Lenox School Committee deplores racism, 'systemic violence'

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LENOX — Responding to incidents of racism described by several former Lenox students, the School Committee voted 7-0 on Monday to condemn "systemic violence" nationwide against fellow citizens of color stemming from "deep and terrible racism" over the past 400 years in the U.S.

The committee approved a resolution that includes specific actions to combat racial injustice in the local public schools and the community. During the discussion, School Committee Chairman Robert Vaughan said "we do recognize that we do have, and have had, many instances of racism that have occurred within the schools."

The statement, crafted by administrators and community members, declares that "the Committee abhors every form of invidious discrimination, degradation, and injustice." The statement also outlines a series of goals designed to address racism in the schools, ensure that "students of color are heard, respected and valued," and "teach about race and racism in historical and contemporary America."

The resolution includes a declaration by the School Committee that it "recognizes that deep and terrible racism has characterized American society since the adoption of the Constitution in 1787, and long preceded the establishment of the United States, as was evident through the enslavement of Africans forcibly transported to the colonies for sale and treatment as chattel, and through the brutal treatment, including forced displacement from their ancestral lands, of Native Americans."

The statement also acknowledges "the grievances regarding systemic violence, indignity, and the denial of equal opportunities suffered by our fellow citizens of color, which are being voiced in recent mass demonstrations throughout the United States, and that have been voiced for centuries both by those who have been oppressed and by those who have been able to see such oppression for the injustice that it is, are legitimate; that they have been experienced by students of color within the Lenox school system."

Ahead of the vote adopting the resolution, interim schools Superintendent William Cameron noted that he met with Dennis Powell, head of the NAACP Berkshire County Branch. Powell is also a colleague on the Pittsfield School Committee, where Cameron serves as a recently reelected member.

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"I was glad to hear his strong views, which reinforced mine," Cameron told the Lenox School Committee members.

"We can have training from now until the end of time," he said. "Training by itself is good but it is not going to solve these problems. I'm not disparaging training, which is an aspect rather than a solution to the problems the district has found out about" through incidents described by biracial middle school student Kiernan Conway at a previous committee meeting and by several graduates who have communicated with the committee.

"A student [Tobias Goodman, currently enrolled] said he doesn't believe that the kids who are doing it don't know that it's racist," Cameron said. "He said he thinks they do know that it's racist, and that's why they're doing it." Cameron emphasized that presentations on "white privilege" or "civility" will not address the problem.

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Instead, he said, "no tolerance for that behavior" is the first step, "and we need the support of the entire community in the school every day to get that done."

"This is our effort to begin the process of healing and becoming better than we have been," said Vaughan, the School Committee chairman. "This is a beginning step for us, and I hope that others in the community will also look at taking this kind of step too."

Cameron called for an emphasis on "expectations that are established for students" by the student handbook and the way that "those expectations have been dealt with when students have not measured up to them."

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He urged a close look at how incidents and discipline are handled and stressed the need to involve students "to make them aware of what roles they have."

Although "we can do all we can to prevent incidents from arising," he said, "we have to deal effectively with incidents so nobody thinks they're going to get away with this."

A letter to the committee from Ryan Meczywor, a 2010 Lenox graduate, took issue with the notion voiced by Vaughan at the previous meeting that the Lenox District was "different from Minneapolis and above racism."

Meczywor characterized that view as "harmful and false," and asserted that "teaching history from a white perspective designed to be color-blind inadvertently erases the voices of people of color and ignores thee countless racial microaggressions, and often blatant aggressions students and faculty members encounter every day."

Vaughan described "a mindset at the time, that we were doing the right thing, that being color-blind was OK. Black History is American history, and we need to face all the good and the bad that's occurred in society. .. We have to be more proactively anti-racist."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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