Hartford School District develops wide-reaching policy on racism

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/26/2020 10:01:09 PM
Modified: 6/26/2020 10:01:01 PM

HARTFORD — The School Board this week gave preliminary approval to a policy that aims to eliminate “all forms of racism” in the Hartford School District.

Initiatives would include training for staff and teachers, a student-led committee to promote equity and diversity and efforts to hire a more diverse faculty.

Central to the policy is a statement to be posted in all school buildings, printed in the student handbook and provided to parents as well.

“The School District of the Town of Hartford rejects all forms of racism. Racism in any form will not be tolerated in this school. Hartford Schools are committed to the mission of increasing cultural respect by cultivating greater understanding of concepts of diversity, inclusion, equity, implicit bias, white privilege, white supremacy, and systemic racism,” the statement reads.

Among other measures, the policy — which is expected to have a final vote at a School Board meeting in late July — calls for the School District to:

■Assess and monitor the “institutional climate” to understand implicit bias and its consequences.

■“Oppose teachings that perpetuate white supremacy and/or superiority by acknowledging the violence, disenfranchisement, and bigotry these topics depict before a lesson begins.”

■Train teachers and staff about racism and its inequitable outcomes, as well as training in “cultural awareness and/or culturally responsive teaching practices.”

■Respond to racist acts by students by teaching them about the impact of their actions on others through restorative justice, mediation or role playing, among other responses.

The policy was drafted by two Vermont Law School students, Arielle King and Jameson C. Davis, who are also New Hampshire/Vermont Schweitzer Fellows, in conjunction with School Board member Peter Merrill and Hartford School Superintendent Tom DeBalsi.

Davis, a former Selectboard member who also served on the Hartford Committee on Racial Equity and Inclusion, told School Board members at their meeting Wednesday evening that the policy is intended primarily to support students and also “making sure the kids are safe, and they feel comfortable.”

Establishing a committee of high school students to promote equity and diversity, one of the “procedures” accompanying the policy, is also important, Davis said.

“What we are really trying to do here is we are trying to get a buy-in of a cultural shift, not just obviously from the superintendent and from administrators and teachers but from students themselves, because what Arielle and I really believe is for that cultural shift to happen and for it to be sustainable … it would have to come from the students, and the students would have to have ownership,” Davis said on a CATV recording of the board meeting by videoconference.

School officials said the training component was also important, and School Board member Michelle Boleski suggested that anti-racism experts be appointed to positions akin to math coordinators in the school.

“I think it’s really important when giving these lessons that they are taught correctly and that they are taught by someone who has some experience, because there are plenty of examples of these lessons being taught incorrectly,” she said.

DeBalsi, the superintendent, said he would also share the policy with parents in the district, which like most of Vermont is overwhelmingly white, and let them know of children’s books on the topic of confronting and combating racism.

“I think it’s really important that this work starts with them when the kids are little, just like they teach kids with literature when they are two and three, even six months,” DeBalsi said. “They need to start teaching anti-racism and what it’s all about ... there are some good resources on that, but I don’t know that they are well known.”

Although no price tag was given for how much it will cost to implement the policy, it calls for the School District to budget money annually toward addressing racism through training and activities for staff and students.

The school superintendent will also be required to report on a two-year cycle to the School Board about racial disparities in areas ranging from student achievement to graduation rates and disciplinary actions.

The superintendent would also be responsible for implementing and evaluating the School District’s strategies.

DeBalsi said he believes the anti-racism policy would be the first in the state for a public school district, although the Montpelier Roxbury School Board in March 2019 adopted a “diversity, exclusion and equity” policy.

The Hartford policy would apply to all students, staff, volunteers, visitors and teachers, and wording is also being added to the School Board’s governance policy “that calls on us to be sure we educate ourselves on how to govern in a way that is culturally aware and welcoming of all individuals in the community,” said Merrill, the longtime School Board member who helped draft the proposal.

After about 40 minutes of discussion, which included amending the definition of white privilege to make clear that it includes preferential treatment of members of society who are white, the board unanimously approved the draft policy, with a final vote to be taken next month.

In a phone interview on Friday, Hartford School Board Chairman Kevin Christie noted that the School District had been active in chartering Hartford’s Committee on Racial Equity and Inclusion and that the anti-racism policy was part of a continuum of necessary work to unravel centuries of systemic racism, not simply a response to the surge of national interest in racial justice this month.

“I’m really pleased where we are going,” said Christie, who taught automotive technology and coached football in the Hartford School District in the 1980s and 1990s and now serves as both a state representative and the chairman of the Vermont Human Rights Commission. “Sometimes events present opportunities, and I look at this as another opportunity to show folks in Hartford who we are a district.”

News staff writer John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com or 603-727-3217.

Draft documents from the Hartford School District:

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