ACSD takes aim at bias and intolerance in school system; residents of color share their stories
MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central School District (ACSD) board will create a task force to recommend ways of creating a more racially sensitive educational program and campus environment for local students.
The ACSD board voted unanimously on Monday to establish a “Task Force on Racism, Bias and Discrimination” following two hours of emotional debate and testimony, much of it provided by area residents of color who cited specific cases in which they or their children have encountered racism on campus or on school buses — behavior they said the district needs to address.
“Talking to students at school would be one way to address this, so that it’s a part of the curriculum,” East Middlebury resident Betty Kafumbe told the board. “We cannot just be quiet. We see what happens when we let things go, when we just go through the protocols. Things never get done. At the end of the day, it just slips by and people get hurt. I think it’s necessary to get something done quickly.”
ACSD board member Ruth Hardy called for the task force as part of a resolution she asked her colleagues to field on Monday. The resolution also asked the board to “denounce the actions of Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville and other communities throughout our country” and to support the “removal of racist monuments and symbols, including Confederate statues and flags, from public places.”
Appointed by the school board and Superintendent Peter Burrows, the task force will come up with recommendations by Jan. 15, 2018, on ways “to ensure that the Addison Central School District is adequately addressing explicit and implicit bias, in all forms in our schools.”
The task force will be comprised of ACSD faculty, staff, students and parents, as well as community members “with specialized expertise or perspectives,” according to Hardy’s resolution. A majority of the task force members will be people of color.
“Recommendations shall focus on curriculum, training, personnel/human resources, student support, community education, or other areas in need of improvement,” Hardy’s resolution reads.
Hardy made the resolution an 11th-hour addition to the board’s agenda after the demonstration by several hate groups in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12. She also cited an article in the Aug. 17 issue of the Addison Independent noting community reaction to two Confederate flags that had been flown on private property in East Middlebury and on School House Hill Road.
“It was disturbing, painful and mortifying for a lot of people in our community,” said Hardy, who had encouraged local people of color to turn out at Monday’s meeting to share their thoughts.
And share they did.
Betty and her husband Damascus Kafumbe, originally from Uganda, have lived in East Middlebury since 2011. They have two young sons, both of whom attend Middlebury schools. Betty Kafumbe recounted examples of how her sons have been victims of racial insensitivity.
“A sixth-grade girl dropped her hat (on the school bus), and out of courtesy, my 9-year-old (now 10-year-old) son picked it up and was trying to give it back to her and she said, ‘Eeuw, don’t touch that; now it’s stained with black,’” Kafumbe said.
She recounted another case in which a fellow student told her son, “I bet if you scrubbed your skin so hard it wouldn’t get clean.”
Her revelations brought one board member to tears.
Kafumbe questioned whether some children knew what they were doing when they said the hurtful things to her son. She added she’s wondered if these children were getting any information — whether at home or at school — to make them more culturally aware.
Several ACSD board members initially declared a preference for delaying action on a task force until the panel’s mission could be further developed and matched with efforts to integrate bias-free principles into the curriculum and teacher training.
ACSD is transitioning to an International Baccalaureate program that, among other things, encourages students to become world citizens. The mission of the IB program is “to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect,” according to program literature.
“It’s a hugely complex issue,” board member Nick Causton said. “I would like time to think about it.”
But Leah Beauchamp, a former ACSD educator and parent of two local students, reminded school officials that issues of racial disharmony long pre-date the recent events in Charlottesville and last week’s display of Confederate flags in East Middlebury.
It was Beauchamp who on Oct. 2, 2015, removed a Confederate flag from a truck parked in the MUHS parking lot. A student video of the debate that ensued at MUHS can be seen at tinyurl.com/y78qg2yj.
“Flag-gate has resurfaced,” Beauchamp said on Monday of the renewed discussion.
She believes the ACSD could have used the 2015 incident as a teaching moment to potentially bring about some systematic change.
“There’s a part of me that’s a little annoyed that two years later, we are actually having this discussion,” Beauchamp said. “The moment in which we really should have had it was the actual incident with a Confederate symbol at school. We didn’t take advantage of it.”
She said it’s been her experience as a parent that incidents of racism within the district have been “taken care of very quietly. I have never had an incident when things have not been resolved. But when we should have been having this discussion was two years ago.”
Beauchamp recalled a fairly recent incident at Middlebury Union High School that involved her son, Nick, a student-athlete who starred on the MUHS football team before graduating last spring.
“There was a racially charged fight in the locker room and a child’s head was split open, and it was not my son’s,” Beauchamp said. “And the football staff of this district said, ‘Nick, go home. Don’t worry about it.’”
Kemi Fuentes-George and his family were among many East Middlebury residents concerned to see two Confederate flags flying on private property within their community this month. Fuentes-George hails from Jamaica. He agreed with Beauchamp that it’s better to confront issues of racism head-on.
“I know people might have good intentions, but mess up from time to time,” Fuentes-George said. “What I want to stress, especially for people who are not sort of culturally competent, is that the proper response should not be, ‘We didn’t mean it that way. Let’s sweep this under the rug and get over it.’ The proper response is not to be defensive; it’s to be responsive. Engage with the person who’s been offended.”
Fuentes-George said he’s concerned that people might think “systematic racism” is a thing of the past because everyone is now considered equal under the law.
“We might be all equal in a human sense, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to all be treated equal under the system,” he said.
Fuentes-George added he has been racially profiled just about everywhere he’s lived — including in East Middlebury, where his family moved two years ago. He said a Middlebury police officer called him one day because he “fit the description” of someone they were looking for.
“In telling people — especially students of all ages — ‘We are all equal,’ the emphasis should therefore be, ‘But we’re not all being treated equally,’” Fuentes-George said.
Getting outside of one’s comfort zone to talk about race, Fuentes-George said, is a “small price to pay for ensuring the more vulnerable people can feel more comfortable, particularly since they are the ones who face the burdens of not dealing with these issues adequately.”
East Middlebury resident Karen Guttentag spoke of some of her challenges being a “single, white Jewish mother with an adopted bi-racial Jewish child.” She said she wants her daughter to be able to see herself reflected in her school curriculum and better understand herself and her community.
“That’s a high goal in a place as white as Vermont, and I take my responsibility very seriously,” Guttentag said. “I realize she’s not going to have a lot of natural encounters with a diverse community that will allow her to develop a lot of relationships and learn about different cultures and practices … I feel like I, as a parent, and we, as a community, have to work overtime in the absence of a natural opportunity for community influence to ensure that our children are really learning about the range of history and language to help them navigate and be with individuals with different experiences.”
She asked the school district to partner with her in helping to raise her child with competency in cultural awareness.
“I would really like to see an intentional plan developed with some timelines on how we are going to take advantage of both local and national resources to help us make measurable progress in these areas,” Guttentag said.
Mark Stefani is a member of Havurah, the Addison County Jewish congregation. The congregation was hit with a hate crime last year when someone left swastika graffiti at its gathering spot on North Pleasant Street.
“I support the proposal and the goals of putting together this (task force) to examine these issues, but I also agree that it needs to be done very carefully and very thoughtfully so that we don’t provoke a retrenchment in the very attitudes we are trying to bring together,” he said.
Different people can provide different accounts of what the Confederate flag means to them. But Stefani said it’s clear that hate groups are “re-branding the Confederate battle flag as an all-purpose, anti-government symbol.”
Natasha Ngaiza is a Tanzanian-American filmmaker and Middlebury resident. She has two small children, one currently enrolled in the ACSD schools. She said the lack of diversity instruction within the school system makes for “additional labor” at home in making sure her daughters, whom she said are Tanzanian-Chilean, “know where they come from” and “are feeling proud about the skin they are in.”
She thanked the board for initiating a dialogue on race that could pay dividends in the classroom for students of all colors and creeds.
“Please look at yourselves,” she cautioned. “But this is awesome, this is great. It’s better to start and just try to do something, anything, than not do anything because it might be offensive and might not really work. I think it’s better to get started, like we’re doing today.”
School board members agreed to support the task force and lay its groundwork at their upcoming, Sept. 18 meeting.
“I think we have to start somewhere,” ACSD board Chairman Peter Conlon said. “This is a place to start.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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