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Students, Teachers Speak Up for Inclusion at School Committee

Since the resignation of Burlington Public Schools’ Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Director in September, students of color say they have lost a support system. Some teachers and students who showed up at Oct. 25 School Committee agreed, and asked that the position be filled sooner than later.

Judy Crossman, a Burlington resident and educator who was hired in 2003, was part of the original group of teachers, students, administrators, parents and Town Meeting members who advocated for the DEI position. 

“I know the system pretty well, I know its strengths and its needs,” she said. “ I am here tonight to ask you, our district leaders, to fill a void in DEI leadership.”

In her 20 years as a Burlington educator, she said she has never seen a position and job description that was so deeply discussed and scrutinized.

And she says she agrees with Supt. Dr. Eric Conti, who says one person alone cannot take on the job system-wide.

“We need both the director of DEI who can lead equity work at the systemic level, and coaches who can support the work in daily interactions with educators,” she said.

A student representative of the African American Association Club and DEI said when she started school at age 5, she was the only black girl in her class.

“The only one with black-colored hair, the only one with brown skin, the only with dark brown eyes,” she said. “My hair was always braided in a protective hairstyle. I could never relate to the girls who had their hair in pigtails or high ponytails.”

When she entered the 6th grade, she said she started to see “others like me,” which gave her a sense of community. In high school, knowing there was a DEI program, “gave me a support system I never thought I’d have outside my family.”

This is why she was devastated to learn this system would suddenly not be here.

Another Burlington High School student added that being a part of the DEI Student Committee meant so much to her and talking about the changes to the schools that could take place was inspiring.

“We were given the opportunity to talk to other students and teachers about these changes and why they are important, but that is about as far as we got before we were blindsided by the loss of our leaders – these leaders made myself and other students feel safe and seen and heard.

“I was hopeful for the future of our district. I was hopeful that we would finally see the change we’ve been asking for for years. I was hopeful that we would create a system in which every student feels safe to express their true identity.”

Another student said he experienced this ignorance and implicit bias firsthand in elementary school.

“For example, I was one of very few black students in my class, and one of the recurring questions I faced as a kid was, ‘can I touch your hair,’ from both students and staff.

“I never thought much of it as a kid but I knew if I had ever asked to do the same I would get scolded for such an odd behavior,” he said.

A senior at the high school said these may seem like misunderstandings or simple mistakes but they are kind of dehumanizing and reveal the racial and the racial stereotypes the school system implicitly holds because these instances could have been avoided.

“DEI needs to be a part of our school systems as it will address these issues through education … and hopefully lead to a better and more equal learning environment in Burlington.”

One student claims administrators of color are leaving this district because they believe Burlington to be a racist town.

“I don’t know, it could be something with the Burlington water, but something’s not right with the culture in this town,” he said.

The School Committee was impressed by the students who came forward.

“Thank you all, thank you to the students who all put together some very thoughtful comments that we all need to think about deeply,” said Chairperson Katherine Bond.

A DEI discussion scheduled on the agenda provided Conti an opportunity to discuss why he doesn’t want to post the position too soon.

“I appreciate that there are questions about the recently vacated DEI job, and the assistant superintendent sabbatical,” Conti said. “I am not immediately posting for an interim central office director of DEI or assistant superintendent for carefully reasoned considerations, the primary consideration for not precipitously rushing into hiring is that my staff and I need time to reflect on the past year’s successes and challenges.” 

He added that posting the position so early in the school year will also significantly limit the candidate pool.

“I want to optimize the candidate pool from which I choose staff,” he said. “I am also wanting to support conditions within the district that increase the likelihood of success and longevity for new hires who come here to be change makers.”

School Committee member Melissa Massardo said she understands a job posting in October is not ideal, but asked if something in the interim could be done.

The one question I have now is I think some of the folks addressed DEI programming that might not be happening this year is there a way we can replicate that in the interim,” she said. 

Conti said, “I certainly believe we can. I think I need to talk to the high school about more specifics. My understanding is that the advocacy room is meeting, I think maybe the first meeting was today. So that is ongoing. I believe the student clubs that are being held are ongoing. I think there was a DEI group that some of the members are here today that I probably have to do more research on. But if that’s a high school group I would certainly want to speak to the high school about who would be coordinating that and how it can happen again. I think the other groups are ongoing and I wouldn’t have a problem with anything continuing.”