Anti-Racism and Equal Treatment

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Anti-racism efforts gained momentum this summer nationally in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and, for the West Lafayette school district, following a petition from alumni. But what has helped me appreciate these issues in a more visceral way are the social media accounts of West Side students and alumni giving personal stories of their own mistreatment and discrimination over the years.

It’s clear that issues such as race, sexual orientation, and gender still need a lot of work in our society. Nobody should be made to feel excluded, ostracized, or otherwise put in a lesser position because of who they are. Those personal stories are really eye-opening. It’s one thing to understand a problem in the abstract, it’s another to hear stories of kids in your own community going through such negative experiences through no fault of their own. Among other things, teachers and staff members should receive in-service training to help them avoid inadvertently engaging in discrimination and, obviously, intentional discrimination should not be tolerated.

Expanding the curriculum to include a greater diversity of voices makes sense to me as well. As a history buff, I have never understood the resistance to telling our entire history, warts and all. For example, when I was growing up, the American History curriculum only skimmed over Reconstruction. We went from the surrender at Appomattox almost immediately to the Industrial Revolution, glossing over what was happening to Black people in the South. There were maybe brief discussions of unrest in the old Confederacy and that Hayes obtained the Presidency through a deal where the federal government abandoned its Reconstruction efforts. But we certainly never learned about, say, the Colfax Massacre in Louisiana, where the white residents re-asserted power by killing 100 or more black people or heard much more than passing reference to the reality that paramilitary groups successfully used violence to terrorize Black voters and thereby acquire political power.

With regard to our own state, we learned nothing about D.C. Stephenson who, during the 1920s, managed to take the Klan from almost no membership to something like 1/3 of the white men in the State including Governor Ed Jackson. (Which, in turn, means, we didn’t get to learn about outspoken anti-Klan Hoosiers like Lafayette’s Mayor George Durgan.) We did not learn about Article 13 in Indiana’s 1851 Constitution which purported to ban Black people from the state and voided contracts with them. We learned about the Anti-Fugitive Slave Act but didn’t hear much in the way of specifics. For example, we didn’t learn about Black Hoosiers terrorized by the Act (e.g. John Freeman, a wealthy black resident of Indianapolis, wiped out financially after being falsely accused of being an escaped slave) or about many of the abolitionists who tried to help (e.g. Calvin Fairbank – Methodist Episcopal minister jailed and brutalized in Kentucky for helping Black people escape slavery). I know there are only so many hours in the day, but it is all interesting and informative.

If we do not understand that history, it’s difficult to understand the problems we have today. I don’t advocate teaching history as an unrelenting story of oppression and misery (and I don’t think that’s what anyone is calling for in any case); but I also don’t advocate teaching only an aspirational version of history based on what we wish our country would be. So, I am in favor of teaching history from a wide range of perspectives that include the good and the bad. And, obviously, it’s not just history. I can’t speak as thoroughly on, say, the literature curriculum since I was always more of a history nerd. (As my maybe overly long digression into history probably suggests). But I can definitely agree that, growing up, old white guys had more than their fair share of representation in my English classes.

That said, I also favor deferring as much as possible to teachers on matters of curriculum and instruction. I don’t want to make the mistake of thinking that, just because I spent a lot of time in school, I can competently second guess educators. In my view (and this applies globally), the School Board should make broad decisions about policy but defer to the professional judgment of teachers on how best to implement such policies. So, the administration and members of the Board should sit down with teachers in the various departments to discuss what is currently being done and what is feasible for the future.

Another issue that has been raised in this context is with respect to the School Resource Officer. I have mixed feelings about that initiative. On the one hand, I understand the general concern that SROs can have contentious relationships with students and in some school corporations are used to criminalize what amount to school disciplinary issues. Additionally, I’m aware of studies showing that the DARE program does not actually accomplish very much. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s the practice at West Lafayette to use the SRO to police school disciplinary matters. Anecdotally at least, I’ve heard that the SRO interactions with West Lafayette students have been positive; and there are some security benefits to having the SRO around. So, on balance, I’m not in favor of ending the SRO program.  I am open to learning more to determine whether my assumptions are incorrect in a way that justifies reconsideration.

I know that Lafayette School Corporation hired Sadie Harper-Scott as its coordinator for diversity and inclusion. That was a positive move. If WLCSC has the ability to follow suit with a similar hire, I think it would be beneficial. If that’s not feasible, ultimately students need a practical way to communicate discriminatory experiences, ongoing efforts to reduce their frequency, and a process for resolving disputes so that teachers and students can focus on the core missions of teaching and learning.

Doug Masson

Doug Masson

Father. Husband. Hoosier. Lawyer. Candidate.

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