Advocates called for anti-racist policies at a suburban Pittsburgh school district meeting, but left feeling somewhat dismissed

Advocates called for anti-racist policies at  a suburban Pittsburgh school district meeting, but left feeling somewhat dismissed
click to enlarge North Allegheny students and advocates at a Black Lives Matter rally on June 17 - CP PHOTO: RYAN DETO

CP photo: Ryan Deto

North Allegheny students and advocates at a Black Lives Matter rally on June 17

Students, parents, and community members affiliated with activist group NA for Change spoke on the need for an anti-racist school environment at the North Allegheny School District school board meeting on June 24. This came a week after a rally of about 100 people in a suburban park just north of Pittsburgh, where students and alumni spoke passionately about their experiences as students of color while in the NA school district.

In response to the requests to implement ant-racist policies, some school board members were receptive to the advocates’ request, but NA school board president Richard McClure was a bit more dismissive. He said that the ideas brought forth were an important part of molding future changes, but also hinted that the district is already doing a good job of “assimilating” students of color.

More than a dozen speakers presented research, testimonials, and policy proposals at the meeting, aimed at addressing issues of racism, diversity, and inclusivity in the district.

“Today, we speak on the behalf of students, alumni and the greater community, urging that the school take a more proactive stance on addressing social matters such as discrimination by adopting anti-racist policies,” the group said in a public call to action read at the meeting by students Hailey Zeise, McKenzie Morrissey, and Vibha Reddy. “For North Allegheny to boast of its commitment to its “proud history of focusing on diversity and inclusion”, the District is not properly addressing structural inequalities and implicit biases.”

The group, which recently led a Black Lives Matter rally at Blueberry Hill Park in Franklin Park borough, submitted a policy brief, Addendum to Letter to North Allegheny on Anti Racism, to the board. They laid out actions that the District could take to better the environment of the school for students of color. The addendum grew out of a petition letter circulated in the past few weeks by NA for Change, which garnered support from more than 1,700 members of the North Allegheny community.

The 27-page addendum included a number of potential actions that the district could take, including increasing transparency in the district’s search for a new superintendent, reformulating and increasing the abilities of the Diversity Committee, and hiring or making a commitment to hire a specific diversity consultant who would provide recommendations for improvements at NA.

“We’re not coming at you to attack you and to say that North Allegheny sucks. That’s not really the intent,” said NA for Change organizer Jaime Martinez in an interview with Pittsburgh City Paper. “We come from a place of love, and frustration. And we come with the hope for a better district and a better policy.”

In response to the students’ suggestions, School Board President Richard McClure held up a number of existing programs and policies that the District has already put in place to promote diversity, including the “No Place for Hate” program at the Intermediate High School, and the newly created Diversity Liaison leadership position at the Senior High School.

“Recognizing the importance of assimilating all students and embracing diversity, North Allegheny has developed and will continue to develop and build on a robust diversity effort,” McClure said. “No one’s denying that there’s things we need to address, so, clearly, every program must grow and evolve, and the ideas offered from the public are an important part of molding future changes.”

McClure listed demographic statistics in the district, which show the district consists of almost 78% of white students, 17% Asian, about 2.5% multiracial, and almost 2% Black or African-American and less than 1% Latino. McClure stated that combined minority populations at North Allegheny have increased by over 6% in the past five years. He then also addressed Student and Class Council demographics, saying “while 54% of the positions over the past few years have been filled out by white students, 37% had been filled by Asian students, 6% by students who identify themselves as Hispanic, 2% by students who themselves as Black or African-American, and 2% by students who are biracial.”

“These are students electing students, and I think this is very telling, and it maybe creates a little bit of a different picture than what we’re hearing,” McClure said at the meeting.

A number of students and community members were not satisfied by the president’s response.

“Especially as an elected official of the school system and as the leader of the leaders, we had hoped that the school board president would be more willing to listen to, and to not discount, our experiences,” Jaime Martinez said. “We were pretty disappointed with how the school board reacted after that meeting.”

When reached for comment about his statements from the recent meeting, McClure deferred to the comment issued by North Allegheny School Board of Directors concerning the meeting, who said they have scheduled a meeting with NA for Change to discuss their proposals in more detail.

“The North Allegheny School Board of Directors would like to thank the current and former students that came forward to share their experiences and those of their fellow students. It took courage to speak up and we listened and learned from their testimonies,” reads a statement from the NA School Board. “The Board recognizes the recommendations brought forth by NA for Change. We appreciate their desire to partner with the District to help us improve a culture that values diversity and inclusion. We’ve scheduled a meeting with representatives from NA for Change, administrators, and the North Allegheny Federation of Teachers and we are looking forward to working together to create a positive path forward.”

Also, after the meeting had finished, some Board members posted messages on Facebook in support of the student activists’ testimony, including supportive statements from board member Elizabeth Warner, Allyson Minton, and Kevin Mahler.

“The first step in fixing any problem is acknowledging the problem exists, and I thank the members of NA for Change for thoughtfully and frankly delivering messages we needed to hear,” Board member Allyson Minton posted. “While I am grateful for the work North Allegheny has done in this area, I know we need to do more, and, as a Board Member, I am committed to ensuring our school district lives up to its stated goal of being a safe and welcoming environment.”

During the meeting, students spoke on the policies outlined in the memo, and presented the board with their own personal experiences with racism in the District, whether from fellow students, teachers, or the overall curriculum.

“The school district is incompetent in providing a space for minorities in the academic, emotional, and public space. I can say faculty members perpetuated hate, ignorance, stereotypes, and misogyny during my years as a student. North Allegheny is not safe for my students and it’s not safe for me,” said 2016 graduate Madison Morrissey, who recounted a time when a white student called her the n-word on a school bus in 2015. “The conversations that are perpetuated around black and brown bodies are despicable.”

North Allegheny graduate Nicole Matos-Perez read from a number of anecdotes sent in over the past two weeks by students who had experienced racism at NA.
“Every day when I walked into NASH (North Allegheny Senior High School) from the parking lot I had to pass by a bunch of trucks with confederate flags on them. It was a daily reminder that I was hated by a very large portion of my classmates just for being Black,” one of the testimonies read.

In 2015, some students wore Confederate flag patches and bandanas to school. The school banned Confederate flag memorabilia and clothing in response, but the incident stirred concerns about freedom of expression. Those concerns seem more trivial now, as branches of the military are banning Confederate symbols and Mississippi even recently voted to remove the Confederate flag symbol from its own state flag.

“I grew up thinking that being Asian was weird and disgusting, so I made fun of myself and tried to whitewash myself so that I’m “more like them”,” another testimony recounted. “These experiences are seen everywhere, and with the school having such a huge impact on children’s lives, we need to work and help make North Allegheny accepting of all races–proud of all races.”