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Friday, November 17, 2006

School Board Meets Over Junior High Harassment

In an emotional and sometimes contentious meeting last night, the Davis Joint Unified School Board agreed to create a climate in our schools where everyone feels safe and accepted. There was little in the way of specifics, but the consensus of the board was to direct the Climate Coordinate Melvin Lewis to create an action plan.

I came away from this meeting with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is clear, very clear in fact that the school board has a commitment and the desire to fix the problems. It was also clear that the intentions are good. What was disturbing however is that I did not get a good sense that they knew what needed to be done. This meeting seemed long on rhetoric--Keltie Jones, the school board president who is openly gay, talked about her dream of a society where the gay lifestyle is accepted on equal footing with the straight lifestyle, where billboards and magazines in society depict same-sex couples just as they do opposite sex couples.

On the other hand, I just don't know if they really know what to do to fix these sorts of problems. In some ways, this is not even a gay-straight-anti-gay problem, it is as much a problem of bullying and kids possessing the ability to pick on others by going to their most vulnerable spot. And for this young junior high school student, it was the fact that he has gay fathers.

Board member Jim Provenza hit on a key point that got lost in the multiple discussions about what to do. The immediate concern--and Provenza was duly disturbed by this--is that there is a student who does not feel it is safe to come back to school. He came back initially and was harassed again. He then came back on a Monday, and was harassed by one of the same kids who was involved in the first incident and the Principal felt he had no proof this time and let the kid go back to class. This is very disturbing. And this is the part, that I don't think has been dealt with. I think the district has done a very good job with the bigger picture, but a very poor job with dealing with the immediate concern.

The other really good comments came from Hui-ling Malone, who is the daughter of Reverend Tim Malone and the student member on the board. She talked about the need for students to step out of the spectator's role. Moreover, teacher's need to be consistent about enforcing a no tolerance policy towards harassment. It is not enough for them to ask the students to write a reflective essay after the fact, they need to be vigilant and proactive.

Tim Taylor, another board member, emphasized that there is a strong need for a school district to educate. Everyone saw this as an opportunity to educate the students and the parents and the community on these issues.

Everyone on the board clearly seems to have the best of intentions. There was agreement that action needed to be taken, agreement there needs to be more education and the need for it to move beyond tolerance and towards something stronger. The big picture was well addressed but I think the short-term was not focused on nearly enough. The family is upset with how this was handled from a disciplinary standpoint and that seemed to be the weakest area of focus. Everyone has a sense for what to do in the longrun, no one offered much in the way of suggestions for the family to get their son back into school in the shortrun.

In the coming days, we'll have video clips from this meeting. In the meantime, there was an interesting dichotomy between those who were surprised that this could happen in Davis and those who were not. That's the bigger lesson that this community needs to take away from such events. It goes back to what Rahim Reed said last week at the HRC meeting--people in Davis tend to bury their heads in the sand and believe that these types of things do not happen here.

The striking thing was the message from the gay and lesbian community that they do not feel welcome in this community--at least some members conveyed that. In the last year, we've focused heavily on the minority community in terms of police harassment, but it seems clear that the gay and lesbian community have a number of under-addressed concerns as well that need more focus and scrutiny. If there is a teachable moment on this, perhaps it is this one--that we need to be vigilant, not because the majority of people in Davis are hateful, but because when a minority of people are, it reflects poorly on the rest of us.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting