Lawrence school district ‘hits pause’ on micro-aggression policy

Nearly two months after Lawrence school district leaders drafted a discrimination and harassment policy that includes symbols and micro-aggressions, those changes have yet to surface for public discussion.

Originally, the policy committee that drafted the changes planned to submit them to the school board for review in June, but Superintendent Kyle Hayden said it was decided more input was needed.

“So that’s what they decided to do — to just kind of hit the pause button and allow that process to happen,” Hayden said.

Micro-aggressions can be unintentional, and are often defined as subtle comments or actions that represent negative or stereotypical beliefs about a minority group.Though the term was coined in the 1970s, the topic was examined in detail in a recent book, “Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation,” written by Columbia psychology professor Derald Wing Sue.

The Lawrence district would likely be one of the first to have a policy prohibiting micro-aggressions. Hayden said there was nothing in particular that triggered the delay for additional review, and instead that the committee and district administration decided to gather staff input before the draft was proposed to the school board.

The committee began considering policy changes after a student petition gathered hundreds of signatures in support of a district policy banning the Confederate flag. Currently, the district policy protects students against discrimination and bullying that is verbal, physical or written.

The petition was created after a Free State High School student flew a full-sized Confederate flag from his pickup truck for about a week before school administrators told him to stop. District spokeswoman Julie Boyle said at the time that the flag was disallowed because it was disrupting the learning environment and that the student was not disciplined.

The idea to include micro-aggressions stemmed from a discussion the committee had with the three Free State students who wrote the petition. Free State graduate Maame Britwum, who was one of the students involved, said she thinks including micro-aggressions in district policy will help make all students more aware of behavior that shows racial or other bias.

“I think it’s not something that a lot of people know about unless they seek out to learn more about race relations especially,” Britwum said. “…I wouldn’t expect most students to go out of their way to learn about this, because it’s not something that happens to them, but for the students that it does happen to, they’d have something in the books to say that this is a form of harassment.”

The student petition was submitted to the board in March, and the district’s policy advisory committee met multiple times to discuss policy changes before it completed the draft on May 16. In addition to opening up conversation about race, Britwum said including micro-aggressions in policy shows the district supports minority students.

“It’s just letting the kids know that, ‘Hey, we’re looking out for you; you can speak to us about the things that are going on,'” Britwum said.

If the draft were approved, it would expand the district’s definition of discrimination, harassment, bullying and hazing to include symbols and micro-aggressions. Students and staff can both be disciplined for violating district policy, up to and including expulsion from school or termination from employment. The committee’s addition to the district’s discrimination and harassment policy states, in part:

“Harassment can be a result of direct verbal or physical conduct or the use of written material or symbols. Harassment can also be the result of micro-aggressions, which are subtle but offensive comments or actions directed at a minority or other nondominant group that are often unintentional or unconsciously reinforce a stereotype.”

Britwum said she sees the addition of symbols as going beyond just the Confederate flag, and protecting students from various minority groups that may face discrimination.

“It protects a lot of students against possibilities for things that are inherently racist, or homophobic or anti-Semitic,” Britwum said. “Because a lot people don’t want to wear on their chest, like, ‘I don’t like this group,’ but they aren’t necessarily against insinuating something with a symbol.”

The draft also expands the district’s definition of bullying and hazing to include symbols and micro-aggressions in addition to written material and direct verbal or physical conduct. Like other conduct, the micro-aggression would need to be “so severe, persistent or pervasive that it creates an intimidating or threatening educational environment or it substantially disrupts the orderly operations of the district” to meet the district’s definition of bullying.

The committee recommends policy changes to the school board, which then decides whether changes will be approved, denied or sent back to committee for revision. If the district were to expand its discrimination and bullying policies as drafted, school administrators would likely have more authority to prohibit certain symbols — such as the Confederate flag or the swastika — from being displayed on school grounds.

Hayden said the additional input process will allow teachers and staff from each school to review the committee’s draft and make comments. That feedback will then be gathered and submitted to the committee, which could decide to revise the draft or submit it as is to the school board.

“I think it’s just a matter of getting more input and having more eyes on it prior to there being any more public board discussion,” Hayden said.

Hayden said there is not a precise timeline for when the policy changes will be proposed to the school board, but said teachers and staff will begin reviewing the committee’s draft once school begins in August.

“I could see it maybe not getting to the board until October or early November,” Hayden said.