On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, an unarmed black man from Minneapolis, Minnesota was killed by white police officer, Dereck Chauvin. He pinned Floyd to the ground and kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for at least eight minutes and fifteen seconds, according to the New York Times article, “How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody.” All of this because Floyd allegedly bought cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. This tragedy resulted in an uproar from communities across the country demanding an end to police brutality against unarmed black individuals and giving the Black Lives Matter movement new momentum.
While the murder of Floyd is new and relevent, it’s important to remember that the issue of racism has been around for years, and that our community is no excepction to that. As reported in the 2018 MOR article, “Systems of Love,” by Skye Hamilton (‘18), at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year, a student of color at the elementary school was taunted with racial slurs and unwanted physical contact while riding the schoolbus.
With these incidents of racism in mind, a group of teachers at ORHS came together to figure out how to handle the issue of racism at the Durham, Lee, Madbury, and Barrington level and make it clear that this is an issue we should be focused on. The committee started meeting over the summer and has continued to meet during the school year. This group is staff focused, and is working with educators about how to develop anti-racist practices in their classrooms by providing resources for educators, so that they can practice these things in their classrooms.
According to Vivian Jablonski, a math teacher at ORHS, the murder of Floyd, among numerous other black individuals, prompted her to get that comittee of staff members together to start talking about this issue at ORHS. “I was really struck by everything that was happening, so after the murder of George Floyd and all these statsitics that started to come to light of black men who have been killed in routine police stops and stuff like that. I was thinking a lot about that, what I might be able to do, what I can bring to my own classroom, and how can I be a role model for students so that they know how to interpret what they’re seeing,” explained Jablonski.
At the start of the summer, Jablonski sent out an email to all ORHS faculty asking if they would want to be a part of a discussion group centered around what is going on in our country regarding the issue of racism, and what can be done at ORHS specifically. Jablonski got a lot of initial responses, and that committee of about twenty staff members soon followed.
This is not the first time racism has been addressed at ORHS. After the incident of racism on the schoolbus, ORHS hosted a community wide diversity forum. Additionally, the Diverse Student’s Union at ORHS has worked on panels and has created a safe space for students. However, the murder of Floyd, and the subsequent protests around the country, were what promted the first time racism has been acknowledged across the school by a large group of teachers. “It was time. We should have been doing this probably years ago, but this is where we are right now and we are going to do the best we can moving forward,” said social studies teacher and member of the committee, Jaclyn Jensen.
The committee formed with an end goal “to address head on the real health concerns and the real danger that people live in because of racism and also to acknowledge our space where we contribute to it, even without knowingly doing so,” explained Marjke Yatsevitch, ORHS English teacher and member of the staff discussion group. Yatsevitch brought up the concept of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and explained that racism needs to be treated as a health concern, because if a person of color does not feel safe within school, there is no way they are going to be able to learn.
The first item the staff committee set out to address was an anti-racism statement which teachers had the option to put on their syllabi at the beginning of the year. “We felt that we wanted some sort of statement to tell our students, and their parents and guardians, that when we started the year, to tell them that we were thinking about this kind of stuff and just to be aware that there might be some changes in the curriculum,” said Jablonski.
Jensen explained why such a statement was especially important at the beginning of the school year. “The syllabus statement was really important for the beginning of the year just to make it really clear to students and our community that this is something that we are going to be exploring more and taking an active role in incorporating in courses,” said Jensen.
The statement reads as follows: “Oyster River High School is working toward becoming an anti-racist institution. Our mission commits us ‘to becoming educated, ethical, responsible citizens,’ and our district policies and strategic plans similarly urge us to address institutional racism at ORHS. To start this work, we will use an all-encompassing approach to review and revise our practices including curriculum, instruction, discipline procedures, and access to resources. This work will be ongoing among the entire ORHS community. Our expectation is not perfection, but an open mindset and growth. As such, we expect and encourage all members of the ORHS community, including students, to seek out trusted resources in other students, faculty, staff, counselors, and/or administration for support and collaborations towards a safe and equitable learning environment.”
Students found the intent with the syllabus statement was good, but it was only useful if teachers talked about it with their class. “I saw it for some parts, but the thing with the teachers is that they kind of brushed over it most of the time. They were like, ‘oh here’s the race statement,’ and then they’d move on. Most of my teachers just zoomed over it. Some of my teachers I don’t even think had it,” said Charlotte Merritt (‘22).
Iris Ingelfinger (‘21) agreed that most teaches didn’t fully address it, saying, “I definitely heard [the syllabus statement] or at least seen it in a couple classes, but teachers were like, ‘you’ve seen this before,’ but I’m not sure how much of it I’ve actually seen.”
Ingelfinger went on to talk about syllabus statement more, saying, “my general takeaway is that I’ve heard the staff and the school say that they’re doing something to combat racism but I don’t know how it has actually come to fruition, like I haven’t really heard or seen the specific ways in which they’ve done so.”
Through the initial syllabus statement, many of the teachers on the committee are working on bringing some of the elements they have learned through the meetings over the summer into their classrooms this year.
Ingelfinger has already seen this in her orchestra class at ORHS. “I know a few specific teachers who have been basing some of their curriculum around black issues. I know, for example, Ms. Von Oyen has been teaching about racism and inequity in the orchestra community and also she’s having a project where students are researching black composers,” said Ingelfinger.
Jablonski, who teaches math, has found this to be more of a challenge compared to a social studies teacher who may already be covering issues of race in their classroom. However, she is “trying to make math more humanized. A lot of people think of math as there were a bunch of these old white European guys that came up with this stuff, here’s the rules, let’s do it.”
Jablonksi went on to say, “For me, [the syllabus statement] was kind of just my way of saying math class doesn’t always address this stuff, but me, as a person trying to be a role model for my students, I’m thinking about this all the time and just wanting people who are in my class to be aware of that.”
The issue of racism stems much further than a syllabus statement though. Fully addressing it requires understanding a school is a system.
Jensen explained, “Understanding racism as a system is a really important understanding that a lot of white people are learning more about and waking up to. And a school is a system, so I think we need a systemic approach to a systemic problem. With that understanding, we can kind of move forward looking at our institutions, our policies, some of our implicit biases.”
According to Jensen, while individual acts of racism between two people should not be tolerated, the issue is much bigger than that, and is more than just saying, ‘I’m not racist, so I’m not the problem.’
As far as how ORHS has started to address the issue of racism from a systemic approach, Jensen explained, “this is a natural next step for a lot of work that has already been done. We have integrated addressing racism into our strategic plan as a district. Our district has adopted a policy on racism. Our mission statement talks about being ethical and responsible citizens. These kinds of things naturally lead us to taking an anti-racist approach when we understand this framework and we understand the urgency of the work at hand.”
While this is an idea that the staff discussion group has been talking about since the summer, students have yet to see some of these things come to fruition. “My only concern is that it seems like right now they are coming across as saying like, ‘oh, we’re going to be anti racist.’ I don’t actually know all the semantics of what they’re doing but I feel like if it was super effective, maybe we would be hearing more about it,” said Ingelfinger.
One of the biggest reasons why the issue of systemic racism needs to be talked about at Oyster River specifically, is because it is a predominantly white community. “We come from a place of deficit in understanding how we contribute to racist institutional practices,” said Yatsevitch. What she means is that, as a majority white community, most of us don’t understand the effect that we are having on racism unless we really care to learn about it.
This is especially difficult when we may not explicitly see issues of racism in the building; a lot of the issue comes from microaggressions, or statements that are subtle and unintentional, that target minorities. Even if these are intended as jokes, it doesn’t mean they’re not racist. Merritt said, “there’s definitely a vibe in the school and most people like to play it off as dark humor. I have not experienced much first hand. I have been called twist and Oreo, because my mom is black and I have a white dad.”
Ingelfinger agreed that she rarely hears direct racist attacks or slurs, but said, “I have seen on school Instagram pages people saying, ‘why should we care so much about racism? It’s silly that you care about this.’ I feel like that in and of itself is a microaggression because it’s such a privilege to not have to be concerned about this because it doesn’t affect your day to day life.”
Merritt went on to explain that while one might not experience direct racist attacks, “it’s just been integrated into the humor of the school almost and there’s almost this unspoken rule that you’re not supposed to say anything. You’re not supposed to speak up, you’re not supposed to say anything to teachers, you’re not supposed to be like, ‘why would you say something like that?’ You’re just supposed to laugh,” said Merritt.
Jensen expands on this “vibe” in the school, where it comes from, and that it all goes back to the issue of systemic racism. “It’s important to understand that institutions, or systems, can unknowingly perpetuate harmful dynamics if they’re not actively being examined and reflected upon and addressed.”
The next immediate step that the committee is taking to address some of these harmful dynamics is creating a monthly newsletter for educators at Oyster River. “It’s called ADAGE, which is Anti Racism Discussion and Growth for Educators. We set up a program for that where we have a monthly topic and we will be creating a hyper document that embedded resources and layers for people to enter as deeply into that conversation as they’d like,” explained Yatsevitch.
One long term goal that Jablonski hopes to see is the inclusivity of more diverse staff at Oyster River. The lack of diverse staff comes from the lack of diverse applicants, and that our community has a long way to go before we will be attractive to people of color. “We talked a lot in our discussion groups about wanting to help bring more diverse faculty and staff to our school and I think it would be fantastic for everybody. But I think we have a long way to go before we would be attractive to people of diverse backgrounds. We have to work on making our community one that is inclusive, is safe, and like I said, values all different identities and I think that that would really help to make this a place where people want to come work.”
While the school is working on addressing this as a system, it is still important to acknowledge everyone’s own individual acts of racism. Merritt concluded by saying, “I think those students who view things like Black Lives Matter, and issues with ethnicity and race, should take a step back and realize it’s not political, it’s not conservative or liberal, it’s not Republican or Democrat, it’s human rights and having human decency to everybody regardless of ethnicity.”
Artwork by Acadia Manning