Dear John and Beth,
We were so pleased last year when the district invited REAL to join the Code of Conduct (CoC) Committee. Thank you again for that invitation. Annie has been providing us with regular updates, which we then share and discuss with our members and partners.
While we look forward to remaining on the committee and helping in any way we can, we are finding ourselves disappointed by the limited focus on race equity and community outreach in this second year of the work. We were under the impression that the second year was added in order, specifically, to focus more on equity and to invite greater inclusion of families/students in the conversation–that that was the stated (and sole) reason offered in the CoC committee meetings for extending the work and not implementing a final revised code this year. Last year Annie shared with us the below blurb from the BSS May 10th principal’s weekly message.
“The code of conduct task force has been hard at work this year creating a draft of a new pre-K-12 code of conduct. Although we will have a draft at the end of the school year, we will not implement it next year. We felt strongly as a task force that we needed to take a second year to focus on race and equity. We also want to invite the voices of our families to join us as we create the finished product.”
This was, in our minds, an enormously exciting commitment on the part of the district and one that we eagerly shared with our members. To acknowledge that racial disparities were/are one of the main reasons that the district wanted to reexamine and revise the code and to then commit to taking the needed time to actually view any revisions through that lens was notable and inspiring. We entered this school year excited to collaboratively conduct outreach and inclusion of more voices AND, relatedly, spend time talking through how the code and the implementation of the code could affect racial disparities (positively, negatively, or neutrally).
With all this in mind, we were surprised in the first two committee meetings of this year to hear statements to the effect that: (1) race equity was already tackled and addressed in last year’s committee work, and (2) student and parent outreach had already occurred (or will occur by simply sending the 50-page document to select student groups for their quick response and eventually vetting it by the various school councils). (See further below for our thoughts and reactions to these statements.)
We expressed, in each of those two meetings, our confusion and tried, in diplomatic ways, to remind the group of the promises that were made last year and to offer our partnership in meeting those promises. We get the distinct sense, from things that John has said and from the approach to the meeting agendas so far this year, that the code is essentially considered done, loose ends are being tied up, and that the desire from leadership is that we just sign on (and leave it be). We don’t feel it is useful, at this point, to continue to raise–in the full committee meetings–our concerns about how this second year has been playing out, but we would be remiss to not put some of those thoughts down on paper and share with you.
A focus on race equity. It is our understanding that there was one committee meeting last year in which a 30-minute section of the agenda was dedicated to a conversation about race equity, facilitated by Annie. That part of the agenda was a time to hear from committee members the extent to which they feel that race equity (and its relation to discipline) is discussed in their schools and/or the district as a whole. It was not a review of the current code of conduct with race equity in mind or a discussion of how current (or newly revised) code of conduct practices may or may not contribute to racial disparities. It was meant as an opening to a focus on race equity in the committee, not an end to the dialogue.
It sounds like this agenda item led to the decision that more time was needed to adequately and thoughtfully focus on race equity in year two, to grapple with a topic that needs to be grappled with everywhere, including Northampton. There were times in meetings following that one in which a topic was raised (detention and the loss of recess, for example) and the group flagged it for further discussion in year two, again through the lens of race equity. None of the agendas to date in this second year have focused on this topic (other than our reps raising the issue and asking whether it will still be a focus). We were poised, and are still poised, to help make that focus a reality (with the below topic of inclusion and outreach an essential part of the work). However, the clear message we are receiving now is that it’s done.
Inclusion and community outreach. We understand that there was some student and parent representation (beyond that of REAL and SePAC) on the committee in the beginning of last year. And that those people stopped coming early on in the work. But we don’t think that signifies that family and student outreach or meaningful inclusion occurred last year or that students and families aren’t interested in the conversation. While we commend the district leadership for inviting students and parents to the committee, the structure and process of the committee meetings undoubtedly made it hard for some to know how to enter into the dialogue or to know what their value was in the process. Please know that we are not saying here that other voices weren’t invited (they were) or that it is easy to do anything like this in a truly inclusive manner (it isn’t), but simply that we were excited to hear that this second year was going to allow for greater intentionality around meaningful inclusion and outreach.
Last year, the group had started batting around ideas about real community outreach–maybe some in-community, evening forums to allow for feedback and thoughts about the code of conduct (what needs to change in current practice, what the committee may have overlooked to date, how to ensure racial equity in disciplinary practices and responses to student behavior, etc.). Again, that was a brief discussion (a few minutes) and it was placed on the back burner, to be revisited this year. It has not yet been revisited.
We know that the committee leadership has now sent a draft of the revised code to the middle and high school student groups, including the Students of Color Alliances, seeking their feedback and proposed edits. And while this is great, it feels like the easiest, most traditional, and not very useful way of seeking input. This is a 50-page document. The students have no real insight into what the conversations in the committee have looked like to date, nor how open (truly) the committee is to hearing their thoughts about discipline practices and race equity. An expectation that they have the support to document or track their proposed edits, in a tight timeframe, without an actual relationship to–or in-person dialogue with–the committee feels like a shallow, and even condescending, approach to inclusion.
Finally, we understand that the school councils need to vet and approve the final code of conduct, and that’s as it should be, but we don’t feel that passing the code through the councils alone is the kind of inclusion or focus on race equity that was at least considered during last year’s discussions.
We do not come at this work or our expressed sentiments here just as observers or critics. We come to this work as ready partners, people who want to work in collaboration with the district as much as is possible, to lift up and pay attention to issues of race and racial in/equities. It is difficult to not wonder if this second year of the committee’s charge was added just to appease us and others, without a true commitment to doing what was promised and maybe just as a way to buy more time for line editing and design.
Assuming that the opportunity for a meaningful focus on equity and inclusion has passed for this year’s work in the committee (knowing that there is a desire to get the final code formatted and completed as soon as possible), below are some things we propose going forward.
- Build a relationship between district leadership and the various student organizations so that there are opportunities for in-person dialogue and forums around how to ensure that the implementation of the code is done with a commitment toward race equity. We would be ready and eager to talk about what this might look like.
- Define what the revised code means by “restorative practices” and “restorative interventions” and establish a plan for training school staff on those interventions. It is our understanding that the restorative language that was placed in the revised code was modeled after the code in Syracuse, New York. More and more jurisdictions across the country, including Holyoke and Amherst, are turning to restorative justice approaches in schools as a direct way to tackle racial inequities and build healthier (in all ways) school climates and student outcomes. We celebrate an introduction of this frame in Northampton, and have been recommending it for some time. However, we are worried that the language is being inserted in Northampton’s code without a real discussion of what is meant by that, or a real understanding of whether schools are prepared to truly offer it. This also may offer an opportunity to connect with other schools and districts to discuss the challenges of implementation and learn more about best practices.
- Include in the final presentation of the code to the school councils and, eventually, school committee, a promise to share publicly all discipline-related data, by race and ethnicity, on an annual basis. That data should be accompanied by a plan for improvement, whether that be better training of personnel, further revisions to the code, greater partnership with related and interested groups, etc.
Deborah Keisch, Jenny Bender, and Tom Chang (REAL co-leaders) on behalf of REAL