Call for Racial Equity Training Leads to Threats to Superintendent, Resistance from Community
By Guest Blogger Sasha Jones
Following a string of controversies and threats that led the local police department to provide security protection for the district's first African-American superintendent, a suburban Missouri school district has reversed an earlier decision and agreed to hire a firm to lead racial equity training for teachers and staff.
Lee's Summit's school board gave unanimous approval to Superintendent Dennis Carpenter's equity plan back in February after a commissioned study found that white students consistently outscored black students and that black students were being disproportionately disciplined in the predominantly white district. In subsequent months, though, the superintendent's plans to hire a firm to conduct equity training had repeatedly been voted down by the district and met with resistance from the community. And the controversy led to calls for the superintendent's ouster and threats from the community.
Last September, before the study concluded, the board pulled from consideration a recommendation to spend $7,000 on short-term equity training from the Pacific Education Group. In May, it rejected a longer-term proposal by Education Equity Consultants, which would have cost the district $97,000, in a 4-3 vote.
"I get to raise two brown children ... and when I get to raise them I don't like it, as your superintendent, knowing that there is this significant gap, regardless of their income or their background, that they're going to experience in relationship to their white peers right there in our neighborhood," Carpenter said at the September board meeting. "And my tax dollar goes as far as anyone else's in that neighborhood."
The board's reversal came at a special session Wednesday, following a two-day institute, and hired Education Equity Consultants in a 6-1 vote. The vote approved a one year contract for training with three possible renewal years.
"We're starting to find a path as a community and I feel like there is a element of learning for everyone," Carpenter said in an interview later with Education Week.
The threats in recent months to Carpenter and his family were linked to the equity training proposal and other district plans to create a more equitable outcomes for students.
In a June 7 Facebook post, Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forté shared screenshots of the threatening emails and announced that Carpenter and his family have security protection stationed at their residence.
"He and his family have endured more than most of you can imagine. I encourage each of you to publicly show support to a great leader who's trying to move our community forward," Forté wrote.
According to Kelly Wachel, the executive director of public relations for the district, Carpenter is no longer under police protection.
"[It's] disappointing when people take matters like this and use it as a platform to spew hate," Carpenter said.
In January, Lee's Summit's local chapter of the National Education Association shared a letter urging against extending Carpenter's contract. In a list of reasons, the union executive team cited concerns with the rejected September proposal, which they said would have focused on "white privilege" and concentrated on better serving black students in equity training.
The teachers' union also called the hiring of an assistant superintendent of equity and student services not "warranted or necessary." The role was created in the 2018-19 school year as part of the equity plan, and is a position that is being created by a growing number of districts across the country to address schooling disparities.
"We believe disparity in student achievement and opportunity should be addressed with all our minority populations and not just focused on our black population. Diversity and equity should address our students that come with a variety of unique needs," the letter said.
In May, Lee's Summit's school board president made headlines for comments on privilege, including comparing being blonde to being a person of color.
"I just don't like the word privilege, because I have privileges. If someone is going to hire a female, then sorry, buddy, you're not getting the job. Or if they are looking for 'a Spanish,' they might choose J-Lo over me, I don't know," School Board President Julie Doane said.
Doane later apologized for the comments.
At a May board meeting, Carpenter said "I have sat with this district and have tried to work with this district, and do the work that we believe is important for young people, but, at this time, I'm asking for you all to look at clause 18 of my contract," referring to the clause that requires the district to buy him out if he is dismissed.
Lee's Summit is currently scheduling mediation between the board and the superintendent, according to Wachel. Carpenter currently remains in the position of superintendent.
Richard Reddick, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Texas College of Education, said that for school districts to provide equitable education, there needs to be collaboration between district leaders, the school board, civic leaders, and the community, as well as sustained conversations on the topics of race and privilege.
"I often liken [equity training] to going to the gym. You don't just go to the gym one day and become buff," Reddick said. "I often see that a lot, where it's 'we did a training and we're done.'"
The equity training for Lee's Summit's will begin with a two-day training session for the board and the leadership team later this summer, to be followed with professional development for the district's teachers and staff.
Reddick said that all schools should be participating in discussions surrounding race and equity, especially as suburban schools experience growing racial and ethnic diversity.
"No matter how good things are in a particular school or a particular district, there's a greater community, state, nation," Reddick said. "If you're not having these conversations and participating in this work then you're basically signing off on white supremacist beliefs."
Image courtesy of Getty