Racial issues no easy fix for schools

Colerain junior Will Packnett and senior Robert Sargent talk with Eric Ellis as they work on a video that will be shown at “Building a Culture of Respect,” a weekend symposium on diversity, inclusion and respect at Colerain High School.

CINCINNATI — It’s been called the elephant in the classroom. And all too often, experts say, race-based issues in schools go unaddressed until they become headline news.

Lebanon Schools became the latest district to make headlines when a mother of biracial children filed a formal complaint Tuesday with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights accusing local school officials of failing to respond to complaints of racial harassment and bullying.

The allegations however, raise larger issues of how schools can — and, some argue, should — constructively address race-related issues to ensure a safe school environment free from discrimination for minority students.

Seven months ago, Northwest Local School District officials found themselves in a similar position after the families of four black students filed a federal lawsuit against the district alleging their children were kicked out of Colerain High School and denied due process because of their race.

The $25,000 lawsuit accused school administrators and Colerain Township police of rounding up a number of students and holding them in a “windowless room guarded by armed police officers for upward of six hours” while interrogating them about alleged gang-related affiliations discovered through social media.

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“I was a nervous wreck,” acknowledged Andrew Jackson, the district’s superintendent. “I’m just a regular Joe trying to run a school district. I’d never been in a federal courthouse.”.

The lawsuit wound its way through federal court until Robert Newman, an attorney representing the students, suggested both sides come together to brainstorm a more productive resolution.

The result of that settlement is a two-day symposium taking place this weekend designed to initiate community discussions on diversity, inclusion and respect with the goal of fostering racial education and harmony within the district.

The district plans to use data and insights from the event as they continue to work with a consultant to refine school disciplinary policies and enact a more open dialogue on issues of diversity and inclusion.

“This is the beginning of how we fix this,” Jackson said. “It’s complicated. There are many layers and moving parts, but we are going to put forward our best foot forward to fix it, and the symposium is the first step in that improvement process.”.

Experts say that while there’s no one-size-fits-all response to addressing issues of racial tensions in schools, there are some best practices to identifying and responding to them.

The first step is recognizing that racial issues exist, said Eric Ellis, a management consultant who helps schools and businesses address issues of diversity.

Ellis, author of Diversity Conversations, and his team from Integrity Development Corp. Worked with Northwest staff and students to plan this weekend’s symposium.

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“Ninety-eight percent of school leaders say they have the intention of caring about diversity, but when you look at who has taken strategic action to support that, that’s rare,” he said. “All too often, until the house is on fire, we don’t really take the time to make investments in the people side of schools and organizations.”.

Such issues are by no means new in local schools.

In 2000, racial tensions flared at Amelia High school over use of a racial epithet and displays of the Confederate flag. Six students were suspended after a fight between black and white students erupted in the parking lot.

West Clermont administrators turned to the local chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice for help. The human relations organization works with teachers and students to fight bias, bigotry and racism.

Those conversations resulted in a five-year diversity plan presented by district administrators in 2002 that called for diversity training for staff, increased racial diversity among faculty and a commitment to ensuring school curricula included information about ethnic, racial and cultural groups.

Andrea C. Kandel, president and CEO of NCCJ, says school districts must start diversity outreach efforts early and commit to ongoing discussions around diversity and differences.

“This isn’t the kind of thing you can put a Band-Aid on,” she said. “An assembly won’t take care of it. It needs to happen daily, annually. We are in the school year after year working multiple times with teachers and youth. That’s when you start to see climate change happen.”.

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Ellis said that while most schools have good intentions, implementing diversity programs can prove difficult for educators who also may struggle with shrinking budgets, increasing class sizes and a greater emphasis on standardized testing, among other concerns.

“It’s like driving a car and changing the tire at the same time,” he said. “This is long and arduous. It takes commitment over time and real leadership. But we’ve got to do better. Young people deserve better.”.

In the Lebanon Schools case, the U.S. Department of Education confirmed it had received the complaint filed by the mother, Heather Allen. It can take up to 180 days for the agency to determine whether an investigation is warranted, the department said.

Contributing: Jennie Key, Community Press.