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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Equity & Diversity Opinion

Are Our Schools Any Closer to Equity?

By Sean Slade & Alyssa Gallagher — June 13, 2021 4 min read
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It’s been just over 12 months since the death of George Floyd.

It’s been 12 months since LaFayette Plaza in Washington was renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza.

It’s been 12 months since the start of worldwide protests.

We have had a year of kneeling, reckonings with our pasts, debates about our futures, and protests that have spread across the globe. They have spread from schools to soccer pitches. From moments of silence to outbreaks of chanting. From strong support to frustration and shouting.

But are we, and our schools, any closer to equity? Have we gained and moved forward or lost and fallen back over this past year?

It has been a traumatic year due to the pandemic, and it has also been a traumatic year due to racial unrest and systemic bias highlighted by the death of George Floyd. Many of those suffering the most have been unduly and unequally affected by both incidences. Rates of infection and death hit those in marginalized and underserved communities the most. And it goes without saying that those affected and impacted most by racial and systemic bias are minority populations. In our unequal world, parts of our society are inequitably impacted, infected, attacked, and traumatized more than others.

But 2020 really only resurfaced many societal issues that we have been trying to confront for years, even decades. True we aren’t faced with the same opposition to diversity, equity, and inclusion that those students received in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957, but we are still having to battle inequity and systems that supplement that bias.

While support for Black Lives Matter has remained positive in some areas of the public arena, there has been a backlash against how it can or should be discussed and raised in our schools with our educators and most importantly our students. In recent months, we have seen a rash of new legislation come out to curtail what many view as the required first step to confront our inequities.

The legislation, passed so far in Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, bans teachers from introducing certain concepts. Among them: that one race or sex is inherently superior, that any individual is consciously or unconsciously racist or sexist because of their race or sex, and that anyone should feel discomfort or guilt because of their race or sex. — Four States Have Placed Legal Limits on How Teachers Can Discuss Race. More May Follow, EdWeek.

This focus on how, or rather how not, to talk about race in our schools has been amplified further by restrictions on critical race theory in schools. Such restrictions would curtail discussion about race, background, and culture, both with students but also among staff and teachers. Avoiding the conversations increases the barriers and makes change more difficult and more arduous.

School systems cannot solve for antiracism if they continue to be traumatic places for Black educators and if Black educators are only valued and asked to lead when antiracism is trendy. Now is the time for school systems to look within themselves, to live out the equity in their mission statements, and to make actionable plans for community and collective care, for the honoring of Black lives, and for the antiracist future we all deserve. — For Black educators when school systems aren’t doing enuf, ASCD Inservice

Unfortunately, the same occurred with the case of Gavin Grimm.

When Gavin Grimm was a 15-year-old student, he came out as transgender, and his school principal gave him permission to use the boys’ restroom. For two months, this continued without issues amongst his classmates, teachers, and administrators. However, as a result of parent complaints, his school, Gloucester County High School, in Virginia, officially banned him from using the boys’ restrooms in December 2014. That ban included not only restroom use but also locker rooms and would affect and impact any other transgender students. In 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union took up the case on behalf of Gavin and all other transgender students’ rights. The suit was filed on June 11, 2015, and eventually went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where on Aug. 26, 2020, Gavin was victorious.

Between 2015 and 2021, we saw a slew of new state legislation come out -– predominantly directed at schools that curtailed transgender students and transgender rights. We are seeing similar legislation passed in 2021 regarding transgender students and participation in youth sports.

Struggles rarely move smoothly or in one direction only. Societal change takes steps forward followed by steps back until what is being sought becomes the normative and expected consideration and behavior.

But there are actions we can take to help move equity to the front. We can amplify the messaging. We can advocate for equitable reform. We can support our schools as they strive to become safer and more inclusive. And we can help our educators and school leaders as they unpack bias, tackle the difficult conversations, and seek to make equity a driving focus for school reform. Countries, districts, and schools that drive improvement in their systems via an equity lens not only enhance belonging and connectedness, they also improve outcomes, whether that be educational attainment or systems growth.

And while we have focused here on racial bias and gender bias, there is discrimination and inequity apparent across our society and across its schools and systems. Whether that be racial, gender preference, gender identity, nationality, cultural, or disability. Inequity is inequity, inclusion is inclusion, and belonging is belonging.

Equity is not only good educationally—it is also fundamentally just.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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