A conversation over whether schools should introduce curriculum focused on Black history was perhaps the biggest point of divergence during a forum for Red Clay District school board candidates.
Watch the full forum here:
Race sensitivity in education
Candidates Kecia Nesmith--a mother of two, an educator and administrator for 22 years, and an equity advocate--Rafael Ochoa--a Red Clay Finance Committee member with a focus on empathy and law enforcement support--and Janyce Colmery--a retired respiratory therapist of 25 years and widow to a New Castle County Police officer--were all asked about their position on proposed legislation HB 198 looking to "implement a curriculum on Black History for students in grades K through 12."
Supportive of the idea, Nesmith said changing the perspective from which history is presented to students might help create more empathic students who have the ability to see how other races and cultures have been impacted by the actions of their forefathers. Ochoa and Colmery both expressed they were not supportive of the bill, with Ochoa saying there have to be more inclusive ways to present different viewpoints. Colmery said ideas like critical race theory are too divisive.
Nesmith: "How can we create opportunities for students to engage in critical dialogue around our country's history? We can also ask, do we believe that our current delivery of a Eurocentric middle-class male vantage point of curriculum best represents the experiences of all Americans throughout history? And in what ways can we design and create curriculum that includes the perspectives of multiple groups within our history and current society and global world so that our students have the agency, which is voice and choice, to critically think about how race gender, ethnicity, economic status, etc., influence the narratives of events in our history and in our society?"
Ochoa: "I think as a school board member and certainly want to support all. I'm a minority, a person of color and being viewed as a person of color, I don't see myself that way. I see myself as just a person that wants to do very well in the community... I'm a huge supporter of the African American community, the Hispanic community, the Asian community. The way the bill is currently written, it's not suited to be fairly an equitable to all. And I certainly support the African American community, the Hispanic community, Asian community, I would not be in favor of the HB 198, as currently written. I think they really need to go back to the drawing board and be much more inclusive."
Colmery: "To summarize, I suppose, I'm not a huge fan of HB 198 as it is written. I actually read it again today, just to make sure I'm remembering it, because it's quite a long bill. There are parts of this bill that I do support. And there are parts that I don't. So as it's written, I'm sorry, I don't support it. I find [critical race theory] in general to be divisive, and it's just serving to make matters worse. What I hear from friends and folks I'm around is it's a no-win. It is sort of teaching our kids that you're racist, even--that you can't win. And it seems to be suggesting to our kids of color that they have to be a victim. And it's so not the case. We are a society that everyone has the opportunity to do anything that they want to do, if they want to put the work in."
HB 198, a three-page bill, has been included here for those interested in reviewing it for themselves:
It's an interesting topic for Colmery, whose campaign has found support from other previous Republican political candidates like Lee Murphy and Lauren Witzke--both of whom failed in their campaigns challenging Democratic incumbents for U.S. congressional seats. There existed Friday morning a history of archived, public Facebook posts regarding this issue of language that offends, particularly in relation to race, and she appears to make the argument that use of racial slurs should be dismissed as individual anger, in many cases, and not hate-speech.
Due to the state of the conversation around race in America, its an important perspective to include here. Here's a post from Colmery's Facebook page on August 2013:
"I'm gonna catch some flack for this, but ... oh well. I have many friends from every walk of life, social "status" , religion, race, gender, lifestyle, political affiliation, etc ... so I think I can say this with being accused of "racism" ... I hope.
I'm really about finished with the media hype about "famous" people and their "slurs". Everyone says things in anger ... EVERYONE!!! When someone is angry enough to want to hurt you. they will hit below the belt! It doesn't make you an evil person or a racist or dangerous .... it makes you an angry person ... at the time. We never hear (from the media) about someone ysing any other "slur" ... only the "N" word. I head people, everyday, use inappropriate language ... I hear gay slurs, weight related slurs, racial slurs, and OMG ENDLESS GENDER SLURS!!!! I have overheard someone use a racial slur toward me (White bread B*tch) at work. I let it slide because it just isn't worth ruining someone's life because she was mad or she just doesn't like me! LET IT GO PEOPLE ... just words!!!
Maybe the next time I hear a slur at work, or the mall, or a restaurant .... I'll blow it out of proportion just to make the point ...."
WDEL reached out to the Colmery campaign and requested clarification on whether the points made in the post still stand today.
Colmery responded, and her response is included in its entirety here, unedited. For clarification on the following point that anyone was "digging deep," though the post has since been deleted, finding it was only a matter of searching Colmery's name on Facebook, as it was the first post which was returned in search results.
"Hello, and thank you for asking.
Wow, that was a long time ago, you must be digging deep. After rereading this, I mostly do still stand -by my post. (with some typos) This was written at a time when the media was on full attack of anyone "famous" who said anything that could be offensive to mostly anyone. Now we see it everywhere.
Look ... I DO NOT condone anyone intentionally acting or speaking offensively toward anyone! I strive to monitor my words because I never want to hurt anyone. I enjoy close and respected friendships with many people in every walk of life, race, religion, culture ... etc. These days it's nearly impossible to speak without someone becoming offended. Are there individuals who are simply hateful and use words to injure others ... yes. I have been the subject of this myself, from individuals who have never met me! I dealt with ridicule and slurs related to my stutter, gender, skin color, even being of Irish descent. I ignore these people as sad and uninformed. They are angry for whatever reason and just want to harm. These are INDIVIDUALS and should be addressed as such, and not viewed as a group of people.
It is my wish that people who proclaim to be tolerant would actually practice tolerance. As we have seen since 2013, giving these intentionally hateful people the attention they seek only adds fuel to the fire of division and hate.Regards,Janyce Colmery"
She responded again shortly after her first email with additional thoughts on the matter. Again, they are included here, unedited.
Allow me to add ... I wish we all would stop damning the many for the nastiness and hate of the few. I believe in my heart that people are genuinely good. It's the few who succeed in stirring the pot, that turn us against each other.
Have a great wekend,
The candidates were also asked about bias when it comes to punishment for students, with Delaware Department of Education data suggesting minority students are disproportionately impacted by discipline referrals, suspensions, and arrests. Colmery believed punishments should fit the crime, but more investigation into making sure they weren't being handed out inequitably would be necessary. That's an idea Ochoa mostly supported in his response saying as long as everyone is punished equally for equal infractions while Nesmith said identifying bias can help address unequal treatment of students.
Colmery: "I'm not going to pretend to know the district policies. I'm not on the board. I am not currently active in the district. I don't have children in school, so I don't know what the current policies are. What I will say is, discipline itself is sometimes necessary, and it should fit the infraction, regardless of who the student is. I can't think of a person that does not desire a safe and supportive environment for our children. We should assess the needs of each student, regardless of race, national origin, or color, and address those needs to ensure a solid foundation can be established for them. I don't know how disproportionate these are; I shudder to think that discipline is not treated fairly across the board. Again, I don't know. It would break my heart to find that out and would have to be addressed, because it's just not fair. That, if it's true, it cannot continue."
Ochoa: "I would say that, at the core, I think foundationally, what's embedded here underneath this, is that an equal infraction should incur equal consequences. It has been my understanding that there are other districts that have had issues, and it may have been the Christiana [sic] District, but someone to go back and look at that. But I think that's my understanding. It may be something that we need to look into, to ensure that the equal infractions incur equal consequences. And I think that's something really important that we go back and look at, and I would be asking the board to be asking the superintendent to look into this and report back to the board, the findings. We first really need to be thinking about, is active discipline being bias? So that's one thing that we need to kind of just pause, and not allow a pre-existing bias or narrative drive that behavior. So the really important thing is the fairness, the equity, and the dignity, and the betterment of students, to treat them with equality for all. The same infraction with different consequences certainly would be something to look into, and we would need to be equitable without bias. And this is something really important and would be really important to me to make sure that it is looked at and we get a solid answer and get this one right."
Nesmith: "Along with the quantitative data, there's also qualitative data, but real-life accounts of the issues of education from real-life students and extensive research issues that we've been talking about. So it's not just a broad brush of one data point. But with that, I believe that in order to rectify the situation, and to make sure that we're fair and equitable for all students, the school district needs to do a number of things, and it's not just our school district, it's school districts across the country. We first need to presume competence, hold high expectations for learning, and elevate enrollment of students of color in honors and AP classes. We need to understand the data and build awareness around the bias, the disproportionality and the dichotomous approach to criminalization of Black and Brown students and the medicalization of white students. We need to move from the systemic culture of compliance to fostering student-centered engagement. I definitely think we need to revise our code of conduct that has semblances of zero tolerance with prescriptive punishments or consequences, which in many cases leads to unnecessarily informing the police, and this has no age parameter in our code of conduct. Address the root causes of the lack of engagement in schools, the lack of connections to teachers that look like them, trauma experiences, effects of living in poverty, structural racism, lack of seeing themselves in the curriculum, boredom or lack of belonging, provide training and PD to our administrators and teachers around cultural competence, trauma-informed care and restorative practices, and reimagine the roles of School Resource Officers who we do need, and who I do support, as community helpers versus the perceived threat from students of color, from our marginalized situations. And then finally, I think, overall, we need to continue to build a community and culture, of caring, competence, and collaboration, and excellence for our students."
Transgender student supports
Candidates were asked to describe how they would like to see transgender students best supported within the district. Ochoa wanted to make sure schools were abiding by the Platinum Rule--where people are treated as they want to be treated, as opposed to the Golden Rule, which examines how the actor would prefer to be treated themselves, but clarified it needs to go both ways.
Nesmith said affirmation and support for gender fluidity is paramount, with more professional development to identify and address bias necessary.
Colmery felt such a controversial topic should be addressed through parents and school officials.
Ochoa: "I support all people of all walks of life. If they're students, everybody has a right to an education with fairness, equality, and dignity, empathy and respect. I would also say that we need to treat people how they want to be treated, the Platinum Rule, not the Golden Rule. It's not treat people how we want to be treated. It's a two-way street. For you, [Delaware PTA forum moderator Sarah Bucic], I mean, you seem like a very wonderful person, and I'm sure you treat me with dignity and respect, and I'll treat you with dignity and respect. The point there is that it's got to go both ways. And I would say that I don't really see a difference. If someone's in the public schools for an education, and that's our focus, they deserve an education like anyone else."
Nesmith: "I think support comes through action. So, in supporting transgender students, allowing for the fluidity of the identities, being affirming and supportive through our policies and practices in the schools, creating spaces where transgender students feel comfortable, and providing professional development for our staff and families in the community, so that our biases don't interrupt the ability for these students to be able to thrive in our school systems. For us to be supportive and inclusive, we need to be intentional about fostering positive dialogue and relationships and create affinity groups to support our students in these spaces, and just become aware of the not just transgender students, but the LGBTQIA-plus community, so that we can be what we say, and that is supporting our kids."
Colmery: "This is a heated topic. All of our students--and staff, for that matter--deserve our respect and our support. This is a tough time, when a young child or a teen isn't feeling comfortable in their own skin; the peer-pressure can be brutal. We need to be able to identify when this is happening. We need to pull in counselors, maybe even the school nurse or [School Resource Officers,] and the families, which is actually where this belongs. To be able to support, guide, and nurture whatever is happening in the lives of these individual students--and I even hesitate to use the word individual because the idea is to find a way to not be pulled out of the group, to be able to blend and everyone and just getting along, which I know sounds cliché, but at the end of the day, that's what it is."
It's another sensitive topic, and one where there was another relevant Facebook post which was public at the time, touching on similar themes. Colmery refers to another male school board member, in a relationship with a man, as the man's "wife."
The line in question specifically reads "No reason other than I'm running for a seat on the school board that his wife, Jose sits on." When asked for clarification about his gender identity, Jose Matthews responded to WDEL:
"Thank you for reaching out. I don’t want to get too involved, but I have have always identified as being the husband of Michael. My pronouns are he/him/his. Needless to say, I am somewhat concerned about someone being elected to serve with me and others on our board who would say something so blatantly homophobic and bigoted during this campaign. It saddens me to think that someone who claims to put students first on her campaign signs doesn’t feel that using more respectful language for the LGBTQ+ students in our district and community is warranted. I will work with anyone elected to this seat, but this comment has hurt me and shown me that we have a long way to go until the LGBTQ+ community — and other marginalized groups — receive the respect they deserve."
Community engagement and referendums
When asked if school board meetings should remain a virtual offering even beyond the pandemic, Ochoa said he believed for the time being, virtual meetings are fine, but in-person is what drives collaboration, though it should only be an option when safe.
Nesmith called them not only a "phenomenal option," but would like to see meetings streamed on other video-hosting platforms to increase viewership access and community engagement in the process. Colmery agreed it's a good way for parents getting home late from work to engage when they can't make it to a meeting in person.
All supported the continuation of the referendum process in some way to provide a voice to individuals living within the school district.
At the end of the evening, they each laid out why they believed themselves to be the best choice.
Colmery: "There's so many changes in our society today, and I see and I hear our kids; they're confused; uncertainty. They don't know where to turn or what to think. I think we have to use care in educating them and guiding them and teaching them how to take everything they're experiencing and hearing, and mold opinions of their own. Like I've said before--and it got me in trouble--to teach them how to think, not necessarily what to think. I will say this: It disturbs me when I hear a a student come home to their parents, and they know their teacher's political and-or social, personal opinions. This is not okay. This is not teaching. And they're there, as we all are, to educate, not indoctrinate."
Ochoa: "There are three different distinct choices. The candidates could not be further differentiated,. They have much different positions, not only in thinking, but in capabilities. As a candidate, I would be humbled and proud to serve the community. I'm a global leader that's going to be fair and equitable. I'm a minority that really sees and has a passion for education. I strongly support our men and women in law enforcement, and our safety resource officers. We saw what happened down in Smyrna. Thank goodness there was an SRO there. For the immediate opening of safe schools. We need to get back to basics. Children go to school for an education. When you look at the math and reading proficiency scores, they've regressed. And so it's supposed to be going over to the right, it's going over to the left; it's going negative. And so that is going to be my central focus. And that's why parents are sending their kids to school, so they can have bright futures, they can become engineers, doctors. They can have opportunities. I will be a candidate that will also serve as a check in fiscal responsibility."
Nesmith: "As a school board member, I'll represent all of our community to ensure our schools and communities thrive and innovate as we compete in the global society, and move away from our antiquated traditionalist educational practices. So in teaching our kids how to think, we can ensure that students have the opportunity to be exposed to learning where they can think critically, enact upon what they learn. Additionally, I strive to ensure that our programs are rich, robust, and sustainable--such as the Mandarin, and Spanish Immersion programs, among others. And in short, mental health and social emotional supports, and the hiring and retention of qualified diverse staff members that mirror the student populations, is a priority. Further, I'll collaboratively work with our board members to ensure the success of the district as we support Superintendent [Dorrell] Green in achieving his goals within the district's strategic plan. I am not perfect, but I am the candidate who has the best interest of all of our students' and children's future at heart, and the most experienced in education, and I'm ready to serve."
School board elections will be held May 11th, 2021. Voters are encouraged to use Vote411.org to find polling locations and learn more about candidates.