Pittsfield school board OKs resolution aiming to see racism 'eradicated' in district

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PITTSFIELD — As School Committee members unanimously adopted an anti-racism proclamation, members said words alone aren't enough to combat systemic racism in the district, and the Berkshires.

"Words can be empty words without the actions behind them," said School Committee Chairwoman Katherine Yon.

Her comments came after the school board unanimously adopted a resolution on June 24 stating, in part, that Pittsfield Public Schools "must guarantee that racist practices are eradicated, and diversity, equity and inclusion is embedded and practiced for our students families, faculty and staff."

School board member Dennis Powell said diversity, equity and inclusion training by a specialist who is "is willing to make people feel uncomfortable" is sorely needed in the city, and the county. Of Pittsfield Public Schools, he said he is "concerned with this district, because we've got some serious problems here, and it's not just from a student level, it's from a faculty and administrative level as well."

Powell, who is also president of the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP, questioned how the district could fund such trainings, noting the fiscal 2021 Pittsfield Public Schools budget slashed to zero a line item that funded programs overseen by Cultural Proficiency Coach Shirley Edgerton, whose position was not eliminated.

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Superintendent Jake McCandless said the line item was new last year and was cut in lieu of making additional staffing reductions, adding that the funds were largely spent on the district's participation in a summer program at the Massachusetts College Of Liberal Arts.

After the funding ran out, the district found money for programs wherever it could "because it was a priority for us, and we will continue to make that a priority for us and will continue to fund those programs," said McCandless.

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Powell clarified that he was referring specifically to funding for diversity, equity and inclusion training, the need for which was evidenced by how, on several occasions, students who attempted to report "issues of racism" found their complaints had fallen on deaf ears, he said. Students who are the victim of racism may be left to "get the bully off their back" on their own, subjecting them to possible disciplinary action.

"The N-word is the same as bullying especially when you follow behind students and you use it every single day," said Powell. "We really haven't done anything about this, as far as I'm concerned, because there's been no consequences to the students who perform the act. The consequence ends up on the young person, male or female, who ends up taking action because they didn't get satisfaction from faculty, bringing it to their attention, nor did they get it from going to the administration."

School Committee member William Cameron said the resolution was "well intentioned," but asked school officials to document how it will "guarantee that racist practices are eradicated." The resolution also calls on the district to recruit and train a diverse workforce, incorporate into its curriculum the history of racial oppression and the work of Black authors, and examine and amend policies "for institutional and systemic racialized practices."

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Cameron, who serves as interim superintendent of Lenox Public Schools, suggested raising the issue at the Berkshire County Superintendents' Roundtable to develop a "countywide program underway."

Mayor Linda Tyer floated the idea of creating a citywide "office of diversity, equity and inclusion" helmed by an employee who would "help us accomplish some of the things that are outlined in this resolution."

On Tuesday, she said she "intends to explore" the idea further and convened a "work group" made up of city personnel and community activists to explore what duties and responsibilities the office would carry out. She said she is committed to ensuring the city's workforce reflects the community and has access to training, but cautioned that "this is a very early early step in a process that's going to take some time."

Amanda Burke can be reached at aburke@berkshireeagle.com, on Twitter @amandaburkec and 413-496-6296.


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