School districts trying to combat racism
Date of publication: Oct. 23, 2017
By Chris English, staff writer
The Intelligencer and Courier Times
From Quakertown Community School District students hurling racial slurs at Cheltenham cheerleaders after a football game, to swastikas drawn on a bathroom wall at Council Rock High School North and racist graffiti scrawled on a Neshaminy school sign, it's clear schools reflect a larger societal truth.
Racism and hatred certainly are not dead.
But officials at several area school districts contacted by this news organization said they are doing their best to combat it, and have various programs in place to fight hate and intolerance.
Quakertown Superintendent William Harner said he and other district officials are determined to do everything possible to combat prejudice after the incident at the football game earlier this month, saying at a recent school board meeting he's going to "drive a truck through" racism in the district.
"This is an opportunity to really have a public discussion about community values," Harner added.
School board member Paul Stepanoff suggested "publicly logging" racial incidents in the district to see how widespread the problem is.
Among the steps Quakertown has taken is partnering with The Peace Center in Langhorne to have staffers there come in and talk to students and teachers about ways to foster tolerance.
Cheltenham School District spokesman Steve Greenbaum said officials there have been generally satisfied with Quakertown's efforts to engage in a "larger conversation on the issues of racism and tolerance."
"We feel they have taken all the appropriate steps toward that, as have we," Greenbaum said. "We've partnered with them in an effort to turn this experience into a positive learning opportunity."
Peace Center Executive Director Barbara Simmons said the program in Quakertown will be similar to ones the nonprofit already conducts in the Pennsbury, Council Rock and Bristol Borough school districts.
"Kids of color have been dealing with racism in schools for a long time because Bucks County doesn't have a large black population," Simmons said.
Bucks County is 90 percent white, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The most diverse municipalities are Langhorne, Morrisville and Bensalem. In Langhorne, 35 percent of the population is considered a minority, followed by 23 percent in Morrisville and 21 percent in Bensalem.
"People need an awareness of what racism looks like, so they can step in and respond when it happens," Simmons said.
Facilitators from The Peace Center go into classes to talk to students about tolerance, and also train teachers — who in turn train other teachers — about how to deal with and prevent incidents of racism and hate. She said Council Rock has been especially active in teacher training.
"One of the key things is convincing kids to step in and interrupt incidents of racism and not stay silent," Simmons said. "We want them to have the courage to be upstanders and speak up, which is hard because kids are afraid if they do that they will become the next target."
Council Rock dramatically stepped up its efforts against racism after a June 2016 incident at Council Rock High School North where a swastika and other hate graffiti was drawn on a bathroom wall, and a Latina student found a note in her backpack telling her to go back to Mexico.
Among the programs instituted after the incident were the program with The Peace Center, assemblies on racism and promoting tolerance, and smaller group discussions with students on the importance of respecting people of all races and orientations.
"We embrace and value diversity, just as we embrace and value differences," Council Rock Superintendent Robert Fraser said after the incident. "I want to take the unequivocal message to our school community, and most importantly to our students, that we are a school district who accepts and cares for each of our students unconditionally."
Council Rock North senior Gabby Zingarini, a member of this news organization's Reality team, said she was generally pleased with the district's response to the incident but wished more had been done sooner.
"There wasn't a lot being done for a very long time, but I'm happy to see these recent very promising efforts toward inclusivity, tolerance and diversity," Gabby said. "Two of my teachers were recently mandated to go to diversity training for two days, and I talked to them and they said it was very helpful.
"It seems like things are looking up," she continued. "For a long time, I don't think enough was done. I have an adopted brother who is black and he faced a lot of upsetting discrimination in our district and our area. Unfortunately, the reason the district has responded seems to be that it was put under a microscope because of what happened and wanted to improve its image and look better. But it doesn't matter why. The fact is, what is happening is good."
Another response to the Council Rock incident was the formation — independent of school district officials — of a diversity and inclusion council made up of school district residents. Some council members recently complained district officials have not responded adequately to some recent incidents, like the display of a Confederate flag on the truck of a subcontractor working at one of the district's schools.
Frasier called the council's claims misleading and added there were explaining factors for each incident and that the district is making great efforts to combat prejudice.
Officials at the Quakertown, Palisades, Pennridge, Pennsbury, Council Rock, Bristol Township and Neshaminy school districts said lessons on diversity and inclusiveness are incorporated into the social studies and other curricula at all grade levels.
This news organization was unsuccessful in attempts to reach officials from Central Bucks, Bucks County's largest school district, for comment.
Palisades trains its elementary schools staff on how to build a positive school culture and bolster relationships between students, said district spokeswoman Donna Holmes.
At the higher grade levels, the district brings in speakers from the Bucks County Network of Victim Assistance to teach about healthy relationships and requires high school students to take a social studies course in cultural diversity, Holmes added. The district also has put forms on the school district website to allow students to anonymously report any incident of bullying or harassment, whether racially motivated or not.
Pennridge Superintendent Jacqueline Rattigan said the school district has several programs on diversity and tolerance and those themes are being especially promoted this month, which is National Bullying Prevention Month.
Several Pennsbury schools and the district as a whole are considered "No Places For Hate," a program started by former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell several years ago. Among the requirements of the program are assemblies on tolerance and diversity, teacher training on those subjects and mediation programs, Dunar said.
The all-encompassing theme for anti-hate programs at Pennsbury is the Golden Rule — "Treat others as you would want to be treated" — Dunar said.
"What we preach and promote are Judeo-Christian virtues that are the foundation of our American ideology," she said.
Neshaminy stepped up anti-hate efforts after racist graffiti was drawn on the outdoor sign at Herbert Hoover Elementary and at some locations in the adjacent Middletown Trace apartment complex. The district already had many programs in place but is discussing others, Neshaminy spokesman Chris Stanley said.
Trying to promote tolerance and diversity "starts in kindergarten and carries through to the high school, integrated throughout our curriculum, school culture and co-curricular activities," Stanley said.
Schools at all levels have several clubs dedicated to fostering respect for all people, including a No Place For Hate Club at Maple Point Middle School, he added.
Middletown police got a vague description of a man in his 20s who might have committed the vandalism at Hoover and Middletown Trace, which seems to make it unlikely it was a Neshaminy student.
In the Bristol Township School District, elementary school guidance counselors are trained in skills like empathy, emotional engagement with students and problem solving, said the school district's Special Education and Pupil Services Director Lou deFonteny. The curriculum in the middle schools and high school includes lessons on tolerance and inclusion, and students at Harry S. Truman High School recently participated in the Martin Luther King Summit on social justice at Central Bucks South High School, deFonteny added.
Fighting hatred must be a cooperative effort among schools, students and parents, Simmons said.
"We have to recognize that racism is kind of baked into us," she said. "Our systems have been built for the past 400 years to benefit white people, not people of color."
Amer Ahmed, a senior at Central Bucks East High School who is of Asian descent, said "you're taught core values like respect and equality at home. Parents can have a big hand in preventing racism, but it has be both at home and in school."
"It's hard when tolerance is not taught at home," added Zingarini, the Council Rock North student.