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CT parents, students call for school anti-racism policies

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YEHYUN KIM / CTMIRROR.ORG
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Parents and leaders stand at the Suffield High School. About 40 parents and residents created a group and meet once a week to discuss goals and actions plans to create policy changes to help eradicate racism in the school system.

During one day in May, Mekhi Watson, a biracial senior at Coginchaug Regional High School in Durham, heard two students use the n-word while he walked the halls.

At his junior high school, it wouldn’t have been tolerated. The consequences would have been swift. But it’s different at Coginchaug, he said.

“Now they [students] just brush it off, and they’re back to normal life in a day.”

Conditions improved slightly at Coginchaug at the end of the year, but there are still problems, he said.

“Students aren’t as blatant with it,” he said. But “if you listen hard enough, you will hear racist comments.”

The question of how to deal with racist incidents of the kind Watson experienced has become more pressing for all schools since the 2020 protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota. But some districts are struggling for solutions.

In the Coginchaug and Suffield school districts, parents and students have called for clearer punishments for racist actions, more communication and additional resources for students.

Experts say anti-racism policies should include clear consequences for actions, ways to report racism and ways to track progress, often beginning with an equity audit.

Statewide, many districts are building policies related to diversity, equity and inclusion. They’re also hiring Diversity, Equity and Inclusion directors to conduct equity audits, said Eric Scoville, a spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Education.

The problems of policy

A 2021 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that about a third of high schoolers in the United States reported “perceived racism” at school. Students who reported the incidents of racism also had higher prevalence of poor mental health, difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions and not feeling close to others at school.

Schools across the country increased their efforts to develop policies for handling incidents of racism following the 2020 protests. Experts say it’s best practice to have clear anti-racism policies that outline consequences for racist actions and ways to support the victims.

That’s one of the complaints from students at Coginchaug: the discipline policy for racist behavior isn’t clear, they said.

Superintendent Doug Schuch said the school organized an assembly on racism during the last academic year and is continuing its work to address racism and bias within the district.

“I want the school to always be a place that is safe, nurturing where everybody feels welcome,” Schuch said.

About 40 miles north, Suffield parents have a similar complaint: consequences regarding racism are often lumped in with bullying.

In Suffield, parents say the high school has experienced a string of reported racist incidents, including a video in which a white student can be heard saying “white power,” a “lynch list” that circulated in a high school classroom, and a student yelling the n-word several times during an online learning session.

The school has taken an approach that is centered around the instigator rather than a complete “restorative justice,” said Dr. Cassandre Victor-Vega, who has a child attending school in Suffield. This means that the victims of the racism don’t get the support they need, she said.

And many parents think communication from the school following the incidents was insufficient. There were a couple of press releases put out with little detail, and the superintendent held a coffee hour at a time few parents could attend, they said.

“We’re talking about hate crimes occurring in the high school, and nothing is being said,” Victor-Vega said.

And despite conversations at the school board about developing an equity policy, without a clear decision in place, Victor-Vega didn’t feel confident about sending her child to school as the semester began, she said.

In a statement, Suffield’s Board of Education chair Maureen Sattan said the board is committed to the well-being of its students and pointed to a board statement adopted earlier this year. She said the district had been as transparent as possible in communications to parents.

“The Suffield Board of Education believes that all students must be provided a safe and welcoming environment in our schools,” Sattan’s statement reads. “We do not and will not stand for racism or discrimination against any group and our Board goals and policies support this fundamental belief.”

Suffield

Parents of children of color in Suffield fear that the school, which is in a majority-white town, isn’t a welcoming place for their kids.

The district has made headlines since as early as 2009 when students were disciplined for displaying the Confederate flag and drawing a picture of the Ku Klux Klan. And over the past school year, parents have grown increasingly concerned.

“My biggest concern was … lumping racism as bullying and that being some sort of umbrella term to encompass repeat racism,” Victor-Vega said.

“I think it’s important to send a message that while we can’t control the families we come from, the homes we’re living in, but that the school specifically used to be a safe environment for learning, and that anti-racism definitely needs to be addressed in a town that is a predominantly white town.”

Superintendent Timothy Van Tasel said during a June board of education meeting that the school had responded to the incidents and that they had been resolved, according to meeting minutes.

He also pointed to efforts to address racism over the past three years, including forming a diversity, equity and inclusion council; a board of education goal to promote diversity, equity and inclusion; and professional development related to “meeting the needs of our diverse population,” the meeting minutes say.

He added that the district plans to redefine the diversity, equity and inclusion council, conduct professional development on trauma informed practices, facilitate a student support group and conduct an investigations training, among other measures, in the upcoming school year.

Van Tassel did not respond to requests to be interviewed, but board chair Sattan sent an emailed response to questions from the CT Mirror. She declined to delve into specifics about the incidents.

“Although we are disappointed whenever these types of issues arise, the Board is committed to making good on our promise to create safe and welcoming schools for the children of this community,” Sattan’s statement said.

The board’s policy subcommittee is reviewing new and existing policies. They recently proposed the addition of a minority recruitment policy.

While they do not have a separate anti-racism policy, several of the board’s policies include language prohibiting discrimination, Sattan said.

Coginchaug

In Coginchaug, the students organized a walkout last spring to protest what they see as a lack of a district response to racism. They read letters written by students who were affected by racism, including one from Mekhi Watson.

They’ve also compiled a spreadsheet detailing close to 80 incidents of discrimination and harassment. The incidents include sexual harassment, anti-LGBTQ incidents and racism.

Incidents include a few references to students using the n-word, a student who was told to “go back to the cotton fields,” and other racial slurs.

“Detentions don’t always work. Suspensions don’t always work,” Watson said.

Madalena DiPentima, a white student who read Watson’s letter at the walkout, said the issue is long-standing, something she’d noticed since she entered the district.

“The students just saw it so much and had heard so many things that we really wanted to do something about it,” DiPentima said.

She, Watson and other students interviewed think a clearer policy with clearer consequences would help.

Superintendent Doug Schuch brought in a guest speaker last school year to give the students a special presentation on racism, which he said was a productive conversation.

“There hasn’t been much change in the situation so far,” Talbert-Slagle said in an email. “Although the walkout was quite well received by most within the school, the schools still have issues of racism and discrimination that the district administration has not properly responded to.”

Best practices

A 2020 University of Connecticut analysis of anti-racism policies states that “recent events and the current sociopolitical climate signal the need to revisit and strengthen these policies.”

Britney Jones, who teaches at Trinity College in Hartford and has a Ph.D. in educational leadership, conducted the analysis. She said it’s best practice to ensure policies — and consequences — are clear to students in order to have an effective anti-racism policy.

“I’ve heard this a lot — this sense that things are happening and students’ families don’t always feel heard,” she said. “I think it’s a worthwhile endeavor to think about incident reporting, how much is written, how much is in policy, what’s actually happening in practice.”

Schools are adopting a variety of policies. Some are including anti-racism in the mission statement, while others have a separate overarching anti-racism policy, she said.

“They [policies] would start with this definition and commitment,” Jones said. “Here’s what racism is, here’s what it means. And here’s the commitment that we’re going to make to be anti-racist.”

Policies should also include an element for reporting incidents and ensuring there are supports in place for the victim, she added.

Once a full policy is established, schools can start linking it to existing polices such as the bullying policy or achievement policy, Jones said.

“I think we’d want to think strategically about bullying and racism and how that’s different and how the district’s commitment to be anti-racist influences the response,” she said. “Which might be a different response if the bullying is rooted in either another -ism or another context incident.”

Another element some districts have implemented, Jones said, is keeping a “racism logbook” that tracks incidents of racism at schools. This can help districts analyze the environment at the school and start keeping data on the incidents.

There’s also deeper work to be done, said Patricia Virella, an urban educational leadership expert. Virella works with districts in New Jersey to help them become “anti-racist and equitable districts.”

That work often begins with having teachers examine their own biases, she said.

“Teachers and leaders in schools don’t necessarily understand or realize when their own identities intersect with race or their responses to race and equity,” Virella said. “You can tell schools what to do. You can say ‘I want you to have books where there are Black children or LGBTQIA representation.’ You can’t say ‘If you don’t believe that girls can run as fast as boys, then you’re never going to be able to give that kid a chance.’”

She conducts equity audits at the schools she works with; they address issues of systemic racism as well as the school environment.

“Then you need to look at what is your definition of equity and the most important policies in schools. Is there a policy for bias and hate in your code of conduct? Not bullying, but hate and biases?” she said.

In that policy, consequences should be named “so it’s not subjective,” Virella added. And there should be emotional supports in place for victims.

“It’s like creating a space, they should get someone who knows how to navigate that space or direct them outward to advocacy spaces that can support them,” she said.

That deeper work is something that’s being done at the schools managed by the Capitol Region Education Council. Teachers and school officials are examining their procedures — not just policies — to determine the effects on students of color, said superintendent Tim Sullivan.

For example, the district’s policy doesn’t restrict students from taking advanced placement classes, but they found the procedure was that students who asked about the classes were placed in them.

This often meant that wealthier, and more often white, students were in the advanced classes, Sullivan said. So the district is working to change that, just one step in an overall strategy to create an anti-racist district.

“The anti bias, the discrimination policies that we have in place, are strong, and they stand up, they stand alone, and they’re important,” Sullivan said. “They give us the leverage that we need to take action when action is needed. What really has changed for us in the last five years is our understanding of racism and anti racism, institutional racism, bigotry, and implicit bias and how those things creep into a school district.”

Statewide response

Race and racism — especially in schools — has become a political talking point in Connecticut in recent years, with many on the right decrying the teaching of critical race theory in schools. Critical race theory isn’t taught in K-12 schools, teachers have said.

In Guilford, several conservatives ran campaigns for school board seats based largely on anti-critical race theory rhetoric last year. And more recently, the Southington board of education questioned a teacher about a worksheet that included references to words such as cisgender, marginalization, transgender and white privilege.

Racism in education can also be defined by inequality in school funding, a lack of teachers of color or harsher and more frequent punishments for students of color.

But the kind of racism students and parents at Suffield and Coginchaug are referencing typically occurs in individual instances of bias or microaggressions.

In addition to negative mental health consequences, racism at school has been shown to make it harder for students to succeed. And communities with higher levels of racial prejudice tend to have worse health outcomes, research shows.

In February 2021, the state Board of Education adopted a position statement on “Culturally Responsive Education,” which outlines the board’s expectations for educators, districts and policy makers with regard to equity and inclusion.

“[The joint statement] emphasized our mutual commitment to providing all students with school environments ‘where they do not feel threatened regardless of their race, gender, gender identity or expression, religion, nationality, status of citizenship, or sexual orientation. It is our core responsibility as educators to do everything we can to foster environments that ensure equity, diversity and inclusion,’” reads a statement the board released at the time.

The Department of Education has also published several pieces of guidance on school counseling and reducing disparities in suspensions and expulsions, Scoville said.

Other efforts underway in Connecticut include the Center for Children’s Advocacy’s Racial and Ethnic Disparities discussions in a few towns. Since the discussions began, districts have seen increases in diversion techniques to keep children from being arrested, director Martha Stone said.

And following the settlement in the Sheff v. O’Neill case, which deals with educational equality for Connecticut students, Stone said she and others monitor conditions for students, particularly in suburban school districts. Stone was the lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the landmark school desegregation case.

Through the Open Choice program, students can attend schools outside the town they live in. It’s been challenging to get some suburban districts to open up seats in their schools, particularly for older children, Stone said.

But when students are able to participate in the Open Choice program, she wants to ensure that they are going into a welcoming environment.

“We’re always looking at what’s the culture of the suburban district, how many faculty and staff of color will they encounter?,” she said. “And what is the climate, you know, will either racist remarks be given or is there a welcoming atmosphere?”