ACSD forms task force to weigh in on racism, bias: Panel to issue report to school directors

MIDDLEBURY — The Addison Central School District board on Monday unanimously approved the membership and charge of a new ACSD Task Force on Racism, Bias and Discrimination that will spend the next four months looking at ways to help Middlebury-area schools address “explicit and implicit bias” in district schools.
It was on Aug. 22 that the board agreed to form the task force in wake of reports of some Middlebury-area residents flying Confederate flags, which in turn elicited some candid stories from several local residents of color about alleged racial profiling and their children relaying allegations of racial insensitivity and/or intolerance in public schools.
A handful of district officials met on Sept. 12 to determine membership for the task force and the parameters of its work, which will culminate in a series of recommendations to the ACSD board by Jan. 15, 2018. ACSD board members Peter Conlon, Ruth Hardy and Victoria Jette revealed on Monday the task force would be co-chaired by Miguel Fernandez, the chief diversity officer Middlebury College, and Middlebury Union Middle School Principal Kristin Holsman-Francoeur.
“We felt their combined expertise of the world outside and the world within would be really helpful to start the task force off, since there’s such a small window of time for the task force,” said Hardy.
The task force will ultimately include more than a dozen members, including Farhad Khan, a Middlebury selectman, parent and local businessman; local resident Betty Kafumbe; Weybridge Elementary School Principal Christina Johnston; Elaine Orozco-Hammond, leader of the Middlebury-based BOLD Women’s Leadership Network; former ID-4 board member Karen Lefkoe; and Karen Guttentag, ‎associate dean for judicial affairs and student life at ‎Middlebury College.
“It’s been great getting all these people interested (in serving), and it was even better to find out most of them are enthusiastically interested,” Conlon said.
District leaders will appoint some students to the task force within the next few weeks.
“We thought it would be better to form the task force first and then go out and talk to students about what their involvement would look like and have things gel a little bit more…” ACSD Superintendent Peter Burrows said.
Plans call for the task force to operate as an independent working group, rather than as a subcommittee of the board. Its recommendations will become advisory for the ACSD board and Burrows. Those recommendations can touch on curriculum, training, policy and procedures, all in an effort to make ACSD schools “more diverse and welcoming,” according to the task force’s approved scope of work.
Task force members won’t have access to personnel or student files. And its role won’t include investigation of individual complaints related to ACSD employees or students.
The new panel will focus on issues of racism, bias and hate in ACSD schools, “and while racism shall remain central to its work, issues of misogyny, homophobia, ageism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, ableism and other forms of bias and discrimination should also be addressed,” according to the group’s charge.
Some local residents on Monday offered encouragement and advice for the new task force. Among those who spoke was Joanna Colwell, a member of Middlebury chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). The mission of the 200-member Middlebury SURJ is to educate Addison County residents about the harm caused by white supremacy activities, and to funnel money to Vermont-based organizations led by people of color.
“We are really excited to work with the task force and we are excited to offer opportunities to the whole community on how we can dismantle racism in ourselves and in society,” Colwell said.
Poppy Reese, a local parent and member of Middlebury SURJ, also applauded formation of the task force. She believes the effort can be beneficial to all age groups — not just students.
“I think a lot of the work we need to do is going to start with the adults working with themselves, and one of the things I’m really hoping for is that the teachers and staff are going to get some anti-bias training and anti-oppression training and looking at their own biases… ” Reese said. “In order for us to do the work with the kids, we have to do it with ourselves.”
Piper Harrell is a parent and a teacher at Middlebury Union Middle School. She said it will be incumbent on teachers to tackle issues of bias and intolerance head-on in the classroom.
“We must be courageous,” Harrell said. “We must be explicit about emotional education; we must be explicit about the world we are living in — in the United States and globally.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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