, all board members voted unanimously against renewing Madison’s contract, and unanimously in approving the contract of nine other principals that same day.
In a review of Madison's personnel file from the district, it did not appear that Madison was ever reprimanded or had received any negative reviews prior to 2020.
Madison's attorney said the district also "padded" Madison's personnel file with a reprimand letter in March 2021 that he didn't know existed until he filed his April 2021 Open Records Request.
Records show that the superintendent sent a letter to Madison Oct. 9, 2020 discussing two recent meetings he had with Madison in response to staff's "multiple complaints and concerning issues" regarding his administrative style. Records, including email and texts, obtained by CNHI showed that a handful staff members at Cox complained of a negative climate and culture at the school, Madison's "impulsive" decision-making and Madison as being viewed as unapproachable.
"Those complaints were part of an ugly racist, smear campaign by various disgruntled white employees who are emboldened by the [BOE] after they made clear he wanted to go after Dr. Madison's job after he spoke out against racial injustice," Oinonen said.
Following the board of education's decision, a petition circulated from Cox staff in an attempt to get the board to reconsider its decision, stating that the few grievances against Madison are not representative of his "strong leadership" at the school.
"No boss is ever going to be able to make all of their employees happy all of the time...However, it is the responsibility of the school board and others making decisions to seek more perspectives than just those of the loudest complainers," the petition states. "If our school is making progress and moving in the right direction, as our data suggests, why would you want to stop that to appease a vocal few?"
Madison indicates in his complaint that the district failed to respond timely respond to his April 12 Open Records Request which he said sought documents, text messages and emails from the superintendent, board members and specific teachers concerning him. The district, he alleges, also sent "incomplete and deficient" documents.
Madison’s ORR further implies a history of racial discrimination in the school district through his request for information related a Justice Department and Civil Rights lawsuit against the district as well as documents pertaining to any school system accreditation, “especially in regards to the demographic makeup of the Colquitt County School System as it pertains to Blacks in teaching positions and positions of leadership.”
The school district’s attorney William McCalley declined to comment on the complaint and as of Wednesday said the district had not been served with the lawsuit.