Civil Rights Violations, Responses, and Education

I would like to thank the parents of students of color who have made recent efforts to insist that our schools do more now to address the occurrence of race based civil rights harassments at our middle and high school.  It should not have been necessary for them to motivate us to closely examine our practices and set in motion plans to do better.  Creating safe, comfortable, and inclusive learning environments is our most fundamental obligation and when conditions exist that interfere with any student’s ability to feel comfortable and at home in their own school we need to do better.  Even though teaching for improved civility, equity, and multicultural understanding has personally been a cornerstone of my career, I apologize for not having made it a higher district priority sooner.   

In this memo I would like to report on the action steps underway, the things I have learned to date by reviewing our practices, and the process we have set up to continue to learn and do more.  Before doing this, however, I wish to clearly express my support for the work of our secondary principal, Annie Leonard.  Principal Leonard has a strong personal and professional commitment to diversity, equity, and social justice education.  Her drive to create inclusive learning communities has been evident to me over the last four years in her decision making, her hiring practices, her approach to staff learning, and her interactions with students.  Where adjustments need to be made in the school’s responses to civil rights infractions, I am confident the source of any missteps has not come from a lack of concern or care for students who have been the target of discrimination.

Communicating Expectations: On December 6th, I sent a message to all district families and staff expressing our commitment to confront all forms of civil rights harassment and to communicate that such behaviors would not be tolerated.  I wish to reiterate this bottom line message again today, emphasizing the unacceptability of such acts.  Actions being undertaken across our schools to demonstrate this commitment have included the following:  

1. Principals will use part of their next faculty meeting to review our expectations that all incidents where a student is a target of harassing words or actions of a civil rights nature, whether it be associated with race, religion, class, disability, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation, will be addressed immediately by any staff member present.

2. At the next occasion where students are gathered by school or grade level, school administrators will review our civil rights and anti-bullying policies and convey the message that uncivil conduct will not be tolerated and that such conduct is highly corrosive to the values of the school and to our paramount obligation to provide a safe and comfortable learning environment for everyone in our community.

3.  Commit to contacting the parents or guardians of victims of civil rights harassment the same day in which the incident occurs or is reported.  In addition, parents/ guardians will be invited to meet with school administration to work together on responding to the incident.  Also, two to three weeks after an incident, a school administrator or counselor will contact the parent/guardian to check-in with them.

Engaging Stakeholders to Learn More: We are now working with the Collaborative for Education’s social justice and equity staff to provide training to faculty and staff in how to address incidents of civil rights harassment and to consult with the district to develop a multi-year plan for staff training and student learning to promote diversity, equity, and civility.  

The first step in this process is for the trainers to hold a series of forums with our constituents.  The first forum is for parents and guardians and will be held on Monday, January 14, from 6:30-8:30 pm at the high school.  Child care and translation services will be provided.  In addition, we are planning a second parent/guardian forum, two staff forums, and three student forums.  Details about these forums will be forthcoming.  Should the school committee have recommendations or feedback about what we are proposing, it would be most welcome.  

Preliminary Review: To gain a deeper understanding of the issue of civil rights harassment in the district I have undertaken a review process in the last couple of weeks.  This has involved reviewing all records of civil rights incidents, across schools, from January 2018 to the present.  It has also involved reviewing records of student departures from the district, staff survey feedback, attendance at a secondary level faculty meeting, and a small number of parent and student interviews.  Here is some important data that has risen to the surface:

Students Leaving Secondary Schools: We compiled data of students who were in grades 7-11 during the 2017-18 school year and who did not attend our schools in the fall of 2018.

  • 9 of 94 seventh graders did not return for grade eight.  Two of 21 students of color did not return, one of whom indicated the school’s racial climate was a factor.
  • 44 of 79 eighth graders did not return for grade nine.  Four of 8 students of color did not return, three of whom indicated the lack of diversity or school’s racial climate was a factor.
  • 1of 66 ninth graders did not return for grade ten.  This student was one of nine students of color and their reason for leaving was not related to racial climate.
  • 5 of 55 tenth graders did not return for grade eleven.  One of 12 students of color did not return, for a reason unrelated to racial climate.
  • 6 of 55 eleventh graders did not return for grade twelve.  Two of 12 students of color did not return, neither identified racial climate as a factor in their change.
  • Overall, 65 of 349 students in grades 7-11 departed (18.6%).
  • 10 of 62 students of color in grades 7-11 departed (16.1%).  Four of these 10 students indicated that the school’s racial climate was a factor in their leaving.

Civil Rights Violations Data: We reviewed all written disciplinary records related to any type of civil rights incident/infraction from across our schools, from January 2018 - December 2018. These all consisted of the use of inappropriate/demeaning/hostile name calling or statements.

  • Hillcrest Elementary: No cases reported
  • Gill Elementary: 3 cases involved race/ethnicity.  1 suspension resulted. 
  • Sheffield Elementary: 2 cases involved race/ethnicity.  No suspensions resulted. 4 cases involved gender/sexual orientation.  No suspensions resulted.
  • Great Falls Middle School: 13 cases involved race/ethnicity.  7 suspensions resulted. 43 cases involved gender/sexual orientation.  15 suspensions resulted. 6 cases involved other protected classes.  1 suspension resulted.
  • Turners Falls High School: 9 cases involved race/ethnicity.  6 suspensions resulted. 4 cases involved gender/sexual orientation.  2 suspensions resulted. 2 cases involved other protected classes. 1 suspension resulted.  

Generalizations: Based upon my review of the records, and feedback from staff, students, and parents, I think the following generalizations may be fairly made, at this time, about operations at the middle school and, to a lesser extent, at the high school:

  • The number of reported and recorded civil rights incidents is large and indicative of systemic issues that have yet to be satisfactorily addressed.
  • Proper procedures are in place to report, investigate, and respond to civil rights violations and these are often well followed.  When these steps are not fully followed the most common reason for this is that the staff responsible for taking action are often stretched too thin, responding to perpetual in-the-moment incidents.  At the combined middle/high school there were approximately 800 reports of school infractions of all kinds between January and June 2018.  This is an average of over 8 a day.  
  • The process of communicating with the parents/guardians of targets needs improvement including same day communications and follow up communications.  
  • The process of communicating with faculty and staff about consequences and plans following an incident involving their students needs review and refinement.
  • The system for repairing harm through forms of mediation or restorative practices needs improvement; clearer commitments among staff, more time for these practices to be successfully undertaken, and greater staffing to facilitate this work.
  • There is lack of agreement among staff about the role of traditional disciplinary consequences as a response to civil rights (and other) infractions.  Genuine dialogue is needed among administration, faculty, and staff to reach a common understanding about the function of traditional discipline and the perception that there is consistency in its use.  
  • The need for this dialogue extends more broadly.  The task of balancing the support of students with low levels of social and emotional skills with the need to have safe, orderly, and welcoming learning environments is complex and is a common struggle in many places these days.  Administrators, faculty, and staff need to talk a lot about this and forge a deeper common approach, as it is an area with few easy answers.
  • Although a school principal must lead the work that will drive needed improvements, there needs to be a greater understanding among faculty and staff that the principal has other responsibilities that preclude them from routinely responding to individual disciplinary situations.  If a secondary school finds itself in a circumstance where this is felt to be a compelling need, this suggests a need for additional staff.  It may also suggest a shift in the work being done by faculty and support staff.  In a survey of students last June, only 49% of middle school students and 35% of high school students agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “If I am sad or angry there is a teacher or staff member I would feel comfortable talking to.”  This data suggests there is more work to be done in strengthening staff and student relationships.  
  • A focal point of much of the overt racial conflict in the middle and high school has been around the use of the N-word.  Many students have no concept of the historical or cultural significance of this word and many staff are unsure about how to broach this topic with students when it arises.  It is beyond the scope of this memo to recommend solutions but it is worth noting that this particular issue exemplifies the two great challenges faced in truly addressing our equity and diversity needs.  We need to do a much better job providing our students with a strong multicultural education from an early age and we need to invest in our staff so that they are prepared and confident in teaching in a culturally proficient manner.  

A Likely Request: There is a good chance I will recommend that we hire an additional dean of students, this school year, so that we may have one dedicated to the middle school and one dedicated to the high school.

An Emerging Consensus: 116 parents/guardians and 69 staff members responded to our recent survey intended to gauge their views on how important it is to teach and do more across a range of affective learning dimensions.  These dimensions ranged from social and emotional learning to multicultural understanding to citizenship and social justice education.  Accompanying this memo is summary of the survey results.

Everyone is welcome to draw their own conclusions from this data.  One of the strongest take-aways for me, is the broad consensus that our schools need to address the full range of affective learning needs across grade levels.  It is clear that families and staff feel these needs are very or extremely important and that we should use our time and resources to address them.  This level of agreement is uncommon, a bit inspiring, and perhaps indicates a direction we can all move in together, with purpose and enthusiasm.    

affective learning survey results from parents and staff Dec 2018

~ Superintendent Michael Sullivan, memo to the GMRSD School Committee in advance of their 1/8/19 meeting