District Leaders Contemplate Improvements in Addressing Racial Incidents

November 6, 2023
• During the last school year, incidents involving racist language directed toward the Asian community within Needham’s elementary schools raised concerns among parents. These events prompted a dialogue between parents and district leaders about school communication and protocols.

The initial shock and apprehension felt by Olivia Zhang, a parent at Broadmeadow Elementary School, resonated with many after she received an email from the school’s principal last June. The email notified her of an incident in which a Chinese-American student had been subjected to racist language. 

In a group chat involving hundreds of residents of Chinese heritage in Needham, parents began discussing other similar incidents that had occurred in the preceding months.

Olivia Zhang, reflecting on the frustration shared by parents, wondered, “How is it affecting my own child? What actions have the schools taken? There were a lot of questions.”

Lin Yuan, also a parent at Broadmeadow, echoed her sentiment, asking, “How was it still spreading?”

In response, the Chinese Friends of Needham (CFN), a local nonprofit celebrating Chinese culture, stepped in to engage with the schools. They sent open letters to the schools and other community stakeholders, urging steps be taken to prevent future racial incidents. 

Dennis Zhang, President of CFN, stated, “We wanted to know if the school district has a policy or procedure in place for schools to take action in situations like this.”

Upon CFN’s request, on June 13, Principal Andy Garlick convened a community meeting with Broadmeadow parents to address the incident. More than 70 parents attended the meeting. 

From left to right: Dennis Zhang, Lin Yuan, and Olivia Zhang recently shared their opinions with Needham Local on how the district can enhance its approach to addressing racial incidents.

This conversation extended beyond the school premises. On Sept. 21, the Needham Human Rights Committee (HRC) invited Superintendent Dr. Dan Gutekanst to explain how school policies are formulated and implemented. Also in attendance were Assistant Superintendent for Student Support Services Mary Lammi, School Committee Chair Andrea Longo-Carter and Vice-Chair Elizabeth Lee. Dennis Zhang and Lin Yuan both shared their perspectives at the meeting.

During the meeting, district leaders acknowledged that although protocols and procedures exist for addressing acts of bias and hate, they may not be as clear and accessible to parents.

Gutekanst explained, “They wanted to know what happened. What did you do with the person who caused harm to my child or the community? It’s a natural reaction, one I would have as a parent.”

While there had been ongoing communications between schools and affected families, the details were kept confidential, leaving parents feeling anxious and puzzled, Gutekanst noted. He recognized the importance of proactive communication with parents about school protocols and practices, to build trust in the administration’s ability to handle such situations.

Based on feedback from the parents, the district is working to enhance the accessibility and clarity of related documents. 

Mary Lammi pointed out that even though documents like the Bullying Prevention and Intervention Plan and the Discrimination and Harassment Grievance Procedures exist on the district’s website, as well as in the school handbooks, parents often struggle to find them.

Lammi demonstrated accessing the district’s website, illustrating that parents need to go through the header, select “Departments,” then scroll down to “student support services,” and finally locate the two documents among various other information.

She suggested consolidating information on bullying and discrimination procedures and making them more easily accessible on the district and school websites. Lammi also mentioned the possibility of organizing informational sessions to keep parents informed.

Parents who were unable to find satisfactory answers on the district website last June also turned to other districts for guidance, citing the Non-Discrimination Protocol from the Newton Public School District as an example of clarity and comprehensiveness.

Olivia Zhang praised Newton’s document, describing it as a “decision tree” with detailed timelines for actions to be taken. This includes how the school will communicate with affected families and address the broader community.

Gutekanst noted that the practices in Newton’s document align with Needham’s approaches around communicating with families. The specifics are outlined in the “protocol to principals and school administrators for responding to acts of bias and hate crimes,” published on the district’s website under the REAL Coalition section in 2019. He suggested incorporating this information directly into the handbooks to provide clarity and consistency. 

The handbooks are revised annually, and Gutekanst shared plans to update them in the winter, for full implementation by the spring.

Lammi also acknowledged that parents were looking for information on how decisions regarding discipline were made. She emphasized administrative efforts in making such information as transparent as possible, while also noting that principals should be granted the flexibility to use their own discretion.

Dr. Dan Gutekanst, Superintendent of Needham Public Schools, and Mary Lammi, Assistant Superintendent for Student Support Services, offer insights on challenges and potential improvements concerning district protocols and procedures.

She highlighted that administrators and teachers receive training annually to handle these situations. The specifics include definitions of bullying and discrimination, reporting requirements and mitigation measures.

Following the incident, Garlick visited each classroom to address racially discriminative language and its impact. Parents appreciated these efforts, but they also cautioned against the “silent sufferings” experienced by children who may not report incidents due to fear.

They questioned the district’s capacity to address the full extent of racial discrimination issues, as there may not be a report of instances that were dealt with at the school level. They suggested the need to document all occurrences for a more comprehensive understanding of the situation.

“We are not asking to disclose any private information,” Olivia Zhang clarified. “This is just a data point to understand how many incidents like this are happening across the school district.”

This data could assist the district in monitoring progress, identifying “trends and gaps” and potentially enhancing the curriculum to foster better respect for different cultures, Dennis Zhang said.

Gutekanst discussed the challenges of tracking such incidents and the potential for overburdening teachers. He said, “It can end up becoming an exercise of numbers rather than really trying to address the overall school culture.”

He further stressed the importance of teachers focusing on understanding the intent behind children’s actions rather than bureaucratic documentation. “That’s the job of the teachers – trying to figure out what’s a hurtful act and what’s a child being inquisitive,” Gutekanst said. “That’s how I want them to spend their time, not worrying about filling out a document and having that be processed.”

Lammi noted that parents often choose to email teachers directly when a concern arises rather than filing an official complaint on the district’s website. She emphasized teachers do take these emails seriously and administrators are informed. Lammi did suggest there is room for improvements in the promptness of responding to these emails.

Additionally, Lammi suggested improving the use of the district’s surveys to identify challenges related to bullying, discrimination and harassment. These surveys, conducted every other year among parents, students and staff, could offer valuable insights into the school environment. 

In 2020, Needham Public Schools introduced a racial literacy curriculum in elementary schools to promote productive conversations about race and racism.

Gutekanst acknowledged that racism may persist in schools, but the role of the school is to help students navigate these situations and become better individuals. “So that when they get to middle school and high school, they think differently about some of these issues than they had before,” Gutekanst said at the HRC meeting. 

Needham Public School mirrors broader national issues, Gutekanst noted. He hopes that students, irrespective of their diverse backgrounds, will learn to advocate for one another and stand up against discrimination.

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