By Kevin Joseph Ryan
In the first part of this report, TNR told you that on Tuesday May 8, the Burlington School Commission met to address accusations of racism, and were met with over 125 community members voicing concerns that the school system itself is moving too slowly on the issue of creating a fair learning environment for students of all skin colors. We took a look at the fact that while the students have very heartfelt concerns that the school system is treating them fairly, a very well-organized political group made up of members of Burlington’s International Socialist Organization and their supporters seem to have a different agenda and message. In this second part, we will hear from the perspective of racism as the sole issue, including from the students themselves.
Meeting attendee Denise Dunbar may have summed up the point of the meeting’s true point, which she said was, “Getting your sleeves rolled up and doing the job that you’re asked to do…which is take care of the youth!” Ms. Dunbar also noted, “This is not a new conversation,” while holding up a 1999 Racial Harassment report issued by the state.
It is true that the tragedy of racism has been with us as a society for many generations and is unlikely to be solved by any school system. However, as has been said, the Burlington School Commission put together the 15 member Diversity and Equity Task Force in late 2010 to address concerns of both students and parents that Burlington is not moving quickly enough of this issue. In October of 2011, the Commission received their report, but has not yet chosen to implement it.
That action, or inaction by the Commission, has led to an organized effort by certain Task Force members to force implementation of the reports’ recommendations as school policy, despite the fact that the report would mandate placing blame on racism for any inequity suffered by minority students and contains Marxist theories of societal overthrow. This has made communication regarding equity issues doubly difficult, leading to Tuesday’s night’s tense meeting.
TNR made an attempt to speak with all of the students in attendance, and did speak with Jacques Okuka, who led a student protest at BHS April 19. Mr. Okuka told TNR that one of the primary issues was that students in the English as a Second Language Program were segregated from other students for these classes, which included separate segments for science, math and other subjects for which language should not be an issue, and were told by counselors that they could not be mainstreamed. “Math is math. What difference does it make what language you use?” Said Okuka. Okuka did request more non-white teachers at the High School, saying that, “Those teachers understand what we’re going through. I feel that teachers of non-color, they just think were dumb and don’t have patience for us.” When asked what difference he felt the color of the skin itself made, Okuka replied, “I don’t see a difference myself.”
The interview would have continued, but Sara de Osaba, a former Burlington staffer pulled the children away from TNR. Ms. De Osaba has had quite a grudge with the school system, holding a press conference in February of this year following the resignation of Wheeler School Principal Trevor Christopher, an African-American teacher who only briefly held the job. De Osaba maintained at that time that Burlington Schools were sending the message “loud and clear” that minority teachers were unwelcome in Burlington, citing the resignation of a number of them.
De Osaba, however, failed to make note that Trevor Christopher had been dismissed from his prior position as Principal of Kenmoor Middle School in Maryland, largely due to parent disapproval. Another recently departed minority principal from Burlington is Bonnie Johnson-Aten of Edmunds School, who left to take an appointment to the State Board of Education. Jeanine Bunzigiye, another disgruntled former school employee, along with Task Force member Liz Curry participated with de Osaba in the earlier press conference and was leading the African students out of Tuesday’s meeting.
In between the various differing opinions and agendas regarding treatment of immigrant and minority students in the school system, tensions at this point are running very high, magnifying perceptions of racial mistreatment. Task Force member and UVM Professor Sherwood Smith pointed out, “White people do not have the experience talking about race enough to be comfortable doing it.”
The children themselves, when speaking publicly, are clearly upset. “We’re asking to be racism free. That’s not much to ask, is it?” Said Jacques Okuka, when addressing the Commission. “Shame on you, Jean Collins and Amy Mellancamp. I thought you were better than that. We would like school supporters to stop putting words in our mouths because that says we’re stupid, we can’t speak for ourselves.”
Another BHS student, Fama Abukir, became visibly upset with the Commission’s policy of time limits for public speaking at the meeting. “When you tell people to wrap it up, this is how it makes me feel: You take their ideas, put them behind you, throw them in the trash.” She continued saying, “A student came up to me during lunch and called me the N word, when I told the teacher she didn’t do nothing. But when I called her white trash, I got suspended from school for three days…how’s that fair?… How would you like it if I asked you to wrap it up,… How would you like it if I stepped on you, acting all racist up there?”
Before this crisis in Burlington is resolved, cooler heads must prevail. Parent-Activist Allen Parker told the crowd, “I don’t see white, I don’t see black, I don’t see low income, free and reduced lunch, I don’t see higher income, I see a student.” Rabbi Joshua Chason of Ohavi Zedek Temple pointed out, “I thought there was a no-bullying policy in this building and I’ve heard a lot of bullying here tonight.” The Rabbi reminded the crowd that Superintendent Jean Collins had led the school through three years of a battle to create socio-economic integration and was working to create equity for all.
While some in the conversation may know that under Collins’ Administration, the Office of Diversity and Equity was created and the Task Force was empanelled, neither the Rabbi nor the assembled group of students, parents and activists are likely aware that Collins herself parents four girls of Asian descent.
As Rabbi Chason himself put it Tuesday night, “Let’s stick to the truth.”