At the Aug. 10 meeting of the District 65 School Board, Superintendent Devon Horton and members of the Board defended the decision to give priorities to certain groups of students in deciding which students would be able to participate in the in-person learning path at District 65 this fall. The priorities would become a factor only if the number of students who elect to participate in the in-person learning path exceeds the number of available spaces, and if in-person learning is deemed safe and is provided.

The number of spaces may be limited for at least two reasons: 1) The capacity of the school buildings is limited due to the requirement to maintain social distancing within the schools and in classrooms; and 2) teachers may not choose to return to teach in the in-person pathway due to concerns about contagion.

Superintendent Devon Horton opened the discussion thanking the District’s team members for their work during the last few months to design a plan that satisfies and meets the needs of the District’s students. He said the plan takes into account multiple stakeholders, including union leaders, parents, and community members.

“Our return to school has been a ton of work, and I just want to thank everyone,” Dr. Horton said. “And again, there’s no perfect plan, and you may have heard me say this before. There’s no right plan, but there’s definitely a wrong one. And we want to be sure that what we put out and what we move forward with is something that we all can live by and that our students could benefit from.”

He said, “I just want to be clear that we are prioritizing in our design, our students who are free, reduced lunch, special education, emerging bilingual, McKinney Vento [homeless children] and any student who struggled during our spring learning. I’m hoping that that’s clear. And it just happens to be that the majority of our students are who are in free, reduced [fee] lunch are Black and Brown. And so that is the position we want to just share. It’s really about providing that support for them for our in-person return with guidance through ISBE [Illinois State Board of Education].

“And there’s been a lot of, not a lot – the community itself has been very supportive of us, but there’s been just a lot of evilness, a lot of racism and privileged individuals who have been harassing, for lack of a better word, the emails of myself, the Deputy Superintendent, our Board President, and I just wanted to say we will not be intimidated. We will continue and move forward with our mission.”

Board President Anya Tanyavutti said, “In that same vein, I have statement to read, an open letter to read on behalf of the Board. It’s prompted by some inflammatory and mischaracterizing story that was put out by Fox News, and prompted by that we’ve been receiving – mischaracterizing and racist emails, including direct threats toward Board members, as well as administrative leadership, specifically Dr. Horton and Dr. Green.

“And to that we’ve written an open letter, as a collective, to make it clear that we stand tall on our values as a Board, and we will not be deterred. As a Board, we have decided to share the content of one of the letters that we received recently in order to help our community understand the moment that we are in and the options that are in front of us.”

While Board members alluded to the letter, no one read the letter into the record.

Ms. Tanyavutti gave a lengthy statement. “We know there are many in our community committed to equity and ensuring that our most marginalized students are prioritized because of the legacy of racism and white supremacy has made their educational experiences unjust.

“We need to move beyond discussing these realities and take decisive action to rise to this moment and demonstrate our commitment to these values. We want to start by addressing the specifics of this letter. It’s important for us to contextualize that the views expressed in the letter are part of a continuum of resistance to equity, and desire to maintain white supremacy that we see in many forms in our District.

“While few people in District 65 employ the tactic that we have seen in the letter that I referred to – to speak about Board members and our identities and purposefully attempt to pit us against each other using racist tropes. We do see numerous examples of folks in our community raising similar concerns, albeit less inflammatory language.

“We want to be clear that when you challenge policies and protocols established to ensure an equitable experience for Black and Brown students in a myriad of ways we have seen, you are aligning yourself with the type of people who write us threatening and racist letters.

“Your efforts to express your discontent with policy and practice by suggesting that leadership is not transparent, is incompetent, or has not thoughtfully considered all aspects of the plan are often part of a larger narrative that prop up white supremacy and attack our Black leaders. We have experienced white supremacy’s effort to undermine Black authority and leadership in our District numerous times, and we need to identify how people employ what they believe to be benign strategies that work towards the same end in the clutter.

“We believe it’s helpful for us to catalog the problematic aspects of the letter that we received so that we can illuminate the reality of what our commitment to equity requires from each of us. Our role as Board and cabinet necessitate that we navigate questions, requests and advocacy that often have racist and white supremacist underpinning. However, we are not the only ones that are responsible for creating and maintaining a community where racism is repeatedly challenged. We hope that every community member can identify and challenge the ways in which other versions of the letter that we received, using different language but working to the same end, are brought to the Board and our administration.

“Our path forward depends on all of us using our voice in every space we occupy to challenge the ways our current systems continue to produce disparate outcomes based on race.

“To be clear, the letter that we received was racialized from the start. It was not addressed to our entire Board. It was addressed to one member in an effort to weaponize a racist narrative that has been utilized for generations between Asian and Black communities. Throughout history, those with the most power have encouraged and facilitated distrust between marginalized communities, so that their focus is not on the root of the problem: the unjust power structure and inequality created and maintained by white supremacy.

 “The author of the letter we received intentionally tried to activate anti-Black racism through their letter, despite our consistent and continued language about the numerous categories of need that will be prioritized, including Black and Latinx students. The author’s focus is to imply that only Black students will benefit. He vacillates from one bigoted talking point to the next, attacking Asian and white Board members as race traitors.

“Because we support prioritizing the needs of Black and Brown students, targeting members of color that are not Black by suggesting that they should not trust our Superintendent and Deputy Superintendent to serve anyone who is not Black because of identity policy. He also sprinkled in some homophobia to add fuel to his hateful fire.

“He mischaracterizes our collective prioritization of Black students as discrimination rather than what it is, a wholly inadequate attempt to recognize that Black students have been harmed by racism and disenfranchisement in epic proportions, and we should take every action possible to eliminate that harm.

“To suggest that the efforts to address racism and inequality are themselves an act of discrimination is a common tactic. It is used regularly and yet we as a community must recognize it for what it is: a total misunderstanding of how racism and power work. We must challenge these feeble attempts to make false equivalence and be steadfast in our understanding that actions taken to dismantle the power racism has in our institution are not the same as the racism that caused the disproportionality in the first place.

“This type of letter is intended to terrorize and intimidate. We want to state unequivocally that our Board is not choosing a path of inaction, that we are actively supporting efforts to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our community. We need to make difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions to, at minimum, reduce the disproportionate harm this pandemic is causing and understand how the pandemic is exacerbating the generational impact of income inequality, racism and white supremacy that has embedded itself in our school system.

“It is honest to say that we are all experiencing the same pandemic. Our worries and fears are radically different based on our economic stability, and whether we have the additional burden of racism and police violence impacting our decision making. Those vastly different experiences can cause us to have completely different priorities and a completely different set of options and tools available to us. We are all concerned about our kids. But we must be careful about creating false equivalence because the range of harm for our children is that and the impact is endemic is having on all of us is not the same. We stand with our Superintendent and cabinet as they engage in bold action to both address the historical reality of the opportunity gap in our District, and how this pandemic could exponentially worsen the problem.”

Ms. Tanyavutti also said, “We need our community to stay focused and undeterred in our commitment to equitable outcomes for Black and Brown students.”

Board member Soo La Kim referred to “an assumption of a racial hierarchy in which Asians are offered the illusion of superiority over Black people. And if we try hard enough to fit in and play along, we can have what white people have.”

She said, “I was targeted on the assumption that there is enough anti-Black racism in the Asian American community that we would buy into these lies and believe that prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable in our community is somehow taking something away from us. All of these assumptions p… me off and they should p… you off too. Because emails like this use Asian Americans as a wedge to drive racial resentment and division. We are being goaded into doing the dirty work of propping up racist ideas, blaming Black families and Black culture for their marginalization instead of the systems and policies that perpetuate inequality and harm.

“Please don’t fall for them. It may be easy to dismiss such a blatantly hateful attack as uncommon in our community. But this attempt to make Asian Americans accomplices in upholding white supremacy also comes in subtler forms. When white people in power ask, “But what about Asians? You should be suspicious. When it’s assumed that all we care about is the academic achievement of our own children, you should question that stereotype. And if you find yourself wondering why Black and Brown families can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps, like you or your parents did, I challenge you to acknowledge and grapple with your own internalized racism.

“I hope you will join me in standing in solidarity with Dr. Horton, Dr. Green, my fellow Board members, and all of those in our community committed to anti-racist policies. And actually, despite the turmoil and violence all around us, despite the uncertainty of this pandemic, we have an opportunity in our little corner of the world to remake our school system to protect and nurture all our children. Starting with the most chronically underserved. Let’s choose to stand up for them put together.”

Board member Joey Hailpern said, “Over this past few weeks, this email amongst many other conversations from people within our community, I have been offered several racial bribes to keep me in line with the white hierarchy. Racial bribes as Guinier and Torres wrote in the ‘Miner’s Canary’ are strategies that invite specific racial and ethnic groups to advance within the existing Black/white racial hierarchy by becoming white. These bribes are common throughout our society. These attempts to lure me, to lure me in, follow the same playbook used within the U.S. for hundreds of years. Being referred to as a race traitor was the most explicit comment to tap into my whiteness as a reason for me to align with the commenter’s position.

“However, the first race bribe is one that seeks to defuse a marginalized group’s oppositional agenda. This is simply strategizing to maintain the status quo, and I will not be deterred by such tactics. I was offered incentives that discourage me from affiliating with Black people. ‘Why would I, a white man, be comfortable with the possibility that my children not be in school, while others are invited in’? As if my desire for my three school aged children to attend in person learning should suffice for alignment with a white supremacist view of our reopening plans. You can bring your subtle traps this way. But I will not be caught in your web.

“I was encouraged to make sure that some of those that have the most among us are well taken care of because they’re the ones that vote or post on social media. I was told that my shift in position would provide me more positive favor, and therefore better status within the existing hierarchy. To those who reached out in this way, you can offer me the sun, the moon and the stars, but my moral and ethical compass cannot be recalibrated your way. …

“I know that well-resourced parents are already protecting their educational privileges by hiring educators to run their little pods. The economic impact of perpetuating a system that maintains this educational gap is profound. The cost of intervening early and often is far less than the cost of supporting this need. In later years, the outcomes are clear, they are known. And I will not ignore that in planning to reopen the year when not everyone can fit physically in the building.

“As much as this was a moment to come together, we must do so by realizing that coming together means supporting a plan that has its priorities in order and does not just say everyone is equal going forward. We have committed as a Board to being anti-racist. This is a binary choice. So those that are struggling to come along, we no longer have time to wait for you. As a white man, I want to say loudly how proud I am of my colleagues of color, leading the Board and the administration as they do the work that is needed to put those who need the care and cover most in our schools first.

“I appreciate that the words are being said out loud for everyone to hear and understand. Children who look like mine and live as privileged as mine do, may not have a space in schools as we all want until this pandemic subsides.

“That is not a racially motivated decision, as some may have charged. It is the reality that race plays in our society. It is the reality that race plays in the structures that we have built. It is the underlying system that has been in place for a long time. And this Board, with the work of the administration, and our amazing educators appear ready to sort of change. Specifically for those who look like me and have the privilege of being male, being white and heterosexual, it is time for everyone to be part of the solution locally,” said Mr. Hailpern.


 Aug. 24  A copy of the email letter that was the subject of the Board’s decision was recently posted on the District’s website. it is available here.

Larry Gavin

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...