SPRINGFIELD, Vt. – The Springfield School Board held a televised, remote meeting Sept. 9 where it voted 4 to 1 to accept the resignation of Derek Johnson, a newly hired literacy coordinator in grades K-5 and a person of color. More than 70 citizens weighed in online to discuss this and to object to a new Controversial Issues Policy proposed by the board that would determine lesson content and allow an in-advance “opt out” option to parents for their kids.
In his resignation letter, Johnson alleged the school district questioned his level of professionalism and said he experienced racism within the district. Johnson also took issue with the board’s new policy borne out of parents’ complaint that said their child was forced to participate in a remote third grade class on June 1 where a book entitled “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice,” that deals with racism and police violence, was read.
Superintendent Zach McLaughin opened up the floor to public comment after the board voted unanimously to table the policy for now and said there are not policies about every way a teacher might address a lesson, but there is a misconduct policy to deal with poor delivery of instruction.
Bindy Hathorn, high school principal, said she felt the June 1 lesson plan may not have been implemented correctly. She said instead of following in-place processes, it was an extreme jump to propose this policy.
Becca Polk, a seventh grade teacher, is a member of the District Equity Committee and read a letter by the committee. “Even with our best attempts, the Springfield Schools are a place that replicate and reproduce inequities of our society…Unfortunately, what students have seen and watched throughout their lifetimes, are people of color throughout the world facing violence and bigotry.” And, she said, they see their district not taking a firm enough stance against the racial threats and intimidation.
Charis Boke, adjunct professor at Saint Michael’s College, read a letter from the Springfield Community for Change and questioned the timing of the new policy in response to a white parent’s concern that their child was exposed to an uncomfortable issue. “If we don’t talk about these things, we end up with situations where folks are not able to have the conversations that, though they are uncomfortable, are central to American democracy.”
Nicole Awaad, high school teacher and advisor for students of color, said she recalled a moment last year when a student of color ran away from school over an incident. Although the student was found safe, it prompted questions by white students about what the student was feeling and whether he was okay. She told the board, “If I followed your policy, I would not have witnessed the growth of that conversation.”
High school students Payton Kingsbury, Makaila Dorcely, Maya Owens, and Zoe Avent had powerful words for the board.
Kingsbury said, “I don’t want to know that my education is in the hands of people who are uncomfortable and, faced with controversy, they attempt to stay neutral and my education is now very limited.”
Dorcely described an instance last year when a couple of students were threatened and had to be escorted to cars at release. “If you pass this policy, it will take the burden off the white people in the community and it will fall back on the people of color who are already dealing with racism… Promises and apologies without change is manipulation and we don’t deserve to be manipulated back into these racist societies.”
Avent said going to school without having a teacher to talk to is scary. “If you put the policy in place, it is ensuring that people who are uncomfortable win…It ensures that us being scared is okay…and it ensures racism in our school and community.”
Owens said she is affected by racism at school which students have been taught to cover up. The policy will just whitewash it and they will not learn anything.
The superintendent said he was affected by the quality of the dialogue, the quality of passion of the commentary, and the thoughtfulness gave him as much hope as any other meeting he had been a part of and said, “It shows we have the capability to do better.”
The policy will be revisited after an investigation, which McLaughlin suggested it be an external rather than internal process, and recommended the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity in Brattleboro for that purpose.