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Focus on racial incidents at Yellow Springs schools

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Yellow Springs school district leaders were urged to hire more people of color and provide more racial sensitivity training for school staff and students at a meeting Monday, June 26, at First Baptist Church.

About 50 people attended the late afternoon meeting organized as an opportunity for Superintendent Mario Basora and McKinney/High School Principal Tim Krier to respond to a letter sent by the Young People of Color group, a subgroup of The 365 Project, that addresses the group’s concerns about “recent incidents” that have occurred at the middle and high schools and calls for four specific actions the district might take.

The meeting turnout included parents, past and current teachers, village residents, members of the YPOC group and School Board President Aïda Merhemic, the lone board member present.

In identifying the YPOC group’s concerns, its letter first cites the essay written for the MLK Day writing contest by a freshman that detailed her painful experience of hearing a hateful racial comment about African Americans in a classroom earlier in the year.

The letter, dated April 22, also found “the singling out” of students of color to address the essay and other concerns as a troubling approach. Cited as well were “the appearance of a flyer with swastika and anti-Semitic incidents in the high school” and “racial name calling and epithets.”

“As a result of these incidents, we feel an unhealthy environment exists for students of color at the High school and middle school.”

The letter continues: “It also seems there is a vague protocol for addressing unwanted behaviors and protecting students affected by them. This approach appears more unfocused and reactive than coordinated and proactive.”

The group’s suggestions for addressing their concerns are to provide professional training for staff and students on diversity and inclusion; update school district protocols on dealing with racial harassment; implement a diverse curriculum; and create a student advocate staff position to assist with culturally sensitive issues.

Since the writing of the letter, an additional concern about hiring practices in general has been added, said the meeting’s facilitator, John Gudgel, who is 365 Project president as well as school counselor at the elementary school and a the former longtime principal at the high school.

“How can we attract more people of color?” Gudgel asked, identifying the question as pressing.

The crowd agreed, urging Superintendent Basora to intensify his efforts and expand his scope for seeking out new hires.

Agreeing the district would benefit from having more people of color working in the schools, Basora said finding the applicants is difficult. He listed several ways the district has proactively sought out job candidates — including approaching teacher training programs at predominantly black colleges — but without success.

“Try harder,” was the typical response from community members at the meeting.

One reason education students at more distant colleges give for not being interested in coming to Yellow Springs is that they want to return to their own hometowns to live and pursue their teaching careers, Basora said. That widespread desire bears out in Yellow Springs as well, where the majority of teachers of color grew up in town or nearby.

Principal Krier, for his part at McKinney and the high school, said “we have things we have to work on,” but the atmosphere “is not toxic.”

Listing some of the initiatives that have been developed and taken place at the high school since the MLK Day essay became public, Krier said, “I think we’re getting better on more important topics and richer topics.”

At the same time he acknowledged that not all students participated in the offerings, which were “a bit more scattershot than what we may like upon reflection.”

New graduate Julian Roberts agreed that a more holistic approach is needed. “This discussion is a good thing. … [But] we need to reach out to the whole school.”

Toward that end, parent Lee Wagner called for more “professional training” for teachers and staff. “You first have to have a sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. … Bring people in to train. Everybody needs training.”

Parent Cessili Slaughter said she was incredulous at the principal’s assertions he hadn’t known about some of the racial incidents that have come to light. And she asked where the teachers were when hurtful and offensive jokes and statements were being made. “Someone on your staff has overheard a joke.”

“What do the teachers think?” asked parent Teresa Wagner, who called on the adults at the schools and in the community to take the lead in creating a safe learning environment. “You have to have a team of adults; you can’t put it on the kids.”

“My concern is always going to be my children,” she said. “Are we taking the students seriously? … What are the teachers saying to the kids?”

She suggested the development of clear school protocols when racially charged problems arise. “If we don’t have a vehicle for these kinds of issues to be addressed, then we aren’t going to go anywhere.”

Mills Lawn teacher Debra Mabra said that as a person of color, she hadn’t thought she needed a racial sensitivity training that was held about 10 years ago, but she found it useful, and training “is something as a staff that we could do.” She noted that    working with students on these issues doesn’t need to wait until middle or high school. “It’s something we can talk about as a staff [at Mills Lawn], because these are [still] our kids” after they move up.

“For me it’s a question of culture,” said Sterling Wiggins. He noted that Principal Krier has said that the school atmosphere isn’t toxic. “But it feels pretty toxic to me.” He challenged the district to put the kind of time, resources and money into addressing racial issues as it has with the project-based learning curriculum. “I’m waiting to see the same kind of commitment to this as you have for PBL.”

Parent Toylin Blunt, who also helps mentor the YPOC group, said she oftens hears comments in town and from school officials to the effect that it’s no worse in Yellow Springs than elsewhere, and that you’ll find these issues wherever you go. But she challenged the community and school district to think bigger. “We have the opportunity to change the minds and hearts of students. … What do we want? Yellow Springs could change things. We can say [to the world], ‘This is what we could be. This is what the rest of you could look like.’”

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