The Paducah Public Schools Board of Education called a special meeting for this afternoon to talk in a private executive session and then take action on “personnel” matters, following more than a month of community protests, emotional public commentary, and other closed discussions by the board surrounding a resurfaced blackface photo of Superintendent Donald Shively.
Shively said the blackface photo is from a Halloween party in 2002. He was then a teacher and assistant football coach at Paducah Tilghman High School. The photo shows him in blackface, wearing a durag and gold chains, and wearing a Paducah Tilghman High School football t-shirt.
In a virtual interview with WKMS News on Wednesday, Shively talked about the continued calls for his resignation, the meetings he’s had since the photo’s resurfacing in October, and a potential “equity audit” of the district.
Shively, in a Nov. 16 special board meeting, described the community meetings he had with parents, students, staff and faculty, and community leaders as “approaching well over 100 hours” of communication. In the Wednesday interview, he said he’s been using that feedback as guidance in an action plan he announced in October.
“It's been really helpful. And it's been some tremendous point, spot-on feedback for how we can use that to help our district meet the needs of our children better,” he said.
He said part of that plan includes a potential “equity audit” of the district by an “extremely well respected group of educators” with the University of Kentucky. The audit would examine how the district’s policies and practices could be changed, with a continued dialogue about the recommendations the group would make. Shively also said he wanted to create a specific group of African-American community members to receive regular feedback during the process.
“I think that gives us a fresh look, a source that's not connected to us, and obviously will help us improve our policy or practice now that we put in place,” he said.
Shively also said he wants to elevate and encourage student voices in dialogue moving forward. But even with these meetings, protests and calls for Shively’s resignation from parents, students, and the Paducah-McCracken County NAACP chapter have continued.
Shively described one of those meetings weeks ago with about a dozen students from the high school’s African-American Leadership Club. He said he checked with the sponsor of the club to see if it was OK to speak with the group. Shively said the students were “very specific” with their “thoughts, feelings, suggestions.”
“Being able to have that dialogue, true dialogue with that group was helpful for me to gain a better understanding of obviously how a horrible decision in my past is impacting a lot of children, that I care deeply about ensuring they're successful,” Shively said. “You give your professional life trying to help others, and so that's hard as a person that cares about others to hear and know that you've caused hurt and lost trust, especially as a leader of the district.”
When asked why he dressed in blackface, Shively said he doesn’t know exactly. He said he’s reflected on his past life experiences daily about what led him to wear blackface, saying it’s “hard to recognize that version of myself.”
“I probably, like a lot of us do, when you look back on your past you see somebody that hasn't had a lot of the life experiences that you have now. Haven't had children, haven't lost people that you love, you haven't dealt with hurt and pain that you have now,” he said. “It’s really hard to see that, and so I don’t think there’s a right answer to why I did it.”
Shively said he knew the photo existed ever since he remembered the snapshot of it being taken at the Halloween party. He said when he was hired as superintendent in 2014, he didn't intentionally withhold information about the photo from the school board as he was being considered for the job. He didn’t bring up the photo because he didn’t consider it to be who he was or how he’s lived his life.
“That's a day or a night in 45 years at the moment. It's just, it's not who I am,” Shively said. “It's a horrible, very regrettable mistake. It has been since it happened, not since somebody else knew about it. And so that's the honest truth.”
He added that most people have things in their lives they’re not proud of, and that the technology in which to share one’s life has changed with the advent of social media.
Shively self-reported the photo to the school board in early 2019, describing the photo to board members. The board at that time decided to let Shively remain in his position due to his past work and dedication for the district and his expressed remorse regarding the photo, according to a statement from board chair Carl LeBuhn in October.
Calls For Resignation
The Paducah-McCracken County NAACP chapter’s president J.W. Cleary on Thursday sent an open letter to the school board renewing the call for Shively’s resignation as the “only viable way that the district, its students, and the community can move forward.” The chapter criticized the board for not providing updates during the several closed-door executive sessions the board has held in past weeks.
The chapter also called on the board: to conduct a “full independent cultural audit” of the district; require annual racial sensitivity and implicit bias training for all employees; create a diversity-centered steering committee for district practices; commit to diverse hiring at all levels of the district with leadership training for diverse candidates; and employ a diversity and inclusion officer to recruit minority candidates.
When asked if he has plans to resign, Shively said he’ll let the board decide what consequences he ultimately faces. He said he’s tried to look at everything “from a 360 degree view” about “what’s best for the school district, what’s best for children, what’s best for the community.”
“I think they want to do what's best, knowing that any decision isn't gonna make everybody happy,” he said. “It won't make everybody happy, whatever happens. And so I think they want to do, they're committed to doing what's best for children and the community.”
When asked about fears of racial divides because of this situation, Shively said he hopes Paducah can use this as an opportunity to advance the community forward.
“What can we do to help? How can we move this forward,” Shively said. “I hope we don't miss that. Regardless of what position I’m in, I hope that Paducah doesn't miss that opportunity.”
NOTE: This story will accompany an upcoming report from the Ohio Valley ReSource highlighting the voices of Black community members in Paducah about weeks of unrest following the resurfacing of the blackface photo.