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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Commentary: The Issue of Race Relations Reaching a Boiling Point on the Davis High Campus

On Wednesday, I received a request from Bernita Toney to have space to present her case for a Boycott of the STAR Test. Concurrently with a People's Vanguard of Davis appearance Ms. Toney, who was the subject of a feature story not long ago, would also have a letter to the editor that appeared in Friday's Davis Enterprise, in addition she spoke before the Davis Joint Unified School District school board meeting on Thursday night. My policy has generally been to grant space to most people who request it. In addition, while I will not take a public position on the boycott itself, I support the larger cause.

Ms. Toney's letter and support information would appear in Friday's Vanguard at noon. What I was not prepared for was an email from Interim Superintendent Richard Whitmore requesting a response. Again, I was more than happy to allow Mr. Whitmore a chance to respond. One of the reasons I founded this blog was the ability to have these kinds of community discussions.

I am very concerned about the trajectory of events at Davis High School, I shall lay that out much more fully shortly. However, I also believe that this Superintendent and this school board are committed to getting things right. I think they showed that in the manner in which the suspension of the DHS Student recently was handled. And I think they are committed toward rectify many of the complaints that Ms. Toney has laid forth. As one key person reminded me, Mr. Whitmore was brought on for the purpose of fixing a lot of this stuff, but he has only been on the job for a little over a month.

I will further say, the fact that Mr. Whitmore was so proactive in responding to the call for a boycott was viewed universally as a positive and important step. It demonstrated concern and commitment. Mr. Whitmore acknowledged the place that boycotts have had in assisting social movements. However, he has also played the role of the establishment by suggesting that a boycott here would cause a good deal of harm to the students.

As I said, I am not here to argue that it would or it will not.

What I will suggest is that it is time for the larger community of Davis to take heed to these concerns, because right now I see frustration and tension rising.

The issue of suspensions is of particular concern here because it reflects a broader concern that students of color--Latino and African American--are disciplined much more harshly than white and Asian students. In fact, survey data from that a huge percentage of minority students believe this and even white and Asian students believe that Latino and African Americans are disciplined more harshly and suspended more frequently and for longer terms than white and Asian students. There is a strong and abiding belief--and I do not know if it is true or not--that there was a racial component in the suspension of the Davis High Student, who happened to be Muslim and happened to be accused of posting a "terrorist message." Can this be coincidental? Perhaps. But it is a cause for questioning.

The district can certainly look at the specific suspensions that Ms. Toney listed, but I think it might be more helpful overall to look at discipline policy and suspension data to see if the actual punishment trends match the perception.

The issue of the suspension of the student organization the Black Student Union has become a flashpoint for all of these problems. The students felt like this was the organization that really helped them and represented their needs and interests. This was a dispute that seemed really spawn from outside of the students and was probably mishandled by staff who overreacted. The loss of the adviser was crippling. The decision to suspend it in the wake of problems perhaps even more so.

The issue of achievement gap has merited strong concerns. This gap is of course reflective of other gaps in society and this country as a whole. But I would suggest if we cannot deal with this gap in Davis where we have ample funding and resources, the rest of the country seems likely to fare much worse.

Furthermore the issue of hiring practices and the utter lack of African American and other minority teachers has long been a concern of many in this community, even more in the minority community, and recently of the school district under the leadership of the current school board. One of the reasons that David Murphy was replaced with Richard Whitmore as Superintendent was the need to address this issue--but there is mounting frustration and any solution is going to be long and difficult. The chief problem may not be merely the schools and their reputation but also the growing reputation of this community.

And that is the broader concern here--the problems in the schools are reflective of broader problems in our community. Last year the issue largely focused around police-minority community relations. And that area is still of a large concern. But it was part of a broader problem as was this.

Some have suggested that a STAR testing boycott will only hurt the district. What I have found interesting since the issue arose yesterday is how controversial the STAR testing program is in general--many people have opted out of the program on their own. In the past and in other communities, similar issues have arisen. I was particularly interested to here from my wife, that they had boycotted the testing in the mid-80s in Chico.

But what I want to suggest most here is the notion that somehow and in someway the broader community needs to become aware of the problems that the minority community believes it faces. In many ways, unfortunately, it seems the only time the community becomes aware of these problems is when these controversies also affect their children.

This community needs to have a long and difficult discuss on racial issues in general. Unfortunately that discussion was short-circuited last year but the problems have only been buried, they have not disappeared. These issues have arisen from time to time for the last thirty years and they will not go away unless we are aggressive and proactive. I just do not know that this community is ready to deal with these problems. However, one way or another, it may have no other choice.

At this point, I would like to thank the Interim Superintendent Richard Whitmore for his willingness to engage on this issue. I honestly believe that he and the school district have the intention of dealing with these problems. At this point, perhaps I would like to see strong public statements from the school district that demonstrates that they are taking strong actions to rectify many of these problems. I think that type of approach would largely reassure many of the parents and other community members involved.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting