08192020 Something Happened in Our Town Keene

The book “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice” by doctoral psychologists Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins and Ann Hazzard, stands positioned on a table in the Keene Public Library. A complaint filed by parents of a student in the Springfield School District over the book and its instruction by a third-grade teacher has initiated a community-wide conversation about race and injustice and how those lessons should be taught in school.

SPRINGFIELD, Vt. — The Springfield School District is determining whether or not to ban a book for a specific grade level that aims to help children better understand systemic racism and injustice after parents filed complaints over the material’s subject matter and presentation.

Jeremy and Christine Desjardins, parents in the district, submitted a formal complaint to Superintendent Zach McLaughlin and Union Street School Principal David Cohn after they became aware that their son’s teacher was presenting the book “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice” with the help of a YouTube video to the third-grade class during a remote learning session. The book, which was provided by the school’s librarian as an option for teachers to bring into the classroom following recent events centering around police brutality, follows two families — one white, one Black — as they discuss a police shooting of an unarmed Black man in their community.

According to a redacted email sent to McLaughlin on June 1 — the day of the remote learning class session in question — and the formal complaint submitted to Cohn on June 3, the Desjardins felt that the material was not suited for their student.

“I find this highly offensive that the school and teachers are presenting this topic [redacted] and had no concern for my son whose father is a police officer,” the Desjardins wrote. “This is not appropriate for this age group, nor an appropriate forum to have in this online learning… As a law enforcement officer, my wife and children have to be extra cautious right now and I cannot believe this would intentionally be brought up as a topic by the teacher when few kids ever understood or knew what was going on when asked.”

The Desjardins also added that the educator did not follow the recommendations provided in the back of the book which explain how students between the ages of 4 and 8 should be introduced to this topic. Published in 2018 by three psychologists at Emory University’s School of Medicine, the book supplies caregivers and educators with tips on how to discuss specific themes of the book — such as bias, discrimination, injustice and race — during and after its reading.

“Further, the dialog[ue] which I expect will be reviewed, created an environment where children at this impressionable age may develop a negative bias against police officers and fear they may get angry and hurt them,” the Desjardins wrote.

The book was used by educator Alison Sylvester in her fifth-grade class after the death of George Floyd, but unlike the third-grade teacher, she informed parents well ahead of time, invited them to be part of the lesson and discussion, and allowed them to opt-out if they so wished, according to McLaughlin’s recommendation sent to the Desjardins.

Both Jeremy and Christine Desjardins expanded on their comments made in their formal complaint at the Springfield School Board’s virtual Monday meeting, where a dozen concerned citizens added their opinions on what the best course of action would be for the benefit of the students.

Jeremy, a law enforcement officer, alleges that at one point during the remote instruction the educator, who has not been identified, singled out a student of color and asked the rest of the class, “we want to protect the student from the police, right kids?”

The couple also voiced their discontent over the neatly two-month wait it took for two individual recommendations — one from the Instructional Materials Committee, headed by Cohn, and a second from McLaughlin, which was informed by the committee’s findings — to be finalized and presented to them. Both stated that the material was not “thoughtfully used” and the need to collaborate with parents and community members to design lessons and best discuss topics such as race that may be considered controversial in a way that is inclusive for all.

“This is a significant issue and one that I don’t believe has been handled appropriately thus far,” Jeremy Desjardins said.

Springfield School Board Chair Troy Palmer opened the virtual discussion Monday night expressing his regret over the handling of the situation.

“The [Springfield] School Board is in agreement that the timeline should have been followed in this process,” Palmer said. “I don’t think there is any dispute about the timelines associated with it and we do apologize it took longer than we thought.”

Many local residents made their way into the Google Meet call by phone and computer to share their insight on the matter.

Maresa Nielson, a second-grade teacher at the Elm Hill School in Springfield and member of the school district equity study group, echoed that while further communication between schools and parents during remote learning is essential and remains of utmost importance, this book would undoubtedly remain as part of her classroom.

“I’m completely for hearing about having an open relationship with parents and hoping that we can continue as we do this hybrid remote option,” Nielson said. “But I also just want to say that the equity study group of the school district is working on evaluating our classroom libraries… Most of the things that we’re evaluating are things that are racist, that have bias, and that book would not be one of them that I would take off my shelf in a second grade classroom.”

Nielson also said that this particular book would not be left out for her students to browse through independently.

Riverside Middle School teacher Becca Polk said that the school district as a whole needs to be doing a better job addressing this topic as many in the area have been sheltered from important conversations on racism.

This statement was reiterated by Riccardo Dorcely, who described how his three biracial daughters, who have been in the Springfield School District for all their years of schooling, have faced and dealt with acts of racism. Dorcely encouraged moving forward that the best way to prevent such incidents from occurring is to use the resources we have to host these difficult conversations.

“The only way we can make it better is if we are unafraid,” Dorcely said. “And it helps when we have tools backed by science and experience.”

In a follow-up, Springfield School Board member Jeanice Garfield questioned if parents could potentially be permitted to participate in the bias training that educators in the district receive. McLaughlin said he would look into the possibility of allowing community members to partake in the development training.

Parents and school officials, including former science teacher Bindy Hathorn, also weighed in on parental oversight of school instructional materials before the lessons are given in class.

“I do have a little bit of a concern around having a policy that is going to govern what teachers can do in their classrooms and how that is going to be done,” Hathorn said.

Christine Pereira, a school administrator, said it would be extremely difficult for elementary school teachers to provide the set texts that will be utilized throughout the year.

“It was not our goal to get a book banned,” Jeremy Desjardins said, “that was never our intent. However, the imagery of the book for that age group and the way it was portrayed to our child’s classroom was not appropriate and why we brought it to this forum.”

The Springfield School Board will issue their determination within 10 school days from the Monday meeting.

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