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East Lyme schools respond to calls for racial reform

East Lyme — School officials are responding to calls for curriculum changes and policy reform after a 16-year-old high school student and a newly-formed group outlined steps the school district should take to better support its students of color.

Superintendent Jeff Newton said that besides discussing changes to the district’s curriculum, the district is planning ongoing diversity training for teachers to better help them address issues of racism with students. He said the Board of Education will also review an exisiting-recruitment plan for hiring teachers of color, as 97% of the district’s teachers are white, and will discuss implementing a zero-tolerance policy for racist behavior in school.

Newton added the district is also forming a Diversity Committee that will consist of staff, students and parents and offer the school board suggestions about how to implement curriculum changes and initiatives about racism.

“We’ve done a lot and we’ve engaged in a lot over the years, but there’s always room for improvements and it is something we need to take a bigger focus on,” he said. “The events that have occurred across our country have been what’s brought this forward and we all need to focus on it and do more work.”

Besides the ongoing unrest surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, Newton said a letter sent to school administrators and staff last month by 16-year-old high school student Imahni Ward has also acted as a catalyst to begin conversations about how to better address systemic racism issues both in school and as a nation.

In her letter, Ward, who is biracial, called for high school teachers to openly address the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer after she said all eight of her teachers had not brought up the event or the subsequent protests in the days that followed.

“You preach about how our generation will become the next leaders, yet you pick and choose what to censor when it comes to talking about important topics,” Ward wrote. “…Why do you choose to say nothing to the young people that you are supposed to teach? Is the curriculum so important that you cannot stray from it during the times when it is most important to? … Everyday people are speaking about the coronavirus, so why not this? It’s just as, if not more, important and a lot more relevant right now. So please, talk to your students.”

In an interview with The Day earlier this month, Ward said she felt East Lyme students and students across the country, were in need of not just a more accurate accounting of Black history, but broader conversations about the many forms racism can still take today. She offered several personal experiences about comments not meant to offend her but which demonstrate implicit racial bias, such as students wanting to touch her hair because it looked “fluffy like a sheep.”

“I never felt like my hair was beautiful to other people. It was always a joke, or something to play with,” she said. “It wasn’t racist, but it was just ignorance." 

“I’ve had people come up and smack my head and say, can you feel that? Can you feel that?” she said. “It’s been a long time of laughing things off. I grew up thinking this behavior was normal, it’s okay. I’ll laugh with you guys, I’ll stick pencils in my hair to entertain you. That’s something I’ve struggled with. I’ve never been seen as the girl who was pretty, but only as the girl who has an afro. … These are things I’ve been taught to normalize, to be comfortable in my life with, but which are not okay.”

She brought up larger issues, as well, such as peers recently asking her permission to say the N-word in her presence but not understanding the historical context about why the word is offensive. She added she believes such actions have been fueled by the watered-down version of American history students receive not just in East Lyme, but around the country, which doesn't accurately or fully teach Black American history.

“I don’t think the school is racist. I don’t. I really don’t,” Ward said.

Ward's mother, Virginia, agreed, adding both believe students are not thoroughly educated in Black history, modern social issues and systemic racism.  

“(Teachers) don’t understand why this needs to be talked about widespread and by everybody," Ward said. "I feel like they think it can only be a select few, or people like me, that can talk about it. But it’s not just our problem, (racism in all forms) is everyone’s problem.”

Besides Ward’s letter, the district has also received a list of proposals from a newly-formed grassroots group, known as East Lyme for Black Lives Matter. Among its recommendations are broadening the district's curriculum, providing support groups for students of color — of whom just 1.6% are black, according to state statistics — implementing diversity training for teachers, re-evaluating the district’s hiring policy and implementing zero-tolerance and reporting policies for racism.

“They have some thoughts and ideas, which is great,” Newton said about the proposals. “So we are looking forward to hearing those and going over some of their ideas and trying to work together to bring some things in place. … We are open and our focus is on training teachers and providing professional development and knowledge and continuing to work with students in an open and transparent way.”

He added the district’s new diversity committee will be tasked with identifying which of the proposals, if not all, will be implemented and how. The district is also awaiting direction from the state on how to best implement broader conversations about race and Black history in its curriculum, Newton said.

Newton said he and other administrators have scheduled to meet virtually with members of the East Lyme for BLM group next Monday. 

Group organizer Ben Ostrowski said members are hoping to also present their suggestions to the Board of Education at its July meeting.

Besides offering a platform for people of color in town to openly talk about their experiences “underneath the surface” both in town and in East Lyme schools, Ostrowski said another goal for the group is to offer town officials some direction on how to “change things on the ground and gain perspectives from the students who might not have been able to voice their issues in the past.”

"We are trying to make it very easy to listen," he said. "That’s the point."

Ostrowski, who graduated from East Lyme High School in 2013 and who is now pursuing his PhD in organizational behavior at Carnegie Mellon University said the East Lyme for BLM group formed as a way to keep the momentum for change moving forward after he organized a June 7 protest here during which several former students of color spoke about their experiences confronting both implicit and overt forms of racism from their fellow student. 

The group has 300 members on its Facebook page and formed five subcommittees to submit proposals to groups such as the Board of Education and the Board of Selectmen.

“There is a common belief among a lot of people in this town that racism doesn’t happen here, so we are trying to break that belief down,” Ostrowski said. “We are not exempt. … This happens here and we need to look at it.”



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