Darnisha Garbade, speaks to the crowd during a racial equality demonstration in Wehmhoff Square June 2. Garbade has said her daughter has been a victim of racism in local schools. (Photo by Mike Ramczyk)

 

Superintendent acknowledges issues, says policies seek equality

By Mike Ramczyk

Correspondent

The death of George Floyd while being kneeled on by a police officer in Minneapolis May 25 has sparked outrage and civil unrest in not only big cities, but also in small communities like Burlington.

At a Black Lives Matter rally at Wehmhoff Square June 2 in Burlington, local black woman Darnisha Garbade, whose daughter attends school in the Burlington Area School District, gave a speech to end the hour-long protest.

After two rounds of applause and the conclusion of the event, Garbade told a Burlington Standard Press reporter about her daughter’s experience with racism at Dyer Intermediate School, where she was called the “N-word” on multiple occasions.

Superintendent reacts

Burlington Area School District Superintendent Stephen Plank said officials are aware of the issue and are committed to improving conditions for all students – especially those who are minorities.

“It is important that every student and staff member feel welcome and valued in our school community and within the Burlington community,” said Plank, who answered a series of questions for this story. “We understand that the schools are a microcosm of the greater Burlington community. We strive to create an inclusive environment, yet we are aware of students – past and present – who have felt marginalized.”

Garbade shared comprehensive policy suggestions at the April 13 School Board meeting, Plank said. He said the district is currently working through a thorough review and update of all policies.

“As we work through all the policies, we are mindful of any practices that conflict with our endeavor to provide a safe and welcoming environment,” Plank said. “Finally, once the aforementioned policies have been worked through, our board can more specifically look at including anti-racist language.”

According to the district’s harassment policy, “the district shall not discriminate in handling harassment issues based on sex, sexual orientation, race, color, national origin, ancestry, religion, creed, pregnancy, marital or parental status, or any physical, mental, emotional or learning disability/handicap.”

In terms of discipline regarding discrimination and harassment, Plank said the student handbook states possible actions include a warning, contacting the police, parental contact, suspension/expulsion or police referral.

Community opens up about racism

In the week since the first protest, another local mother, Kelly Reynolds, who is white woman and Burlington High School graduate, described an incident with her bi-racial daughter, Shay, 12, who in middle school at Dyer was called the “N-word” when “the girls start fighting,” according to Reynolds.

“There’s a lot of drama in these grades with the girls (not like when we were in school) and it seems to be everyone’s go-to insult when they want to hurt Shay,” Reynolds said.

“There’s no consequence from the school, parents or police in my opinion.”

Reynolds added Shay’s father, who is black, has experienced far worse in the Burlington community.

Leaders address issue

There are only 74 black people living in Burlington, according to census figures. In the BASD, only 1.4% of some 2,500-plus students are black, while 1.1% are Asian and 13.6% are of Hispanic/Latino descent.

The white student population is at 80.2 percent.

“We will continue our efforts of moving forward for equality for all,” said Burlington Mayor Jeannie Hefty, who attended a small rally Saturday at Echo Park where she and Police Chief Mark Anderson listened to concerns from about 10 members of the community.

“They kept saying ‘thank you’ and ‘we can’t believe you are taking the time to be here,’” Hefty said of the attendees.

Plank and Hefty met via a Zoom call Friday morning to get to work on addressing racism issues in the community.

When asked what it’s going to take to stop racism or bullying in schools, Plank said he sincerely wishes school officials had the answers.

“Making the decision to serve in education is rooted in compassion for kids,” Plank said. “We need to help kids to learn to trust and share their truth. We must listen for and understand bias and perspective so that all students are able to feel safe and welcomed in our schools and community.”

To read the full story, including more on the steps the school district is taking to promote diversity, see the June 11 edition of the Burlington Standard Press.