Education Op/Ed

Community forum: ACSD must confront racism

ESTHER CHARLESTIN

This week’s writer is Esther Charlestin of Middlebury, who until recently was Dean of Climate & Culture at Middlebury Union Middle School.

I share my story for those who feel invisible, who can’t speak because it could jeopardize their jobs, for those whose BIPOC children are struggling and they have no choice but to keep them in our public schools, and for those who have been silenced. You are not alone.

Walking into the role of dean as a black woman, I was able to witness Addison Central School District’s systems and experience its cracks. 

I was hired as the Dean of Climate & Culture at MUMS in August of last year. My job consisted of overseeing discipline, putting out the day-to-day fires that would arise, communicating with teachers and parents, hosting in-school suspensions, detentions, and ensuring 504 plans were adhered to. Within the first week of the new job, I reviewed the Code of Conduct and suspected many students would not respond well to its punitive nature. I decided instead to collect data throughout the year and let the numbers determine how to adjust the policy for the next school year. I also took note that as a black woman in a predominately white space, it would be in my best interest to strictly adhere to the policy I was given as the area of discipline tends to have so many layers already. 

As the person who oversaw discipline for the school, I had good insight on most of the conduct issues our students were presenting and how they were normally handled. This is why during one particular team meeting, I was able to call in teachers who were harping on a student of color’s conduct while failing to acknowledge the white student peers who had exhibited the same behavior. Once I brought it to their attention, there was silence. I realized the lack of tools, awareness, and knowledge around it.

Throughout the year I experienced microaggressions and soon they would grow into full on attacks. One day, I went into the girls’ bathroom and saw graffiti on the on the wall with the words “I Hate (N-WORD) Dean.” At first, I assumed the writing was about someone else. Perhaps, I was in denial. Then it dawned on me that I went by Dean Charlestin and I’m black. This message was indeed for me. A few months later, when redirecting a student I was directly called a (F-ing N-word). While leadership had been made aware of the growing racial tension, the response was underwhelming at best. I often felt alone. 

Over time, my mental and physical health declined. With numerous hospital visits and my body shutting down, there were many days when I was not able to participate in my children’s bedtime and my anxiety was through the roof. I worked in a perpetual state of fear. 

During this past summer, I utilized my time away to do some soul searching and realized I love my community and I am invested in it. Every day as Dean, I saw the heart of the staff and loved how they showed up to do the hard work every day. I also realized two things were true at the same time. I loved my community, but didn’t trust it. My issue wasn’t that these things were happening, it was the way the school handled it. 

There was no policy to rely on to give leaders the direction to support students or staff when racist incidents occurred. I began to wonder if the steps taken after the incidents lined up with Vermont law. I also observed that our teachers, staff, and the administration lack the lens of anti-racism, belonging, and inclusion, as well as the tools necessary to implement restorative measures that can build a healthy community.

As a result of my experience, I ultimately made the decision to leave. I think about the BIPOC people, from the employees to the students, who still attend/work at schools within our district and suspect my story is not an isolated incident. 

Through my pain and a desire not to dim my light, I started a company called Conversation Compass, LLC. I serve as a facilitator, moderator and consultant to help individuals, companies, organizations, and school districts unlock understanding through compassion, one conversation at a time. The topics range from strategic development to justice, equity, diversity, inclusion and building a culture of belonging. 

As a district we have a long way to go and if it is made a priority — I believe we will get there.

Editor’s note: We changed a few words here, for instance, substituting “N-word” for the actual words that the students used. We hope that will convey to the reader the shock of seeing youngsters using vile language directed at an adult administrator while not distracting them by reading certain words completely spelled out in a community newspaper. 

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