Joint School Committee addresses racism in schools

Jun 16, 2020

It’s been a year since Barbara Sullivan met with the Old Rochester Regional Joint School Committee about racism in district schools. Returning to the committee on Monday night with other members of Tri-Town Against Racism, her message was simple: Nothing has changed.

As the group described the situation, students are still subject to racist remarks, the faculty is still nearly 100% white, and any actions taken to address issues were simply “checking the box.”

Committee members listened to the 45-minute presentation. Chairman Carey Humphrey admitted “the ball was dropped.” And Assistant Superintendent Michael Nelson, soon to assume the superintendent’s job, promised to “hold ourselves individually and mutually accountable.”

As Sullivan and other co-leaders of the group said many times at a June 15 meeting with the joint committee, the schools have addressed racist events in the past year and beyond just enough to make sure “another box was checked,” doing the bare minimum to address to problem.  

“You don’t have the right to be trusted,” Sullivan said to the committee, but said the group is happy to work with the district on the issue.

Sullivan, and co-leaders Alison Noyce and Tangi Thomas of Rochester, presented on the past, present and future of racism in the district. 

Growing up, Sullivan faced racism in the Tri-Town, her children faced it and, most recently, her granddaughter, Jendell Teixeira, experienced racist acts throughout her time in school.

A white student in her class once used the n-word in class she said, and her teacher just said to “knock it off” without any disciplinary action. 

Noyce spoke before the committee to let members know that racism is still an ongoing issue, and said “I hope we can all agree that it’s [the district] is a mess.”

She said one of her two sons was called a “monkey and a slave” in the eighth grade at Old Rochester Regional Junior High School. The words led to a fist fight between him and the other student. Noyce, through tears, asked the principal at the time, “What are you going to do to keep my son safe in this school?”

The principal told Noyce that her son should have followed the lead of Martin Luther King Jr., and then pointed out that her son started the fight.

The parents and students who face racist acts are “never alone, just made to feel we were” by administrators, she said

Although her sons experienced blatantly racist acts, she also took issue with microaggressions or small racist acts that make students feel uncomfortable and out of place. These include teachers who say they’re “colorblind,” which ignores race altogether, when talking about racism.

But Noyce is relieved to know white people have shown up in droves to listen, to create change and call on the district to do the same.

She also praised teachers like Gregory Andree, who wanted to hang a Black Lives Matter flag in his classroom.

“This mother of black boys wishes he could too,” she said. 

Thomas, who has a son at Rochester Memorial School, brought solutions to the district that encouraged change beyond vague terms like “equity,” “multiculturalism” and “diversity.”

She said the district can no longer put out fires instead of addressing issues, and it needs to tell people what happened when there is a racist event. She also suggested that the school use peer mediation, where trained student mediators take peers aside to a safe and confidential space to work out issues, or restorative justice which gets the community involved in the meeting between the two students to make amends, rather than relying on suspensions. She also said more teachers of color need to be hired. 

“There is no quick fix,” Thomas said. 

Some of the 165 people at the meeting, also told stories and gave solutions.

Rhonda Baptiste of Rochester said her biracial son was first called the n-word at age eight. When she found out, “I literally almost threw up,” she said.

She talked with the mother of the child that used the slur, who said it was okay because her son used an “a” instead of an “er” in pronouncing it.

District officials and committee members listened and responded to both the stories and ways the group wants to help it move forward and “commit to self-examination, self-education and self-direction,” as Sullivan put it.

At the start of the meeting, Joint School Committee Chairperson Cary Humphrey acknowledged “the ball was dropped with communication” between the district and the group, and it can’t be an excuse going forward. 

Future Superintendent Michael Nelson said the district started addressing its issues this year with trainings and presentations, but said, “the work we’ve done is not enough.”

Going forward, Old Rochester Regional School District and its members will include the community more in solving issues and “hold ourselves individually and mutually accountable,” Nelson said.

Many of the school committee members thanked the Tri-Town Against Racism leaders for bringing up the racist stories.

Nichole Daniel of the Marion School Committee said “the stories make it real.” 

One member of the district policy subcommittee, Heather Burke, addressed the town officials and police chiefs in attendance.

She said the district can only go beyond checking boxes if towns commit to investing more in its schools. More funding could help the district hire a grant writer to help get funding for more programs, hire social workers for students, and hire multiple assistant principals to help in schools, something she said is common in surrounding districts. 

Burke said they “need to back up our words” with funds to make change happen.

Anne Fernandes, who holds the Rochester seat on the joint committee, said the district is in a wonderful place to invest more time into hiring teachers of color, with more positions opening up. 

Former Rochester School Committee Chair Michelle Cusolito called for future joint committee meetings to include monthly updates on where the district is in addressing racism.

Closing out the meeting, Union Committee Chair Shannon Finning said she will make sure the school is taken care of in budgeting, even during covid. 

She and Humphrey both said to Sullivan that they will “work to earn your trust.”

Feeling hopeful at the meeting’s conclusion, Noyce made an open call to district leaders.

“I hope you’re ready to work,” she said.