As the county’s School Board members push to invest more resources into its efforts to ensure equity throughout the district, one school was making national headlines for putting students through an offensive history lesson. Minority advocacy groups urged the School Board to do more—and do it more quickly.
Nearly 80 speakers lined up to address the board during its Tuesday night meeting—many endorsing the proposal to create a special committee to study equity concerns in throughout the district, and others debating the merits of a controversial and narrowly-approved proposal to add protections for LGBT students and teachers in its equal opportunity policy.
It has been more than two weeks since criticisms of the reenactment of chasing slaves escaping through the Underground Railroad were brought to the School Board’s attention by representatives of the NAACP and other parents, but that controversy and other concerns about the treatment of minority continue to spark protests.
The incident got widespread media coverage and the principal of Madison’s Trust Elementary School, where the obstacle course exercise occurred, issued a formal apology acknowledging its “culturally insensitive” nature in a letter to students. On Friday, Superintendent Eric Williams joined with the Minority Student Achievement Advisory Committee, the Loudoun County Chapter of the NAACP and The Loudoun Freedom Center to issue a formal statement on the issue.
In Williams’ statement on Friday, he said the concerns go beyond the “inappropriate and culturally insensitive” elementary school exercise.
“We acknowledge that this incident at Madison’s Trust is a symptom of a broader issue,” he wrote. “The diversity in Loudoun County is one of our greatest strengths, but Loudoun County is also a place where equity has proven a challenge for many decades. We have struggled with inequities in student achievement gaps, discipline disproportionality, underrepresentation of minority students in advanced programs and courses, and the lack of a diversified teacher workforce.”
Williams noted a list of initiatives the school system has already taken to promote staff diversity, improve cultural awareness training, and protect students from discrimination.
“Loudoun County Public Schools is committed to dedicating the resources necessary to address issues of equity now and in the future. We pledge ongoing communication and transparency to our community as we make progress. Together, we can have a lasting impact on the lives of ALL our students and truly honor the diversity that defines us,” he wrote.
But during a press conference prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Loudoun NAACP President Pastor Michelle Thomas said the so-called slave game was only the latest example of “historical, institutional racism.”
When asked if the incident was the straw that broke the camel’s back, Thomas said that’s “absolutely not” the case.“The camel’s back has been broken for years,” she said. “The back was broken when desegregation happened almost 60 years ago.”
County Chairwoman Phyllis Randall (D-At Large), a former leader of the school system’s Minority Student Achievement Advisory Committee, spoke during the School Board meeting. “No one believes those teachers are racist,” she said, but pointed to the reaction as evidence that long-known systemic issues have come to a tipping point requiring urgent action.
While Thomas commended the school system for steps to address the concerns, she urged the community to keep pushing. “None of it matters unless we can translate this energy into policy that can protect the people,” she said.
The School Board on Tuesday unanimously approved a proposal to create an ad-hoc committee to examine ways to ensure marginalized and historically disenfranchised groups receive equitable treatment. As proposed, the 23-member panel of school and community leaders would meet monthly starting in April and make a final report with recommended action steps to the board in November. The April start time was proposed to allow a consultant team to get started on a district-wide audit of equity concerns. Their report is expected in June. View the full charter here.
While the equity committee proposal drew strong support from the speakers on Tuesday, a proposal originally put forward by Chris Croll (Catoctin) to add genetic information, gender identity, and gender expression to the list of protected classes in its equal opportunity policy drew passionate supporters and opponents. LGBT students and parents of LGBT children said the change was needed to make them feel safe and secure in school, while critics argued policy was not needed, not permissible under Virginia law and would infringe on the privacy rights of other students.
The school board voted 5-4 to adopt a compromise policy crafted by Debbie Rose (Algonkian), although Rose voted against the change along with Chairman Jeff Morse (Dulles), Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) and Jill Turgeon (Blue Ridge). The action comes after months of appeals by LGBT students appearing at every board meeting to enact the changes.
Debate Tuesday night focused on whether to add “gender identity” along with “sexual orientation” to the list of protected classes, an action that was approved under the same 5-4 divide.
Another point of debate was whether to add a statement that the new policy would not change the school system’s procedures concerning students’ use of bathrooms or locker rooms, or who may share rooms during overnight trips. School board members said it was not their intent to alter current procedures—in which, for example, some students are permitted by school administrators to use private bathrooms—but the five-member majority opposed adding that statement.
The new policy reads:
“The Loudoun County School Board is committed to providing for an equitable, safe and inclusive learning and working environment.
The Loudoun County School Board affirms a commitment to this principle for all persons regardless of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, disability, age, or genetic information.
It is the intent of the School Board of Loudoun County that every policy, practice, and procedure shall reflect this commitment.Behavior that is not unlawful may nevertheless be unacceptable for the educational environment or the workplace. Demeaning or otherwise harmful actions are prohibited, particularly if directed at personal characteristics, including, but not limited to socioeconomic level, sexual orientation, perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Opponents of the change raised concerns that the policy was too broad and ultimately could have the unintended consequences infringing on the rights of other students in bathroom and locker room situations.
“It’s not about fear; it’s about privacy,” Turgeon said.
Croll advocated the change because of her concerns about the high suicide rates among LGBT students. “We can’t lose any more kids, we just can’t,” she said.
“You keep being you. We need you in our community.”