ISSAQUAH, Wash. – The Issaquah school district did not mince words Tuesday, saying flat out a TOLO proposal sign was racist and acknowledging the district has a lot more work to do.
“For anyone who might think 'Oh that’s not a problem in our district' or 'That’s not a problem in our society, in our community,' well yes, it is,” said Issaquah School District Communications Executive Director L. Michelle.
The students involved could face disciplinary action. L. Michelle says the sign violated the student handbook’s discriminatory harassment clause, but any further details about those involved are limited.
“This is a minor that we’re dealing with and so we’re going to keep that in confidence,” said L. Michelle.
But L. Michelle says they’re facing the underlying issue of racism in school head-on. For the past four years, the district has been working with Cultures Connecting. It’s an organization that teaches diversity and equity in the classroom that was founded by Dr. Caprice Hollins.
“The conversation doesn’t start with the students if the teachers aren’t ready to have the conversations,” said Dr. Hollins.
Administrators and teachers have been in workshops for the past four years, but getting that training to students or in the curriculum is a much harder task. The high schools in the district provide a two-week unit about diversity in World History One classes.
“I don’t think that teaching something as a unit is going to be as effective as continually weaving those things, weaving that cultural competency into everything that we do in every class in every subject,” said L. Michelle.
Dr. Hollins says society, politics, parents, and media all play a role in what kids learn so it’s unfair to expect the school district to carry the full burden in correction. Still, she says, their work in Issaquah is a model for other districts.
“They are on the right path in addressing these issues. Understanding some of the cultural differences, learning styles, cultural norms,” said Dr. Hollins.
But the sign shows there’s still work to be done.
“Yes, we’re going to continue our efforts, but we need conversations, we need help. Help of our parents, we need help of our families of color and students of color so we’re not creating solutions of isolation,” said L. Michelle.
There are no extra counselors on hand for students at the high school. There’s no planned school assembly to address the matter. The district is encouraging teachers to talk with their students in the classroom.
Experts say what happened should be looked at as a teachable moment about race, in hopes of becoming a more proactive society to racism instead of a reactive one.
Joe Greenberg, a high school teacher of ethnic studies, says the sign used by the Issaquah student didn't shock him.
"I’m never surprised when things like this happen. it’s not a matter of if but when," he said.
Greenberg says it comes down to understanding and accepting the multi-cultural society we all live in.
“If students studied the topic of race, they would know that message on that sign would be hurtful to some if you studied the topic. If you’re oblivious to the racial experience of other people, well then it’s easier to be oblivious," he said.
Though he teaches Ethnic Studies at his school, not every school in Washington does. Right now, there's a House Bill calling for Ethnic Studies in public schools for grades 7 through 12.
Here are some resources sent to parents and students by Issaquah High School’s Principal: