Parents, staff discuss solutions at diversity forum

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published May 4, 2015

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BLOOMFIELD HILLS — There were lots of calm, thoughtful comments during the open forum on race and diversity April 28 at Bloomfield Hills Schools’ Booth Center.

There were also some more fiery opinions shared that evening. But all of the speakers, young and old, had one thing in common — they wanted to develop solutions that would work for all BHS kids.

The forum was one of the first steps that the district has promised to take in response to an incident that occurred last month on a bus in which a black eighth-grader, Phoenix Williams, was racially bullied by white classmates. Williams captured the derogatory comments on video with his cellphone and, since then, community members, school staffers and even Oakland County Prosecutor Jessica Cooper have called for the district to take action.

But action to correct problems with cultural relations and student outcomes have been in the works for some time, according to BHS Superintendent Rob Glass. In fact, the forum last week was actually a reformatted version of an already-scheduled DAERR meeting — the district’s Diversity, Academic Equity and Race Relations group.

“Some may not realize some of the work already going on,” said Glass in an interview following the forum. “It started last fall with a conversation on (closing) the achievement gap, and we couldn’t have that conversation without talking about equity and race.”

The Eagle reached out to Bloomfield Hills Schools for a breakdown of how many minority students are enrolled, but the information was not provided by press time.

To improve outcomes and close achievement gaps shown in statistics, the district formed DAERR and launched training for staff and community members with the Global Champions program. Two consultants in those efforts — Dr. Jay Marks, of Oakland County Schools, and national education consultant Munirah Mawusi — moderated the forum last week, which drew more than 100 participants.

Many parents who spoke that night shared feelings that echoed a similar sentiment: While diversity training in schools is important, it’s up to parents to instill appropriate morals and social behaviors when it comes to cultural sensitivity.

“A lot of families don’t think there’s a problem, and that’s a problem with me,” said Bloomfield Township resident and BHS parent Andrea Drouillard.

BHS parent Rob King made similar comments, explaining that kids respond to situations the way their parents have taught them.

“I’m not looking for you to run out and hire a bunch of African-American teachers,” said King. “We’re looking for sensitivity training and education in homes.”

King, an African-American, added that the cultural climate could benefit from a wider range of ethnicities represented in lesson plans.

“Christopher Columbus wasn’t the only one who did something,” he said. “If I don’t know about her culture, how do I know about her?” he said of another parent in the district. “Or how can she know about the pride in my culture? We have to be more inclusive.”

Township resident Diana Chen, an Asian-American, also hoped that the schools could introduce more culture into lesson plans. She has twins at Bloomfield Hills Middle School and said they’ve encountered racial bullying.

“My daughter came home and said to me, ‘Mom, I speak perfect English. I was born in America. Why do the other kids ask if I’m Chinese? I’m American,’” said Chen, adding that it can be difficult for students who aren’t white to feel like they belong when they’re identified as “ethnic-looking.”

Not everyone was in favor of schools becoming more involved in what is essentially cultural competence training during students’ formative years. Bloomfield Hills resident Vic Moigis, who has been active in the district and particularly in the diversity discussions, was met with opposition when he said the schools should be viewed as academic institutions and not social agencies.

“We’re not allowing kids to grow up and fend for themselves,” he said.

He added that he’s personally only heard of a handful of incidents regarding racial bullying, and there were consequences each time; though he doesn’t believe expulsions are the answer even when hate speech is involved.

“I would’ve parked (these students) in front of their classmates and made them apologize,” he said. “That would’ve taught them a lesson.”

The two students involved in the bullying were disciplined, according to Glass, though due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, he was unable to say what those actions were. He could only confirm that one of the students is back in school and the other will not be attending class in the district going forward, though that student was not expelled.

Many parents responded to Moigis’ comments with impassioned resistance, including Williams’ mother, Shanari Williams, who said her son was called the “n-word” on the bus more than 20 times.

“Kids admitted it. Witnesses admitted it. The district even called it egregious; but they thought a few days suspension is appropriate,” she said, turning her attention to Moigis. “We are going to confront all the bullies and say we are not afraid and we are not going anywhere.”

Another speaker, though, thanked Moigis for his honesty.

‘We have failed Vic, because we haven’t communicated every incident,” said BHS parent Stephanie Crider. “I apologize to you that enough people haven’t had the courage to tell you the truth. The community is at a loss for why we’re so angry. It’s because this is not an isolated incident.”

Crider said it will take the work of the whole community to improve relations for minority students, including law enforcement, which has allegedly come into the schools to take black students out in handcuffs before they were even charged, she said. That work can only begin when incidents are made public.

“(It’s great to) honor the brand and reputation we have, but we also have to acknowledge our weaknesses,” she said. “It’s OK to say we are not perfect.”

Township resident Alicia Stephens also called for better transparency in the district, particularly in reference to achievement gaps. So too did Bloomfield Hills resident Shannon Catamella, who has a first-grader in the district and said she wasn’t notified of the incident, nor was she provided any materials at home to deal with the sensitive topic.

“When someone dies in the district, there’s (a) grief counselor available and (information) goes home to parents. I haven’t received any of that,” Catamella said. “My daughter is only in the first grade, but I want to know how to talk to her now before it gets to that point.”

The best-received comments of the evening, perhaps, came from TeLor McClary, who is African-American. Though she’s a junior at Groves High School in Birmingham, she said she came to lend her support to students in the BHS district because she’s experienced racial bullying herself.

“I came (to Groves) from Detroit, and it was hard to maintain an honors-level status when I’m being offended,” she said. “I might be a teacher’s favorite student, but I’ll tell them what someone said to me, and they have yet to say anything because they’re scared.”

She added that inclusion and hiring policies could help ease racial tensions.

“In Birmingham, there are more African-American janitors (at the school) than teachers. (White students) already associate that with you,” she said.

The Eagle reached out to Birmingham Public Schools for comment on McClary’s statement, but BPS Director of Community Relations Marcia Wilkinson declined to comment.

Administrators like Board of Education Treasurer Jacqueline El-Sayed and Bloomfield Hills Middle School Principal Randy English applauded students like McClary for voicing their thoughts on a tough topic in a smart and peaceful way. In particular, English acknowledged BHS students Natalie Perkins and Spencer Nabors, who organized a protest in support of Williams. They also spoke at the meeting and called for a diversity task force to be formed to recommend policy changes.

As the crowd spoke, district representatives jotted down talking points — about 20 of them — to be taken into consideration later when formal guidelines and training are considered. Glass said changes might not happen overnight, but they’re coming.

Some of the training to consider, Glass explained to the Eagle later, will involve confronting racial issues with staff so they can feel confident to implement policies already on the books.

“If we say we’re not going to allow bullying or any ethnic intimidation, but how that plays out could be a little bit different,” he said. “For instance, if two young children are using inappropriate language or bullying — let’s say using the ‘n-word’ — but they’re using it in a sense of camaraderie, a teacher might hear that and may not know how to handle it and say, ‘I’m not comfortable with how to handle that, so I’m going to let it go.’ We have to talk about it deeply enough to decide it’s not going to be tolerated in any context, even when it’s not meant as an attack, because it’s still deeply offensive.”

He added that adding diverse instruction material and perhaps revising disciplinary guidelines to be considerate to the needs of all learners should be discussed, as well.

Glass promised the crowd at the end of the forum that those deep talks would be had over the next few weeks, into the 2015-16 school year and beyond.

“If you know me, you know I care,” said Glass as he closed the evening. “That doesn’t mean I always do the right thing or have all the answers, but I know we can do better. I’m ashamed of how we got here. This district has a lot of great accolades and a lot to be proud of. I won’t back down from that, but we have a lot of work to do. But I commit that I’m in this with you.”

He encouraged everyone in the crowd to find a way to be a part of the solution, particularly by volunteering their time to DAERR or Global Champions training.

The next DAERR meeting will take place June 22 at the Booth Center, on Wing Lake Road. For more information, visit www.bloomfield.org.

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