Standing-room only crowd at the Dec. 17 School Board meeting

A standing-room only crowd of about 150 people attended the District 65 School Board’s meeting on Dec. 17, to voice their concerns about racial slurs being made at the District’s schools and to show support for eradicating racism and hateful language at the schools.

The issue surfaced when Lincolnwood School Principal Max Weinberg sent an email to Lincolnwood families on Oct. 28, saying, “I am deeply concerned that a crucial portion of our student body, specifically our Black students, are being made to feel unwelcome. I cannot allow this.”

Mr. Weinberg said he had recently learned about “hate-filled” language spoken by children in the school, specifically the following comments made by students: “I want to know why Black children come to this school;” “This isn’t your school;” several instances of the N-word; “You are dumb Black boys;” and “Brownie.”

A few days later, Jerry Michel and Jerry Succes, the Principal and Assistant Principal of Willard Elementary School, advised Willard families, there was an incident on Nov. 2 where comments were made at Willard, such as  “you don’t belong here” and “your language is terrible.”

In a Dec. 13 email to the District 65 Community, Superintendent Paul Goren reported other comments that he said” ranged from students saying, ‘I will not play with you because of the color of your skin;’ to students using derogatory and violent language towards Black students such as calling fellow students the N-word, or ‘chimpanzee’ or ‘monkey’; to students telling Latinx students that ‘a wall will soon go up and you will have to return to your home.’”

“This harmful language is not unique to just one or two schools,” said Dr. Goren.

Opening Remarks

Dr. Goren opened the meeting saying, “I want to start this evening’s discussion with my personal and professional commitment to live and activate anti-racism principles at every level of District 65. The use of racial slurs by students is not new to District 65. It’s not new to Evanston or Skokie. It will not stop until we recognize such language is being spoken and until we elevate the voices of those who feel the pain of these actions. I look forward to the listening and absorbing the words and sentiments of those of you in the audience  and in the community.

“I want to reiterate and state clearly that hate and hateful language with racial overtones and hateful words that reflect other forms of discrimination have no place in District 65. Regardless of our different backgrounds and lived experiences, what matters most is that we treat one another with kindness, compassion and respect.”

Breaking with tradition, many School Board members weighed in on the issue before the public was given a chance to speak.

Board Vice President Anya Tanyavutti said, “It pains me deeply to hear the harmful experiences that children and families have had. But I’m also so grateful that our institution has been doing the work necessary to become brave, bold and empathetic enough to respond.”

She posed the question, “What is being done to make clear to children and families the gravity of the use of racial slurs and racism and to insure that it is explicit that it will not be accepted in our schools?”

“I am so grateful that tonight the conversation begins, and the work has begun in earnest in many of our schools.”

Board member Sergio Hernandez, who could not be present, said in a letter read at the meeting, “It is heartbreaking to hear about the racial slurs that are used by students to hurt other students in our schools. …  I would be remiss to not mention the current national leadership and the toxic encouragement they have created that emboldens and exposes our country’s worst tendancies toward dehumanization and inequity and contributes to the state of affairs in our schools.”

Mr. Hernandez said his two sons who attend Chute Middle School told him they did not hear any racial incidents at their school, but one son who attends Dawes said he recently heard a white student call a Black student a “disorderly monkey” on his way home after school. “That’s the only time he’s heard that kind of incident.”

Mr. Hernandez asked administrators and Board members “to explore how we can build staff capacity and make victims of racist attacks whole again.” He invited community members to attend the Board’s Policy Committee meeting on Feb. 5 at which time, he said, the committee will consider policies to address these issues.

Board member Rebeca Mendoza said parents need to have conversations about race with their children, saying that the racial comments being made “are hurtful and in many case traumatizing.” She said, “We live in an incredible community and everyone in this community prides themselves on the diversity that they moved to this City for. … I’m really thankful for the people we have around this table for their leadership in this community, and I’m extremely hopeful for a better School District that we as a community are going to work towards for our kids.”

Board member Candance Chow said, “These are extremely difficult conversations. It’s critical for us to listen and hear everyone’s voice.”

Board President Suni Kartha said, “As hard as it is to hear the stories we need to hear them. As uncomfortable as it makes us, that discomfort is where the change is going to come from.”

Public Comments

Twenty-four people spoke. Four said they were aware of racial slurs:

• One parent said her nine-year old child at Chute was called a “a stupid Chinese boy,” and asked “can you speak English” and “can you see out of your slanted eyes so small.”

• An Orrington parent said her friend’s child was called racial slurs on the playground. 

• A second-grade girl at Dewey was called a “chimp, a chimpanzee,” called “stupid,” and two students made fun of  “her hair texture.” 

• A first-grade boy at Dewey was told “all Black people are monkeys” and another student told him he did not want to play with him “because he didn’t like his skin color.” 

Many other parents talked about discriminatory actions and many others suggested what the District should do.

Tania Richards said, “While I’m hearing indignation, I’m observing a delayed and lethargic reaction that concerns me.” She added that while Dr. Goren’s essay talked about protecting students of color, it failed to address the need to teach White students who were witnessing the incidents. “They’re being fed a message that it’s ok to have these problems as long as you feel bad about them and have some things in place to address them.” She said the District needs to prepare “White students to be anti-racist in the world. “It comes down to whether we want to create bystanders or interrupters.”

Roger Williams the President of OPAL, said the racial slurs are symptomatic, and the “underlying cause is the racist idea of white supremacy.” He said the District needs to expand the African Centered Curriculum (ACC) program; it needs to hire more Black teachers; and people need to “accept the fact that the achievement gap or the opportunity gap is a systemic issue and not the fault of Black parents or some other inferior behavior assigned to Black people.”

Alice Barry, Board Secretary of OPAL, said “It’s important that people respond to racism when it shows up. Racism is systemic and we need systemic changes.”

Oliver Ruff, a member of the OPAL’s Board asked for information regarding how police officers are being used in the schools, what their race is, and what impact they are having.

Robin Brown, a Lincoln parent, said the District needs a clear anti-racist policy. “As a first step, the District needs to track these “incidents of racial aggression” which is “necessary for us understand what is happening among students and to provide healing to all families,” she said.

Ndona Muboyagi said she returned to Evanston in September and said,” This is the most divisive environment I’ve lived in 20 years.”  She said she has seen “where there’s a conscious decision to exclude parents of color” from parent organizations who want to be involved in the schools.

Olivia Ohlsun, a sixth-grade student at Haven, said the lunch tables at Haven end up being segregated. She added that the people at the meeting were “mostly adults” who were talking about students. “I think we should have more students talking about this topic instead of adults,” she said. Ms. Ohlsun received a standing ovation.

Meg Krulee, President of the District Educators Council (DEC, the teachers union) said teachers are working diligently and aspire for anti-racist schools.” She said they have taken Beyond Diversity equity training and many have taken SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) training. In addition, she said, many are using responsive circles to help better understand students, improving library collections with books reflecting the diverse student bodies in the schools, working on a culturally responsive curriculum, creating Black student unions, encouraging, recruiting and retaining teachers of color, and participating in racial affinity groups.

“Our educators are committed to this work and while we may make mistakes along the way, DEC is all in for partnering with this essential work to bring these ideals into our classrooms.”

Reps of D65, NAACP and YWCA Offer Comments

Joaquin Stephenson, Director of Equity and Family/Community Engagement at District 65, said, “This is the start of reconciliation, but that cannot be without truth.
We must continue to be open and explicit about what is happening in our schools related to discrimination based on our students’ multiple identities.

“We must keep race at the center of this conversation.”

Mr. Stephenson listed many things the District is doing to create an anti-racist culture, including developing a culturally responsive curriculum, developing restorative justice practices, de-tracking algebra, implementing a new discipline and dress code, implementing school-based climate teams, adopting an equity policy and statement, and providing equity training to teachers and staff.

He added it is not enough for parents to have conversations with their children about race, adding that everyday behavior matters, including conversations at the dinner table, how parents respond to racist remarks, whether parents’ friends are all one race. “These actions are subtle, but powerful messages,” he said.

Pastor Michael Nabors, President of the Evanston Chapter of the NAACP, listed 10 steps the District should take to promote an anti-racist culture, a “big one” being “Have our town adopt an anti-racist, anti-hate zone – all of Evanston – with appropriate signage place throughout the community and with appropriate workshops.”

“You have to openly and publicly declare war on racism and on hatred in this school system.”

Eileen Hogan Heineman, Director of the Racial Justice Program at YWCA Evanston/North Shore, said YWCA’s mission has for many years been “to eliminate racism.”

 The conversation at District 65 has to include “power” said Ms. Heineman. “If we don’t talk about power and its use and misuse we’re not addressing a core piece of this.” She posed the question, “How do we individually and collectively use our power to create the change.”

She said it was important to listen to people who have been marginalized and to explore “How do we center that voice and empower the changes that are being sought from those voices?

“We can adopt a million policies, but if we have not included the realities of what kids and parents are experiencing, it’s not going to change anything,” said Ms. Heineman.

Board Discussion

Ms. Mendoza said, “We need to start tracking the incidents. If we’re able to track the times that this is happening in our District, it equips us to see these gaps at our schools to provide support to our educators, to provide support to our community members.

She added, “It’s just as serious as somebody getting into a fight.” It is not “a physical event, but the emotional baggage and trauma that it is causing is really a humongous burden for a kid to carry.”

Ms. Mendoza added, “We need to hear student voices.” She urged schools to encourage fourth- through eighth-graders to complete the 5 Essential Survey, being administered by the Illinois State Board of Education.

Ms. Tanyavutti said, “We need to respond to the pain and suffering that is happening . .. How can we expect children to learn if they are burdened with this pain?”

She added that she had asked that the issue be put on the Board’s meeting agenda. “I felt like we needed to have this discussion, and I am grateful we have the support of our community to do this,” she said.

Ms. Chow asked, “How do we know that the training and capacity building is translating into change in the classroom? I do not yet have a clear picture of how we’re going to do that and how we’re going to hold people accountable for that.”

Ms. Kartha said it was important to put in place tracking and to treat racial comments “with the same seriousness that we treat other acts of aggression.”

Dr. Goren said that staff are already drafting a policy to track racial incidents and working on a glossary for the equity policy, which may be ready to present at the February Policy Committee meeting.

Two Forums Scheduled

After the meeting, the RoundTable asked Dr. Goren how many instances of racial slurs he was aware since he become Superintendent and if they were occurring more frequently.

 Dr. Goren responded, “During earlier years of my Superintendency we would hear tell of a couple of incidences during a typical year. We are now hearing about and responding to racial slurs more frequently. I believe we are hearing more partially due to our efforts to raise the importance of equity and courageous conversations across the District, where we are focused on issues related to race and are encouraging all District staff to be proactive when we hear or witness such slurs. I also believe, and I think it’s a good thing, that parents and caregivers are reporting these incidences more frequently. This may be related to the state of our nation where issues of race and the discrimination of marginalized people is being discussed more frequently as a result of a lack of civility many see in our country.”

“Given the rise of racialized events,” the District plans to hold two community-based restorative justice peace circles to discuss that the District can do and what the Evanston and Skokie communities can do to be proactive and create an anti-racist culture. The dates are Feb. 6 and Feb. 27, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The locations will be announced at a later date.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...