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Friday, April 27, 2007

HRC Gets an Earful on Race Relations at the High School

For the first time since the Davis Human Relations Commission was disbanded and then reconstituted, the HRC listened to members of the public talking about their concerns about race relations at Davis High School. While the topic started out focusing on the Black Student Union (BSU) suspension, it broadened into more general complaints about racial issues at the high school and in the broader community.

The unfortunate aspect of this meeting however, was the lack of presence by the school district, which is the authority with jurisdiction over the matter. The HRC meeting coincided with a special board meeting across the street. That meeting prevented Climate Coordinator Mel Lewis from attending the HRC meeting, despite the pertinence of the issue and despite his position as liaison and ex-officio member of the body. (Update at 8:20 am 4/27/07: It was reported last night that Lewis could not attend due to the school board meeting, but we have gotten word that the meeting only dealt with the issue of the Superintendent hire and Lewis was neither at that meeting nor is he involved in that issue).

Instead, Mel Lewis and Kevin French submitted to the HRC a two-page statement that purported to summarize the events that led to the suspension of the BSU. The complaints included a number of parent who attended the BSU meeting on March 1, 2007 who did not check-in or out of campus per the requirements. Moreover he charged that "negative race-based comments were directed at the principal and coordinator of school climate activities..."

A number of attendees at the HRC meeting had been in attendance at the BSU meeting. They took issue with the statement released by Mel Lewis--calling it one-sided and distorted. They claimed on the contrary, that there were never any race-based comments. Moreover, the statement claimed "the principal suspended BSU club meetings until parties offered apologies and held reconciliatory meetings. To date, no apologies or meetings have taken place." On the contrary, members present at the meetings disputed these facts suggesting that there was never a request for such apologies or meetings as a precondition for reinstatement of the BSU. Moreover, even if true, why are they punishing the students for the actions of the parents?

While it is difficult to ascertain exactly what happened involving the BSU and a number of parents have suggested that media accounts in the Davis Enterprise and Sacramento Bee were distorted and inaccurate, some of the commissioners perhaps got too bogged down in the specific facts of this specific issue. One of the members, suggested specifically that they did not have the facts of this case and therefore it would be difficult to take any action.

To a large extent this was true, however, the point was also made that this specific incident is part of a larger problem and that the issue of race and race relations needs to be considered as a whole rather than through one specific issue. Police Ombudsman Bob Aaronson who was attending the meeting, made the point that if there is a burning building, you cannot create a subcommittee to figure out what the facts are, if you do, it will simply burn to the ground long before you get the hose there. In these cases, sometimes you must act not on the specifics of the case, but rather on the overall picture.

Interim Superintendent Richard Whitmore also sent the HRC a letter outlining the steps that the district has been taking--mostly in the form of new programs.
"We are taking steps to evaluate those existing programs and determine when and how to improve them... We will explore additional opportunities to develop and articulate a curriculum that addresses diversity, but I would caution that curriculum does not change overnight, nor does it change without appropriate training and a cycle of evaluation and improvement."
While I can respect the Interim Superintendent's difficult position, I have a number of concerns that I do not think are addressed by curriculum changes. First, I am very concerned that the district and the HRC could not coordinate on this meeting. Frankly, Mel Lewis, Ginni Davis, and Richard Whitmore needed to hear what was said at this meeting. I do not understand why there could not have been some kind of cooperative effort here, but that is what needs to happen in the field.

Second, Mel Lewis is the climate coordinator however many of the parents and students believe that he is part of the problem (along with Ginni Davis). I have not witnessed this personally, but many believe the entire situation was mishandled. Mel Lewis purportedly was going to assume the role of adviser when the previous adviser, Courtnay Tessler, stepped down, however the students wanted no part of that.

Third, the primary problems I see are not curriculum based. I have very serious concerns about the high school administration. While it seemed that the school board and superintendent did a good job with the suspension of the student involved in the Malcolm X incident, that situation has still not been resolved. Apparently the teacher has refused to return to class while the student is present. That has left the students themselves without a qualified instructor right before their AP Calculus exam. Moreover, now the district is trying to get the student to transfer classes to the other calculus class, which would cause him to rearrange his entire schedule. They have not rescinded his suspension and that may lead to him getting a poor grade in a class where he missed an exam. In short, the high school administration completely mismanaged the situation there. That has nothing to do with curriculum.

Along the same lines, many parents and community members complained that the BSU situation was mishandled. Others complained that there are no African American teachers at the high school Courtney Tessler, a white woman, had reportedly not wanted to be the adviser again, but the BSU Students came to her and told her that no one else wanted them. This sounds like a horrible message sent to the students, and something that the administration at the high school could have handled much better.

Furthermore there are four years worth of survey data of high school students that show that the perception of the high school students--even those who are white or Asian--believe that black and Latino students are given harsher punishments for the same actions as their white and Asian student counterpart.

None of these problems it would seem can be resolved by new programs or curriculum changes, they all require tough choices by the upper management of the district and the school board. Unfortunately, it seems that according to some parents at least, Mel Lewis, the person who is supposed to be solution to these problems is instead part of the problem. One of his suggestions that apparently greatly angered many in the minority community when he suggested that they take the "B" out of BSU.

Then there is the issue of the Human Relations Commission itself. Leaving aside the handling by the council of the police issue last year, what was clear watching this meeting is that the people who were on the HRC were those in the room with the least experience and knowledge about these issues. On the one hand it was good that they got to hear these stories from long-time activists and community members. On the other hand, most of the members probably had no idea that this type of thing had been happening and for how long. What the community lost when the HRC was disbanded, was a tremendous amount of collective and institutional memory.

A number of long-time and esteemed community members at this meeting provided invaluable background and insight on these issues. People like former HRC Chair Rick Gonzales who not only described a number of first-hand incidents but also described some of the things they did 20 years ago on the HRC to look into these kinds of issues. Gonzales also brought forward 35 years of educational history. Desmond Jolly, has been in this community for 35 years and spoke about some of the issues that his son faced. Dick Livingston taught at the high school for years, talked about people like former HRC member Bill Calhoun who was for a long time the only African-American teacher in the High School and now there are none at the high school.

What resonated most with me was Ombudsman Bob Aaronson's warning that this is indeed not just a school issue, but a community issue. And that if these things did not get dealt with at this level, it would quickly filter down to the incidents that he does handle. Michelle Stephens, an HRC member had probably the most forceful advocacy of action, and she mentioned that she works with adult education and that these problems just carry right on to the people she works with.

In the end, the HRC was too limited in its power to do much. There will be a joint Council-School Board Meeting on May 23, and the HRC is going to draft a statement.

The old HRC could have played a much larger role in this matter. In 2003, the issue of bullying arose. That HRC held a community meeting where the Superintendent David Murphy himself got an earful from literally hundreds in the community including parents and students, many of them in tears, many of them angry on the bullying issue. This forced district action. Even as a mere educational body, the HRC could play this type of role. But instead they will make a mere statement and a recommendation.

My own personal issues aside with the HRC and my wife's role, it was never more clear to me how much this community has lost by the changes to the HRC.

Right now this situation is starting to boil with a number members of the minority community increasingly concerned about the climate in the schools. The stories we heard last night were the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately those with the actual power to enact changes were not there to hear them. The HRC was created in the aftermath of the murder of a Davis High School student. This is an issue that they have taken up in the past repeatedly. And now they have been strafed of their power and the community as a whole is worse off.

It was a very frustrating night but I left with a bit of a smile on my face as I know that at least for one night, the HRC members got to listen for just a few minutes to stories about the dark underbelly of the People's Republic of Davis.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting