Forum explores racial disparities in schools

BENNINGTON — On Tuesday a group of educators and community members came together to share powerful stories and seek the answers to difficult questions with a panel discussion on racial disparities in Vermont's schools.

"This is very needed dialogue," said State Rep. Kiah Morris (D-Bennington), "and what we're going to discuss here today is difficult. You may hear things that are upsetting or surprising. Talking about issues of race is some of the most challenging work we can do. It strikes at the core of who we are and how we see ourselves as a society. We look at historical references for kind of an affirmation that we're doing okay, that we're doing well, and we want to feel that it's enough. Somehow our individual actions and our individual attitudes that we use to bring about equity may be driven, in many ways, from hidden and implicit biases."

The panel was made up of Morris; SVSU Superintendent Jim Culkeen; Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe; Martha Allen, president of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association; Shawn Pratt, whose son attends school in the SVSU; Laura Boudreau, SVSU curriculum director and acting Mount Anthony Union High School principal; Mike DiMaio, MAUMS social studies teacher; Mikaela Simms, diversity coordinator at Brattleboro High School; and Tracy Williams, who has three children in the SVSU school system. It was held in the library of Mount Anthony Union Middle School.

The panel was moderated by Naomi Johnson, a member of Burr and Burton Academy's Class of 2012 and a graduate of Vassar College. "I am very grateful that this is happening," she said, "but I acknowledge that this is a first step. I'm here because I don't want this to be an isolated event and because I know that not a lot has changed since I was in school. I know a lot of students aren't aware of things we're going to be discussing tonight, and I know that a lot of students of color are not comfortable having these conversations, are scared of having these conversations, and are just keeping their heads down and hoping to graduate. That's what I experienced. I want to make this a more livable place for us, as people of color, and a place that we are proud and happy to be."

"When we think about the world around us," said Morris, "as a society we are enmeshed in systemic inequities that are so interwoven that it is hard to see the forest for the trees. It's less about overt acts of racism, which we see occur and know the harm that they do, it's about the inequitable policies, procedures, and practices that are within state systems that create what is understood to be systemic racism. These are smaller, often unseen, acts that combine in an aggregate to create hostile work environments, discriminatory decision-making, and further exclusion of marginalized groups from our communities."

"The reality is," she said, "unless we are unwilling to have difficult and candid conversations, courageous conversations on these issues, nothing is going to change. To do this, we must listen, without defense or dismissal. We must be willing to sit with our discomfort, because those who are negatively impacted by these inequities and injustice have no respite. We cannot simply cease being African American, Latinic, South Asian, or Native American. We cannot simply deny our religious beliefs or pretend to not be Jewish, Muslim, or (Hindu). We cannot go back into the closest and dismiss our chosen gender identification or our sexual orientations. We cannot suddenly choose to fit into a definition of normalcy that rejects differing abilities and the dignity of life that is everyone's birthright. The data is clear. Reality is such that those who are members of the dominant culture, those who identify as white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, heterosexual, or Christian, have a fluidity of identity that allows for them to walk away from here unchanged. As individuals, they do not have to engage in this work. But we must."

"I wouldn't miss (this discussion)," said Holcombe. "This is a subject I feel really passionate about... Thank you for inviting me to this conversation, it really is an honor to be here and its an honor to come to a community and hear from other people about how we can make our schools a safe place for our children of color. This is something we need to work on. I want to thank the educators who came here tonight, because you came here to listen and learn and to work with us to help make our schools supportive places where every student can realize the promise with which they were born. We know every child was born with that promise, but when we look at our statewide data, we can see we're not realizing it for all kids."

"It's hard, particularly for people who are privileged, to fix what we can't see," she said. "The biases that make us act in ways that hurt other people are often unconscious or implicit, which is why even well-intentioned people, and that includes teachers, often behave in ways that can be hurtful or even unjust. The only way that people like me can change this is to recognize their biases and try to override them."

She said that one of the ways the Agency of Education supports school districts' equality initiatives has been through by supplying data on how different groups in each school are performing.

Morris last year sponsored the bill that would become Act 54, "An act relating to the Racial Disparities in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice System Advisory Panel." Within that bill, she said, is a provision that charges the Vt. Attorney General's Office and the Human Rights Commission to develop a report that would develop strategies to look at how discrimination is playing a role in other systems, including education. That report was released in December, and Morris said it framed the conversation on Tuesday. It highlights opportunities for improvement in the areas of disciplinary measures and restorative practices, diversity in staffing and administration, curriculum that is representative, culturally responsive, social justice oriented, and inclusive of accurate indigenous history, and looking at achievement gaps for children of color.

At one point, Williams was overcome with emotion while telling the story of her daughter, who is a student at Mount Anthony Union Middle School. During a discussion of the book "The Slave Dancer," by Paula Fox, she said, students were throwing around racial slurs found in the book. When her daughter complained, Williams went to the school with her concerns, specifically that students were not being properly taught the weight those words can carry. "Something was done about it, to a certain extent," she said. "The first outcome was that my daughter (was made to sit) outside the classroom, to be separated from the rest of the class. Not only did it affect her, it affected me, clearly. I was born here, I was raised here, I went to school here. I dealt with that. My mother didn't do what I'm doing now to change (the system). A lot of teachers that were here when I went to school are still here, and are still the same way. It's so hard, I just want it to change."

"This pain is so real, and I see it in students all the time," said Simms. "I spent 45 minutes on the phone with a parent yesterday who was telling me about the depression her child feels in school and how she has to cajole her every morning to get up and go to school."

"If we're sitting here telling you these things are real, and nobody's doing anything about, then you're complicit in it," said Pratt. "You allow the people who do these things and say these things to run right back into the closet. Nah, let's get them out of the closet. 'You don't like black people, or whatever? Let's talk about it.' A lot of that needs to change. We need to teach the history."

After the panel discussion, audience members were invited to participate.

One of those who came to the microphone was Lisa Thurston-Flynn, a third grade teacher at Bennington Elementary School. She lauded the Vermont Teacher Diversity Scholarship Program, of which she was one of the last participants, and called for it, or a program like it, to return. "Those type of programs don't exist anymore, as far as I know," she said. "Programs like that really help kids and teachers."

"I live in a neighborhood where I am blessed, because there are lots of persons of color in that part of town," said resident Mary Gerisch. "I talked to at least four families in my neighborhood today, to ask if they were coming tonight, because I know their children are experiencing some things that I wouldn't want anybody to experience, when they go to school. In one case, the son was with the mom, and said, 'No, mom, no.' The son didn't want his story told. In the other cases, the parents were like, 'No, I'm really not comfortable with that.' I want to say, that isn't because they don't care about their kids, and it isn't because they don't care about the subject, it's because they have been so marginalized by people in Bennington who aren't of color, that they want to be invisible. Let's please try to cure that desire by parents to be invisible, because we know that's being passed down to the kids, and let's all do our best to make everybody visible and make their pain visible. That's not pleasant, it hurts each of us, in our hearts, when we see somebody suffering, but we can't heal until we do."

The full video of the panel discussion, which lasted over two hours, will be available in the coming days on Catamount Access Television and online on their YouTube channel, CATTV Bennington.

Derek Carson can be reached at, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.


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