After incident, Hinsdale parents press for sustained school anti-bias programs

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DALTON — It took only a few words for this mom to know why her daughter's principal was calling.

Yet again, a remark with explicit or implied racial overtones had been uttered in the presence of this Hinsdale family.

The child's mother, Roberta McCulloch-Dews, took to social media to comment on what her daughter's morning at school brought one day late last month.

"This is nothing new. Starting in kindergarten, when a little boy told her he didn't play with people who look like her, to now, this is her reality," McCulloch-Dews posted on Facebook. "I am not shocked, nor am I surprised. I am angry and frustrated by ignorance."

After this latest incident, the family is pressing for wider action against bias, not just in the Central Berkshire Regional School District, but across the county.

McCulloch-Dews and her husband, Warren Dews Jr., are working with the district's superintendent to explore ways that local schools can confront discrimination in a more sustained fashion, rather than responding to isolated incidents.

The couple's daughter, who is African-American, was sitting over breakfast with classmates at Kittredge Elementary School in Hinsdale in late October. The children were talking about parties, according to the account the principal provided to the family.

A second-grade boy, in a remark overheard by that official, said he wanted to invite fellow students to his own event — but not McCulloch-Dews' daughter.

Not, the principal overheard the boy say, "people who look like her."

Dews said his two sons, 11 and 15, have been called the N-word in their schools.

"It's ridiculous that it happens to me and all my kids in the hilltowns," said Dews, a minister and community leader who is the chief consumer sales and events officer for The Berkshire Eagle. McCulloch-Dews is director of administrative services in the office of Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer.

While Dews credits Central Berkshire with responding to incidents of bias, including the most recent one at Kittredge, he would like to see school leaders do more to prevent discriminatory remarks and behavior — and not just in his district.

"I'm not accepting kicking this down the road," Dews said. "I need to see a sustainable program put together. I'm not letting this go."

Dews said he feels called to act not just for his children, but for everyone subjected to bias in the region, for whatever reason.

"I know somebody else is going through this. I know this is happening in the county all over the place," said Dews, who serves as a minister at the Price  Memorial AME Zion Church in Pittsfield and sits on multiple nonprofit boards in the area. "I'm fighting this battle for others who don't have a voice."

Laurie Casna, Central Berkshire's superintendent, said she plans to join with Dews and McCulloch-Dews to explore ways for area schools to confront discrimination.

"Right now, there is not explicit instruction beyond kindness and anti-bullying. That's what [Dews] and I have talked about," Casna said. "So, it would be as much in the curriculum as the other areas we teach."

"I have two young daughters. It's an absolute priority," she said. "All of these things come together to create a safe environment for kids."

Casna said she plans to meet with the couple and with Shirley Edgerton, a local racial justice activist and educator, on next steps. The effort is in its early stages.

Casna said she also plans to contact the Boston public school system, which runs an Office of Equity that seeks to root out racial issues, to seek advice on the right steps to take.

"How do we go at it?" Casna asked.

`Legacy' issue

McCulloch-Dews said she feels called to do what she can to address racial equity and school climate, knowing that problems will otherwise endure after her children leave school. She called it a "legacy" issue.

"There are going to be others who come behind," she said.

"When I learned that another incident had happened, I was frustrated and angry because it was yet another racial situation that my daughter had to go through. At her young age, this is the second instance — that I know of — that had to be addressed," McCulloch-Dews said.

All of her children, she said, "have experienced some kind of ugly, racial exchange. Whether it was intentional or unintentional, the takeaway here for my daughter is that her difference as a black girl is a bad thing, and that leaves an impact."

McCulloch-Dews said past incidents have underscored the fact that children expressing bias picked it up somewhere in their lives.

"At some point along the way, it's learned behavior, which is unfortunate. This is the part, to me, that is most concerning. Apologies are fine, but if there aren't meaningful actions implemented to correct the behavior, it will only continue," she said.

McCulloch-Dews said she believes Central Berkshire works to make school welcoming for its students, but believes work remains "to understand and celebrate our differences. I'm going to stay at the table to ensure that change happens."

Dews, her husband, said that after past incidents of bias directed at the couple's children, the school district responded swiftly.

"Once it is recognized that it was racism, a switch goes on and something happens," he said.

He credited actions taken by Debbie White, a former Kittredge Elementary School principal, to address past incidents.

"They did an amazing job when it happens, but it shouldn't happen," Dews said. "It needs to be a program that happens at every school," he said of a new curriculum or program.

According to its mission statement, the Office of Equity in the Boston school system "aims to ensure that the Boston Public Schools is an educational and working environment unimpeded by bias or discrimination, where individuals of all backgrounds and experiences are welcomed, included, encouraged, and can succeed and flourish."

The office provides training to other educators.

For more information on the Boston group's work, visit bostonpublicschools.org/equity.

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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