School Board Taps Local Students To Help Shape New Policy

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WAHS student members of the county’s anti-racism policy development committee: Cyrus Rody-Ramazani, D’Arcy Byrne, Noel Brockett and Gauri Prakash. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The Albemarle County School Board dealt with a couple of unusually chaotic meetings this summer as protestors representing a local group called the Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County disrupted proceedings to demand that a ban on Confederate imagery be added to the dress code for county schools. Instead of rushing to make changes, however, the Board is taking a fresh look at anti-discrimination policies already in place, and recruiting fresh eyes—in the form of a panel of county high school students—to participate in developing a new anti-racism policy for the division.

What began earlier this year as a constructive Discussion Group on Racism between parents of local schoolchildren and school division officials eventually devolved into acrimony as some parents formed the Hate-Free Schools group to demand that the School Board declare it “unlawful” to wear clothing with Confederate imagery and other specific symbols and emblems in Albemarle County schools. 

“It became more of a challenge to have those open conversations,” said Bernard Hairston, assistant superintendent for school community empowerment for the school division, who participated in the discussion group, “and ultimately there was a breakdown in communication.” An August School Board work session was abruptly adjourned when protestors booed, hissed, and yelled at school division speakers, and a subsequent August meeting was again interrupted by protestors, resulting in six arrests.

“It’s not how we do things—we have to respect and listen to one another,” said David Oberg, the School Board’s White Hall representative. “Beyond that, it’s unconstitutional for us to impose content-specific bans. Students don’t give up their first amendment rights when they enter school property.” Oberg acknowledges that institutional racism does exist in schools and that policies must be consistently applied. “There’s an anti-harassment policy in existence that does need to be strengthened, but quick fixes are a bad idea.”

WAHS Students Rise to the Challenge

Though the dress code issue has been temporarily tabled as the Board takes a step back to examine the division’s anti-discrimination policy as a whole, administrators recognized a chance for students to be meaningfully involved in shaping future policy. Eight high-schoolers—two each from Albemarle and Monticello High Schools and four from Western Albemarle High School—were invited by Hairston to serve on a new anti-racism policy development committee. The students joined the committee on the heels of participating in a local summer leadership academy, and they have tackled their task with energy and passion.

“This is a real-world teachable moment for these students,” said Hairston, “and it gives them the opportunity to be independent learners and decision-makers, making a real difference here.” The WAHS representatives on the committee are freshman D’Arcy Byrne, and seniors Noel Brockett, Gauri Prakash, and Cyrus Rody-Ramazani.

Bernard Hairston, Assistant Super-intendent for School Community Empowerment for Albemarle County Public Schools. Submitted photo.

Beginning in August, the students have already met a half-dozen times under the guidance of Kimalee Dickerson, a Ph.D. student at U.Va.’s Curry School of Education who also has a law degree, and who is serving as an outside consultant to the student group. “My research interests are in helping institutions develop policies and practices that support a positive racial climate,” said Dickerson, “so those align with the goals of this group.”

So far, the student committee has researched the meaning of racism in all its forms and has met with local legal and policy experts to learn how policy is actually written. “We have to be broad but narrow at the same time,” said Byrne. “We have a lot of freedom with the project. Dr. Hairston gives us the resources we need and gets speakers to come and talk with us about the issues, and Ms. Dickerson helps a lot with the legal aspects.” The committee studied anti-racism policies from other school divisions, and then worked to expand their early statement of purpose into a policy draft that encompasses both an overarching view and some narrower regulations to provide guidance to school officials.

“The students are interested in exploring and addressing the whole range of different types of racism,” said Dickerson. “They’re looking at data from the county, noticing imbalances in some areas among racial groups, and asking themselves what can be done.” For instance, to better understand the First Amendment implications of specific rules, “The committee hosted a panel of educators from the community who discussed the law and helped them to think critically about the positives and negatives of restricting speech and expression,” she said.

Above all, the students want to emphasize the importance of education over punishment in dealing with racially charged issues such as the dress code. “We obviously can’t ban Confederate imagery, and in an ideal world that wouldn’t be happening in the first place,” said Prakash. “We’re hoping that in our classrooms we can talk about the actual meaning behind the imagery, and why people on their own should make the educated choice not to wear it, or maybe use an alternative choice to represent their heritage.”

Applying both their on-the-ground experience interacting with their peers as well as their modern cultural sensibilities, the student group tries to anticipate what will and won’t work. “We realize that simply banning a confederate flag is not going to change someone’s mind about it, so we recognize that rules are not the only thing that’s going to solve this,” said Rody-Ramazani. “The policy has got to be based on education and communication.”

“We want this to be helpful for everyone, not just helpful for kids of a minority race,” said Brockett. “We want to educate all the kids and help everyone understand everyone else.”

The students sent an early draft around to peers and others for feedback, and were a little surprised by responses suggesting that the policy tried to push kids from different cultures or races together, which they say it did not. “I think that some complaints we had were from people who assumed they knew what we were going to say, but we didn’t actually say,” said Rody-Ramazani. “It was a good lesson in that we have to make the language very clear.”

Of particular interest to the group of policy-writers are issues of inequity in areas such as “tracking”—the system of assigning students to a class track for math and English early in their school careers, from which it is often difficult for a student to move up—as well as disciplinary actions such as suspensions. “We thought there might be a little bit of inequity in how some students were getting suspended for longer than others for the same crime,” said Brockett, so the group has asked for data to research the problem.

“Our feeling is that if you have a child out of school for a long suspension, it’s not doing anyone any good,” said Rody-Ramazani, “so we suggest that a three-day suspension be the maximum, with other types of disciplinary action beyond that if necessary.”

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all answer for every situation,” said Prakash. “The administrators have to evaluate their school’s overall environment and history and see what seems reasonable.”

The committee’s goal is to present their policy recommendations to the School Board by November, though Hairston emphasizes that they’ll take whatever time they need to feel like the work is done well. “I’ve been so impressed with these students—their holistic thinking skills, their energy and thoughtfulness, their broad-based perspective, and the questions they’ve asked.”

The students are grateful for the resources and support they’ve received, and for the chance to participate in a process that will have a real-world impact. “It does feel good to be working toward something and be making progress,” said Brockett. “We’re really trying to put our all into this and make sure it does benefit the school community after we’re done and gone.” 

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