A longtime Christina School Board member suggested that a solution to education problems in low-income schools involves taking babies away from their mothers, in a follow-up to a discussion about equity and education.
Fred Polaski's comments have been described as both "racist" and "hurtful" by a fellow board member.
In a five-minute recorded speech made after a presentation by state Sen. Elizabeth "Tizzy" Lockman, representing the Redding Consortium for Educational Equity, Polaski, who's been on the board for nearly a decade, described issues he's heard about in high-poverty schools. He said the district is losing more kids to what's going on outside of school - in the home.
"I saw a first grader at the school, a number of years ago, walking in at 9 in the morning. His mother walked him in at 9, and he said he's late two or three days a week so he misses reading. She's walking him in, and she's also walking in a 3-year-old and carrying her 6-month-old, and she can't get the 6-year-old to school on time two or three days a week. Those are the issues that--what's that student going to do when he can't read now in sixth grade and twelfth grade and never finishes?"
"You hear from teachers, 'what do you do when a kindergarten students comes in, doesn't know the colors, doesn't know shapes, doesn't know numbers?' Another board member, after that statement, said, 'What do you do when a student showed up at Bancroft, 5 years old, and didn't know their name?' And people looked at her, she said, 'Yeah the child showed up. What's your name? Baby boo boo.' That's the only thing the kid had ever learned."
"Elementary school children - ask them in the home, 'can you get out your favorite book?' The child owns no books. There are no books in the house, there's no newspapers, no magazines, so when you put that into where the parent who fills out the information form--and she, single parent, lists her job as 'prostitute'--so those are the kinds of things that I think need to be looked at."
He acknowledged in the meeting that "a lot more resources" need to be provided for "students that are in poverty." But at the board's study session on February 4, 2020, he said improving the learning for students in high-poverty schools requires "deeper" work, and the solutions go beyond what happens in the classroom and the borders or boundaries of any districts.
“I’ve jokingly said this to some people, but I’m half-serious about it too: I think there’s children in high-poverty areas--not just the city, but elsewhere--the best thing we can do for ‘em--and I know this is not acceptable today--when they’re about 12 weeks old, take ‘em away from mom and hand them back when they’re 18 years old and graduated from high school. But provide that home environment somehow, because they’re not getting it where they live.”
After Polaski's remarks, members of the group were heard saying "thank you" and they simply moved on to the next item on the agenda with Polaski saying:
"Good luck to you, you're taking on a big task."
But school board member Elizabeth Campbell Paige sent an email to the board days later, on February 7, 2020. That email, obtained by WDEL, addressed Polaski's comments:
"Something has been weighing on me very heavily."I am sincerely sorry for not speaking up when one of us made what I deem to be highly inappropriate and racist comments. I was so taken aback that I did not respond. I do not want my silence to indicate agreement."While I can’t speak for anyone but myself, I would guess that we all agree the issues plaguing our students reach far beyond the classroom."I do NOT believe that taking children living in poverty from their families is any kind of solution or the best thing we can do for kids. Characterizing women as prostitutes and dragging babies on hips is not ok."The comments made, if unaddressed as a board, put us all individually and as a whole in a position of appearing to agree."
President of the Christina School Board Dr. Meredith Griffin as well as the board's vice president Dr Keeley Powell didn't return requests for comment Monday. Senator Lockman initially declined comment, but after publication issued an emailed statement:
"These statements were disturbing but I’m also concerned that the focus on these comments as if they are isolated is distracting from what they represent: very real issues harming very real children. The work of the Redding Consortium for Educational Equity (to which the comments were responding) is designed to address exactly that. I appreciate the outrage about this offensive comment and those made at other school board meetings recently - but I remain more concerned about the lack of outrage for the systemic inequities they reflect, which keep so many students from getting the education they deserve. I hope that, beyond the apologies and resignations that may or may not result from the anger such comments rightfully inspire, that we channel that energy into successfully implementing meaningful, deep reforms in our public school system.”
In a follow-up conversation, Campbell Paige characterized Polaski's remarks as "offensive and downright racist." She apologized for not speaking up in the moment.
"I was very taken aback by the comments, myself...I was so shocked in the moment that I honestly spent days afterwards thinking about why I did not respond in the moment," she told WDEL.
Campbell Paige said since sending that email, one unnamed board member thanked her for addressing the uncomfortable issue.
Polaski, whose term expires in 2023, told WDEL Monday night that his comments aren't racist.
"I don't consider the remarks to be racist. My remarks were in the context of education within the Christina School District that live in the city of Wilmington, and the conversation that evening had been a lot around...I just wanted to make the point that...what influences and has the biggest impact, in my opinion on the education of children is what goes on outside schools," he said. "A lot of those children don't have a home environment that is what I would consider a normal home environment that's conducive to helping them learn. They go home, and if there's nobody there, nobody to do homework with 'em, nobody to read to them...."
Polaski said the situation in many homes in Wilmington is significant enough that he supports:
"Putting that child in an 'institutional setting,' where there are people there that take care of 'em, make sure they have three meals a day, seven days a week, have people help 'em do homework, make sure that they're in a safe environment. (It) may be better for some of these children than staying where they reside now, and I don't know if I can always call it a home. Some people say that's racist remarks. I say that's remarks about what we know is going on in the City of Wilmington, but it's also going on in other areas of the state too."
Research has shown separating a mother from her baby results In trauma and long-lasting negative effects.
Charles Nelson, pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School, called the effect of separating children from parents "catastrophic" in a 2018 Washington Postarticle.
“There’s so much research on this that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this," he said in the article.
But despite the evidence, Polaski stood by his conclusion.
"I know there's evidence that children shouldn't be taken away from the mother, if the mother is caring for them; but if the mother is not caring for them, and nobody is taking care of them..." he trailed off, going back to similar examples, he made in his public comments.
He said, maybe, the interaction needs to come from the Delaware Department of Health and Social Services. He hearkened back decades to a time when orphanages existed.
"Something, I think, radical needs to be done in some areas. What it is I don't know. I'll throw out, if you go back 60-70 years, and people say we can't go back in time, there were orphanages for people who had no parents, and I know people that grew up in orphanages, and they turned out to be fine. Maybe, something like that is something we need to consider today. I made those comments in the context of we're looking at redoing the school districts in the city--that's fine--but if you don't fix the problems of what these children experience outside school. I don't think you're going to make much impact of children that are not receiving a good education today."
Campbell Paige plans to bring the issue up--in public--at the board's meeting Tuesday, February 11, 2020.
"Leading statements like that with 'I know this isn't acceptable' and saying it anyway doesn't excuse saying unacceptable things," she said. "I'm not okay with what was said, and I think silence can absolutely be construed as agreement, which it is not in this case."
WDEL asked Polaski why he made his comments, despite prefacing them with the understanding that he knew they'd be unacceptable.
"I think people need to recognize...and I said it's 'not acceptable today' because we can't talk about children being in institutions. They should be at home in their family. And, so one of the questions is what's a family? For many people, a family is a mother, father, and siblings. So what do you do when children go home, if you will, and that's not the model that's there? There's nobody there? They go home to an empty house...they go home to a house where there'd drug-dealing going on or there's fights in the house? Somebody needs to fix 'em. Is it Department of Health and Social Services? Is it community leaders? The school districts...we don't have the resources to go into the homes and do things, but we deal with children who come from these homes...who come to schools in kindergarten, as a student, and don't know their name."
Campbell Paige said she's uncertain whether Polaski should resign.
"I'd like to see an apology from Mr. Polaski. As far as board action, I don't know what should happen. I think these are conversations that need to be had in the very near future," she said. "I don't want to be so quick to judge. I would not be opposed to [a resignation]. I'm not personally calling for one at this point until I've heard Mr. Polaski respond to the issue."
Polaski said he'd apologize if his comments were misconstrued.
"I will apologize if there was a misunderstanding of what I said, and why I said it, but I'm not going to apologize for the facts that they are in that something needs to be done to support these children, and it's more than we can do in Christina or any of the other school districts," said Polaski.
"Whatever it is, I'm not an expert, but I threw that out as an idea to sort of wake people up...that we need to do something more than just say let's re-draw school boundary lines and add a couple of hours to every school every day. All that helps, but there's real root causes there that need to be addressed."
The Christina School Board has been having conversations about improving the quality of education for low-income students for years. In her six years on the board, Campbell Paige couldn't recall any similar comments or sentiments from Polaski. She called the remarks "jarring."
"I have never heard him talk about suburban schools that way...suburban parents, or even white parents, who live in poverty...so that's what's the most jarring to me," she said. "It came out of no where, it was very drastic and dramatic, and I'm going to use the word that it is--because I think if we don't then we provide cover for it--it's racist. Characterizing single mothers as prostitutes, dragging babies on hips, taking children away from their parents, it's just awful and racist."
"If somebody thinks it's racist, it's because the vast majority of the children who live in the city of Wilmington, where the highest poverty levels are, where we have the poorest educational performance of students, and where the preponderance of the conditions that we talk about exist, are in areas where the predominance, racially, is African American. That's reality. That's fact. You can get into all kinds of discussions about why, and what's the history, and what do we do about it. The point is we need to do something about it," he said. "I've had people say some children...the only decent meals they get all week are breakfast and lunch, five days a week, in school. So what kind of home environment are they in?"
Polaski admitted he doesn't have all the answers.
"If it's putting children in an institutional group environment...if it's somebody going into the homes and providing support in the homes...I'm not sure what the right answer is. That's not my area of expertise, but I can tell you what I've seen is we have a lot more issues to attack than what school boundaries are and whether putting money into the buildings in schools is a good thing. A lot more needs to be done if we're going to get the children in the city on the same educational levels as the children in the suburbs."
While there has been talk about addressing the root causes of poverty from state and city officials for years, none of it took on the tone of Polaski's remarks.
"I think this is a slap in the face that, not to just Christina and the state, but to the Redding Consortium, to what invested stakeholders are doing, to parents, to communities, to the community he was speaking about. I think it's nothing but hurtful," said Campbell Paige.
Polaski's remarks are the second time in as many weeks a school board member has made controversial comments at a public meeting. Odyssey Charter School's Board came under fire last week for comments made in January regarding parking and traffic issues with neighboring charter school Academia Antonia Alonso, which has a predominantly Hispanic student population. The exchange among unidentified board members went as follows:
"The other thing I proposed, somewhat in jest, to Ricardo and Evan was that we just put a fence, right there."
"And they're going to pay for it."
"Build a wall."
"The jokes write themselves."
Delaware Education Secretary Dr. Susan Bunting condemned those remarks made at the Odyssey Charter meeting, calling them discriminatory. The school was also placed on formal review.
Odyssey Charter's board president Josiah Wolcott called for the unnamed board member's resignation and said he takes full responsibility for the "insensitive" and "hurtful" words used.
Community organizations are hosting a rally Wednesday night in support of Academia Antonia Alonso Charter School's students, demanding the resignation of board members who made the comments.
"Academia Antonia Alonso’s board, administrative leadership, faculty, staff and parents are shocked and devastated by the racist commentaries made by Odyssey board members and administrative leaders during their January 15 board meeting," said Dr. Maria Teresa Alonso, Academia Antonia Alonso Charter School, Board President.