09122020 Something Happened in Our Town Keene (ONLINE ONLY)

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 Board withdrew its proposed solution to a complaint filed by two district parents on an educator’s use of a children’s book that discusses the topics of race, social injustice and police brutality.

Seventy-five people attended the Springfield School Board’s Wednesday night meeting hosted on Google Meet to observe the board’s discussion and subsequent action on a suggested new procedure labeled the Controversial Issues policy that would outline the district’s stance that teachers “do not have a right to use the school setting as a forum to promote their personal views” and that parents and students should have the option to opt out of conversations that may offend them due to their religious or personal beliefs.

This deliberation comes after Jeremy and Christine Desjardins, local parents of a district third-grader, submitted a letter and formal complaint to Union Street Elementary School School Principal David Cohn and Superintendent Zach McLaughlin 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 district’s discussion on race only expanded leading up to Wednesday night’s meeting as less than a month after the Springfield School Board first talked about the age-appropriateness of the book, Derek Johnson, a newly-hired K-5 literacy coordinator, submitted a letter of resignation to McLaughlin on Wednesday, Sept. 2, saying that, in part, he experienced race-based microaggressions and attacks on his professionalism by high-level members of the district.

“I did not expect as a newcomer to the district, and its only black male professional staff member, that administrators at the highest level would engage in racist microaggressions towards me, or that administrators would be engaged in discussions regarding their perceptions of my level of professionalism before I even began working with Springfield’s teachers and students.”

Johnson also criticized the proposed Controversial Issues policy being considered by the board.

“Finally, I was saddened by the school board’s recent attempts to quell students and teachers and thus the community from engaging in equity and justice conversations by mandating a policy that would require teachers to seek permission to educate and engage student in ‘controversial issues,’ primarily content regarding racism and police violence,” Johnson writes. “The school board’s decision to now write a policy to curtail teachers’ ability to teach ‘controversial issues,’ in my opinion, undermines historically marginalized students in Springfield and further details the reality that all lives will not matter until people within positions of power can say without dismay that Black Lives Matter.”

The board first addressed the resignation of Johnson, which was accepted by a vote of 4-1, with board member Jeanice Garfield being the lone dissent.

McLaughlin opened the item up for discussion under Appointments, Resignations, Retirements with some thoughts which paralleled sentiments of disappointment expressed in a letter immediately following the receiving of the resignation.

“I have a deep sense of sadness about the kind of moment that we’re in right now,” he said. “As an organization, we want to move towards being the best educational opportunity for kids that we can be and if we don’t have a diverse staff and if we don’t have a place that is welcoming to people, regardless of whether it’s a staff member or student, it becomes really hard for us to fulfill our mission to all students, not just to students of color or staff members of color, but all of our students and staff.”

McLaughlin also urged the need for an external investigation to be conducted, potentially with a local or regional justice center, in order to eliminate bias and obtain the facts in the most objective way possible.

Springfield School Board Chair Troy Palmer agreed with McLaughlin’s call for an investigation, specifically one that is handled by outside parties. Palmer also advocated for more training and workshops for administrators, educators and staff to best combat this type of behavior and way of thinking.

Board member Michael Griffin noted that an external investigation could benefit the community as it will teach district officials and the board the intricacies associated with such an examination and equip them to take on the responsibility in the future if the situation permits itself appropriate to do so.

“We can all learn a lot through the investigative process so that in the future, if it’s appropriate to do it internally for this situation, we can ensure our district is fully on their game to do an investigation properly.”

McLaughlin elaborated that while he has initiated the process of setting up an external investigation, no definitive decisions have yet been decided.

Garfield, the lone dissent, said that her decision to not accept Johnson’s resignation was based on a letter vouching for the newly-hired educator’s character and her belief that Johnson should not be seemingly forced to leave the district when he did nothing wrong.

The board also voted to forgive the $665.21 already paid to Johnson for the first pay period of the year.

The acceptance of Johnson’s resignation led into the Controversial Issues policy up for consideration.

Palmer began the conversation by suggesting that the proposed policy should be tabled following the conclusions of the external investigation conducted on the alleged events described in Johnson’s letter of resignation.

Griffin supported the prospect of postponing discussion for a later date as a means to better and more inclusively involve the community in its decision-making process.

“Depending on the timeline for the investigation, the information we learn could impact my thoughts on whether we wait until after the investigation or not,” Griffin said, “but certainly I think this policy is important enough that we need to make sure through this process that we involve the community and hear the community on their thoughts on the pieces and parts of this policy.”

Griffin also proposed the idea to host a special forum or survey specifically on the policy and other solutions to best resolve and prevent similar incidents from happening in the future.

“I’m certainly okay with taking it slow enough to make sure we don’t do something that we wish we wouldn’t have done that way.”

Board member Steve Karaffa motioned to table the policy discussion until after the investigation, which was accepted by all members.

The floor was then opened to members of the public who wished to speak on the proposed policy.

Nearly two dozen individuals of all ages and backgrounds with connections to Springfield and its school district — including Riverside Middle School teacher Becca Polk, Saint Michael’s College Adjunct Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Charis Boke, Springfield High School teacher Meredith Pelton, Springfield High School teacher Katherine Boduch, Springfield High School Academic Resource teacher Nicole Awwad, Social Justice educator Mikaela Simms, Union Street Elementary School Special Education teacher Dawn Cummings, Springfield High School student Payton Kingsbury, Springfield High School Social Studies teacher Keegan Harris, Springfield High School principal Bindy Hathorn, Springfield High School student Makaila Dorcely, Elm Hill Elementary School principal Christine Pereira, Springfield High School Social Studies teacher Christopher Lievense, Springfield High School student Maya Owens, Springfield High School student Zoe Avent, Springfield resident and parent of incoming freshman Susan Dreyer Leon, Union Street Elementary School Speech and Language Pathologist Amanda Hart and Springfield School District Director of Special Services Kelly Ryan — spoke out against the policy, calling for it to be withdrawn outright, going in opposition to the board’s earlier approved motion to table.

Most of the comments made by members of the public during the 96-minute open floor revolved around a refined number of concerns. Some accused the policy as only furthering the wedge between groups of people and not helping resolve the bigger issue of racism in the district.

But the issue that may have defined the meeting was one brought up and expanded upon by current students such as Zoe Avent when they questioned the district’s swift action to resolve the grievances posed by two white parents over a book that presented the topics of race, social injustice and police brutality, while racist acts and remarks made by white students toward their fellow students of color continue.

“Going to school without having a teacher to go to is scary,” said Avent, who is a student of color. “Putting this policy in place is ensuring that people that are uncomfortable win. Making sure that people of color my age are silenced and we are not being able to talk about our differences and being able to have those conversations with our white friends to where they actually understand what is going on. Putting this policy in place ensures that us being scared is okay. We shouldn’t have to be scared going to school.”

McLaughlin rounded out the list of speakers with a notion of sincere gratitude to everyone in the community that tuned in and offered their perspectives on the issue at hand.

“The quality of the dialogue this evening, the quality of the passion of the commentary, the thoughtfulness of what people were saying, give me as much hope as any meeting I’ve ever been a part of in the time — the decade or so — that I’ve been in Springfield. That we have the capability to be better.”

Garfield called to vote the motion to withdraw the policy from further consideration, which passed unanimously.

Palmer echoed McLaughlin’s sentiments, adding that the district will look into additional training measures for school district staff.

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