Screenshot of Jan. 14 District 65 Board meeting, held via Zoom

At 8 a.m. this morning, Jan. 14, members of the District 65 School Board held a specially called closed-session meeting to “discuss our safety and security.”

In a letter to the District 65 Community on Jan. 11, District 65 School Board President Anya Tanyavutti and Vice President Elisabeth Lindsay-Ryan, on behalf of the School Board, said that Ms. Lindsay-Ryan’s car had been ransacked and a message with homophobic hate language was left behind and prominently displayed. Ms. Lindsay-Ryan said nothing was stolen; “I was the target of a hate crime. … [I]t is a result of white supremacy colluding with misogyny and homophobia to inflict the most harm possible.”

The letter also referred to the Zoom-bombing that took place while Carolyn Murray, a candidate for Fifth Ward alderman, was being interviewed by the Democratic Party of Evanston. Hateful messages and racial slurs were posted in the chat box.

The letter also referred to death threats and other harassing emails being sent to administrators and members of the School Board. It also said parents’ emails urging that schools be reopened for in-person learning evidenced racism and white supremacy.

At the beginning portion of the Jan. 14 meeting, which was held in open session, District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton said it appears that COVID-19 is going to be here for a while, “but there is hope.“ He said, “There’s an active vaccine that our medical experts believe will be a strong solution to get this pandemic under control. On Friday, we received communication that educators will be placed as a priority for the next vaccination.

“In addition to the vaccine, there is more research available about how to protect ourselves from COVID-19 that has proven to be extremely effective.”

After referring to the number of votes that President Trump received in the election and the events on Jan. 6, Dr. Horton said “Now we can see what this really means for our country.

“Here in Evanston/Skokie, we’re considered to be one of the more woke communities, and school districts in the country. Our approach to creating learning environments that will support closing the achievement gap between Black and Latinx students and white students must go deeper. This is why culture is right for deep, intense racial equity training. And it has been happening, and yet we still have pushback from those who don’t believe in our work.”

Dr. Horton said the School Board has been public about the inequities that exist in Evanston as well as in the nation. “As a result, our Board members and administrators get attacked in emails and postcards with death threats. I’m not referring to emails or outright calls of derogatory names, but communications that attack our character, decision-making and leadership.

“The privilege in communications I received is often blatant, asking me why myself or the Board prioritize the help of teachers and staff, when they should be considered essential workers.

“Never mind that our community makeup is completely different from many school districts who have been able to successfully open, and in a sense of what success means. When we challenge this privilege, we get hit with FOIA requests, or Office of Civil Rights complaints.

“I want to be clear about our efforts to fight the pandemic of racism that has taken just as many lives as COVID-19. We will not stop, we will continue to provide equity training for our staff. We will continue to diversify our workforce, we will continue to build an anti-racist curriculum, we will continue to build learning environments where all students can thrive and be their authentic selves.”

Ms. Tanyavutti said, “In the past six months alone, we have experienced different, yet in very personal ways, the workings of white supremacy. The way that it is weaponized against our Black leaders, and any of us that are committed to prioritizing the needs of Black and Brown children. The weaponizing has manifested itself in persistent threatening mischaracterizing messaging, recently escalating into the death threats since August 2020.

“To our Board members and District administrators, there seems to be no limits or boundaries, to what those who are opposed to equity are willing to do when and they feel challenged.”

She said, “Our stakeholders have every right to voice their frustration and share their disappointment about where a lack of federal leadership and clear guidance on opening schools has left every district to fend for themselves. However, there is a difference between asking questions and insulting the intelligence, character and motives of the person in which you are asking the question. There is a difference between critiquing a decision and declaring the decider uninformed, uncaring or operating with malicious intent because based on the information and context that they have available, they came to a different decision.”

At the District 65 School Board meeting held on Dec. 7, five parents, two of whom are pediatricians, urged the School Board to open the schools for in-person learning. They argued that other schools have safely engaged in in-person learning and that it is essential for a child’s social and emotional development.

The pediatricians said that many children were suffering mental health issues and were falling behind in learning due in a remote learning path. Their comments were respectful. An article is available here.

 In an email sent to Dr. Horton on Jan. 5, a parent (whose name was blocked out by the District) said they had two students in the District and said, “I am writing to express my significant disappointment and frustration with the way in which you and the school board have handled the reopening of D65. 

“The district made the decision to go remote in March of 2020. Nearly a year later, you have indicated that you are just now putting together an advisory board. How was this decision not made during the summer months leading to the school year starting?

“Even more concerning is that you point to mask-wearing and social distancing as ’emerging science’ in your most recent communication. We have known this for almost a year. 

“You say ‘as of late’ there is growing consensus among researchers and the medical community that schools reopening at higher regional positivity rates (greater than 8%) does not have a significant impact on community spread. This has been known for months. This is not new news. We read the news – we know of the studies that have been done domestically and abroad. Please do not patronize us by pointing to stale information and saying it is new, emerging, etc. 

“There is such a void of leadership from you and the school board at this point that we are submitting our application” to another school next year.

Dr. Horton, responded on the same day. He said, in part, “Your communication is received, and I understand your frustration. These decisions are not easy to make at all. We have spent months upon months planning and designing a safe return to school. Our buildings have been ready as well as our planning for students to safely return. I take full responsibility for making the decisions to remain remote for a couple of more weeks. While you reference many surrounding districts are in-person learning, there are just as many not in-person, but that’s besides the point. The majority of the districts that you are referencing do not look like our student body. The private schools that are open do not look like our student body. If we are talking about the research then you would know that COVID 19 has negatively impacted people of color at a much greater rate than others. Our staff and student lives are too valuable to just operate haphazardly and risk one person contracting COVID 19. My primary job is not to make individual parents happy but to provide the safest learning environment for all students and staff. As you are aware there is a global pandemic and no one has the answer for it. Our national and local government cannot help us.

“In the world that we live in,” Dr. Horton continued, “ I’m sure that you have not had to reflect on your white supremist thinking and way of life. White Supremacy is no longer the white hooded villain attempting to cause physical harm. You make personal attacks towards me because we are not giving you what you want. I suggest you look in the mirror and reflect on who you are and how you are presenting yourself to an African American leader. I refuse to sit back and be assaulted about my decision making to not return to in person learning especially when the undertone is outright racists.” 

In another Jan. 5 email, a parent (whose name was blocked out by the District) said they were “disappointed and disgusted” by the administration’s handling of the reopening of the schools.  “There is nothing more racist or divisive than keeping Evanston children out of school. Every other community and suburb has reopened and found ways to make hybrid or full in-person models work carefully. District 65 and you should feel ashamed for your continued lack of acts and appropriate choices. I’m certain that Evanston has a much higher contingent of high-risk youth than Wilmette, Glenview, and every other north shore suburb, yet we are the one community that has not even tried to get kids back into school.”

Dr. Horton responded, in part, “If we are talking about the research then you would know that COVID-19 has negatively impacted people of color at a much greater rate than others. Our staff and student lives are too valuable to just operate haphazardly and risk one person contracting COVID-19.

He also said the author was evidencing racism and the white supremacist views, in language the same or similar to the response to the parent above.

It thus seems that parents who argue that schools should be opened for in-person learning are being attacked as racists and White Supremacists because they allegedly fail to recognize that Black households are more likely to contract the COVID-19 virus than white households, and perhaps because they use strong language.

But just a few months ago, the Board and the Superintendent argued that equity required that low-income students and students with an IEP or who had other risk factors – which in District 65 includes many more Black than white students – should be given a priority to return to in-person learning. The reason was these students needed the added supports that could only be provided by in-person learning.

The Board did not discuss the impact that the pandemic and remote learning is having on Black, Latinx and other children, the extent to which they are engaged in learning on a daily basis in school, the extent to which they are turning in their homework assignments, the extent to which they are receiving supports at home, the extent of learning loss, or the impact on families.

Nor did the Board discuss the metrics being used to determine if the District should return to in-person learning or whether the District should do so.

………

EDITOR’S UPDATE: In a video conversation on Jan. 18, Dr. Horton said that the following language that is contained in the above article mischaracterized the email exchange between him and two parents:

“It thus seems that parents who argue that schools should be opened for in-person learning are being attacked as racists and White Supremacists because they allegedly fail to recognize that Black households are more likely to contract the COVID-19 virus than white households, and perhaps because they use strong language.”

A Jan. 20 article posted in the RoundTable, entitled “District 65 Superintendent Devon Horton Says Sentence in RoundTable Article Mischaracterized Email Exchange with Parents” is available here.