Black Lives Matter vigil prompts race discussion among Lawrence school board members

photo by: John Young

Lawrence High juniors Avery Mulally, left, and Jakobi Johnson, both 16, light candles while attending a Black Lives Matter candlelight vigil in South Park on Sunday, July 10, 2016.

When Jazmyne McNair was in middle school, she was called into a room and told she was in trouble. She and another student had been seen on the school’s surveillance video posting negative comments on someone’s locker, school staff told her. The problem was, McNair didn’t know anything about the incident.

“All I knew was that I was about to get suspended for something that I didn’t do,” said McNair, who is now a student at Lawrence High School. “For about an hour I was persistently telling them I had no idea what was going on.”

McNair said that it wasn’t until a white student, who had been correctly implicated in the incident, said it wasn’t McNair in the video that she was free to go. McNair, who is black, said such incidents aren’t isolated. For her and other students of color, school is often where they first encounter negative racial stereotypes, including the belief that they get into trouble or are untrustworthy.

Those collective experiences are part of what prompted McNair to speak up Sunday at the Black Lives Matter candlelight vigil that took place in South Park. The vigil was held to honor Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two black men who were recently killed in police shootings. Though McNair said a lot of people at the vigil spoke about police brutality, she wanted to expand the focus.

“Something that I thought always needed to be said at events like that is how we treat children, especially in schools,” McNair said.

McNair said she was one of three people who spoke at the vigil about their experience as students of color in the Lawrence public school district. What McNair didn’t know at the time was that two Lawrence school board members were among the approximately 400 attendees.

At the school board meeting on Monday, the two members, Marcel Harmon and Jessica Beeson, said that the perspectives shared by students were important for the board to consider.

“I think one of the things that’s really important to point out is that the experiences they talked about happened here in Lawrence, not in other places,” Beeson told the board. “It really pointed out that we have a lot racism in Lawrence — in our communities, in our businesses, in our universities, in our public school system.”

Since 2009, achieving equity for students of all races and backgrounds became one of the board’s central goals for the district. A main component of the district’s equity work is diversity training, which includes a two-day seminar based on the Pacific Educational Group’s Courageous Conversations about Race programming. Each of the schools in the district have also formed “equity teams” to engage in conversations and identify racial issues in their buildings.

Over the past several years, the district has provided the Beyond Diversity seminar to about 1,400 teachers, classified staff members and administrators, according to district spokeswoman Julie Boyle. In addition, Boyle said that about 100 others, including parents, community partners and school board members, have gone through the training. Last school year, Boyle said, the district began providing the training to all teachers new to the district.

Later in the week, Beeson expanded on her comments, saying that though she thinks the district’s diversity training and equity teams have created progress, that there is more work to do when students are saying they feel marginalized or discriminated against.

“We can’t say, ‘OK, well, we’ve created this diversity training, we’ve created these equity teams and so we’re done,'” Beeson said. “I think it’s important that we keep this as a main priority. I think there are so many things — we can’t tackle police brutality, it’s a public school district — but we certainly can tackle teaching our children about diversity and equity.”

Another of McNair’s concerns is that not only do students of color have to confront negative racial stereotypes but they also must actively prove the contrary to their teachers or classmates.

“Because until you do prove that, that’s what people are going to expect from you,” McNair said. “They’re not going to look at you and assume that you get good grades or are talented in choir, things like that, and that you participate in the activities that your school offers. Because, sadly, that’s just not what people think automatically; that’s not the default mindset.”

Beeson said that she thinks different racial standards — that students of color have to prove themselves in ways that their white peers don’t — are part of a national dialogue on race that does not except Lawrence.

“One of the things I think happens in Lawrence is that we have the tendency to believe that we’re so progressive, racism doesn’t exist here, we somehow are different than the rest of the country,” Beeson said. “I think it’s important to hear those voices and realize that no, we do have racism here, we do have these biases.”

School board President Marcel Harmon agreed with Beeson, saying that the concerns of students of color show that the district needs to expand its diversity training and continue to take into account the perspectives of teachers, parents and students in assessing results.

“It isn’t that I think there needs to be a new goal, but this serves as evidence we need to keep the equity work going,” Harmon said via email. “We need to continue encouraging teachers/staff go through the Beyond Diversity training and continue to support the building of equity teams.”

The school board sets annual goals for each school year in August, and both Harmon and Beeson said that they would like to further consider the topic at the upcoming goal-setting discussion. McNair said she recognized that such conversations are difficult, and that she appreciated the board’s support.

“It’s a rocky subject that people are going to be very opinionated about and it’s going to be hard to really nail down how to address the problem,” McNair said. “But I think it’s really good that they hear the voices of the students. It’s good to know that we have a lot of support in trying to improve.”

The board’s goal-setting session will be at 4-6:45 p.m. Aug. 8 at district offices, 110 McDonald Drive.