HSE superintendent mixed messages on Black Lives Matter leaves community hurt, confused

MJ Slaby
Indianapolis Star

On Monday, Hamilton Southeastern Superintendent Allen Bourff urged educators to teach Black Lives Matters as a political issue, not a social one.  

“I am requesting that if you work with the topic, treat it as a political issue and as you do with other political issues," Bourff wrote, "teach it without advancing it or promoting your personal views."

Roughly 24 hours later, he apologized in a second letter sent to HSE faculty but didn’t directly address if he was changing course.

In Tuesday’s letter, he said he was not asking that teachers abandon passion for social cause or that students not express themselves.

“I am requesting that we affirm publicly through our instructional practices that Black Lives Matter, that all humans have value, and that we stand in solidarity against injustice, racism, and violence, at all times.”

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District spokesperson Emily Pace Abbotts said Wednesday that teachers are encouraged to use the strategies "that were outlined in the first letter to assist students as they develop their own positions on this important social issue."

The first letter referred to those strategies as ones to use "when teaching about political issues."

Bourff’s first letter to teachers started by saying he’s heard from “a number of parents who are concerned that we are advancing the cause of Black Lives Matter, a political movement within the country. They contend that their children are being indoctrinated rather than taught and that this effort has been a distraction from the academic purpose of school.”

Pace Abbotts said Wednesday that she estimated more than 30 parents emailed with complaints about teaching Black Lives Matter in schools. The HSE school district has nearly 22,000 students and nearly 1,700 are Black, per data from the Indiana Department of Education.

Per data from the Indiana Department of Education, 2% of educators in the district, which includes teachers as well as other certified employees of the district, were Black in the 2019-20 school year, the latest data available.

Parents told the district said there were lessons and discussions “reflecting the agenda of the Black Lives Matter organization are taking place in classes" and that it was part of the social emotional learning curriculum, Pace Abbotts said. 

But she added the district doesn't have specific evidence of those lessons and discussions and the SEL curriculum this semester has been focused on mental health.

IndyStar was unable to speak with anyone who complained about Black Lives Matter to the district.

Initial letter came as a surprise

For some in the HSE community, the first letter came as a surprise, leaving them asking: Why now? And why during Black History Month? But for others, including recent graduates, the letter was disappointing, but not a surprise.

Chase Iseghohi, a 2020 graduate of Fishers High School, said the district has been performative in its activism and support of Black lives.

“My voice or my life doesn’t matter whatsoever unless it’s for a photo opp or to put me online or on a flyer,” he said, adding that when it’s time to stand up for students of color, the district is “nowhere to be found.”

Dr. Allen Bourff, superintendent of Hamilton Southeastern Schools

Iseghohi and others from Fishers Equity Awareness, a group of recent graduates and current high school students in the district, said they are starting plans to contact the school board.

On social media, people in the HSE community are calling on each other to contact the school board.

HSE parent Amber Welch started a Change.org petition called “Black Lives Matter is NOT political." As of 7 p.m. Tuesday, the petition had close to 1,200 signatures.

Welch, who has two kids in the district, said she started the petition as a way to allow people to collectively speak as one voice. She said she views Bourff’s choice to write this letter as a slap in the face, especially during Black History Month.

Welch said that the letter perpetuates the idea of “us and them.”

"That he is essentially pushing a political agenda," Welch told IndyStar, "while telling teachers not to is hypocritical."

'Many have moved it to the political arena’

In his first letter, Bourff acknowledged there is disagreement about whether Black Lives Matter is a social or political issue.

“It is clear that many have moved it to the political arena," he said "and contend that teachers should not be promoting it."

He wrote there is room for teaching political movements, even citing the American Revolution as one and included an outline for how teachers can address political issues in the classroom.

Bourff wrote that educators should not advance political causes but can teach the origins of a political cause to “explore social concepts and events that brought it to the political arena. To teach students the implications of a current political cause is to examine with them how social concepts or issues framed or have helped to frame it.”

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But the second letter struck a different tone.

Instead of calling Black Lives Matter a political issue or asking for it to be treated as one, he called it a “social issue” multiple times and never used the words political or politics.

“The intent of yesterday's letter to the faculty was designed to provide instructional strategies to discuss and teach Black Lives Matter, one of the most significant issues of our time. I understand that the impact was hurtful, and for that I apologize,” Bourff wrote. “The letter was designed to provide guidance for teachers to lead these discussions and to assist students as they develop their own positions on this important social issue.”

He wrote that at HSE “we will not debate the humanity of any individual.”

Nataki Pettigrew speaks to the Hamilton Southeastern school board after her hiring as chief equity and inclusion officer was approved on Jan. 13.

However, unlike the Monday letter, he did not provide suggestions of how teachers should do that.

And when it came to the parents who were in opposition and said the district overstepped, “I will be able to say that our attention has been on the development of thoughtful processes enabling our students to positively influence their community.”

Pace Abbotts said Wednesday that there has not been a district approach to teaching Black Lives Matter in the past. 

“Teachers have approached these types of conversations or questions from students when they come up, whether organically or as part of lessons on social justice issues or current events,” Pace Abbotts said. “Monday’s letter was designed to provide strategies to address questions such as those.”

HSE hired Nataki Pettigrew as the new chief equity and inclusion officer in January. She was not mentioned in Bourff's letters to faculty. Pace Abbotts said Wednesday that Pettigrew was not consulted on either letter and is away from work due to a family matter, but that Bourff did consult several district equity coaches on the second letter.

Not politics, but humanity

When Alex Morales first saw the Monday letter from Bourff, he said he was left “just astounded.” Morales, who is chair of the board for the Fishers Racial Equity Community Network or RECN, said he read it several times, trying to figure out what Bourff meant.

”I really wanted to understand and regardless of how well it was written, it was completely written in a vacuum,” Morales said, adding that it was written without regard to Black students and parents in the district.

Morales said the letter sent the message to them that they don’t matter.

Although RECN had heard some parents had complained about lessons that included Black Lives Matter, he said the group had encouraged parents who appreciated those lessons and others about Black History Month to share that with the district.

Then this letter came out and Morales said the network had no indication that the complaints had become something that warranted a blanket statement.

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RECN, which was founded in 2019 largely by HSE parents as well as the then-chief equity and inclusion officer at HSE Erica Buchanan-Rivera, issued a statement on Tuesday saying the network was disheartened that the administration "seems to discourage HSE teachers and employees from discussing or supporting Black Lives Matter in the classroom."

"The Black Lives Matter movement is not an extremist political group, as many white residents asserted in recent complaints to the school board and administration," the statement read. "The BLM movement isn’t about politics; it’s about humanity."

The network wrote that the Black Lives Matter movement is "not about choosing political parties, but presents a teachable moment in history for all to learn how social justice movements enter the democratic process in order to help the United States form a more perfect union."

RECN added that the message was upholding white supremacy "in its attempt to mischaracterize an important social justice movement" and is "an example of systemic racism."

A Black Lives Matter resolution

Over the summer, Indianapolis Public Schools — the state’s largest school district — adopted a “Black Lives Matter” resolution and racial equity policy.

The board of IPS, where 80% of the students it serves identify as Black, Hispanic, multiracial or an ethnicity other than white, unanimously adopted the resolution affirming that Black lives matter and named the ways in which the district has failed its Black and brown students in the past, “including privileging the prejudice of white parents over the well-being of Black students.”

Superintendent Aleesia Johnson, the first Black woman to lead IPS, has been outspoken on issues of racial equity and in her support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Creating and adopting what she calls a “racial equity mindset” was one Johnson’s top priorities when interviewing to lead the district.

The resolution included several guiding principles:

  • Black lives matter – Every student is capable of success, deserving of respect and valuable to our community.
  • All students – of every race – benefit from Black teachers and Black leaders.
  • Representation and recognition matters.
  • Understanding the ugly truth of our past is necessary to building a beautiful vision of our future.

IPS declined to provide more details about how it addresses Black Lives Matters in the classroom.

Over the summer, Bourff and principals throughout HSE sent messages supporting Black Lives Matter after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police, Janet Chandler, president of the HSE Education Association, said in an early Tuesday letter to members. Additionally, she pointed out the district’s work with the Indiana State Teachers Association to have an employment fair for teachers of color.

“Currently, I am trying to reconcile Dr. Bourff's message on Monday with the district's video support of our efforts to recruit teachers of color and the letters from the district and building leadership articulating that Black Lives Matter," Chandler wrote about the first letter. "I will continue to contemplate this dichotomy.”

Social issues in the classroom

Chandler said it’s not common that teachers get a communication from the superintendent about how to address an issue in the classroom. She added that members who contacted her are incredibly disappointed, especially teachers of color

And she added that when she asked about LGBTQ issues and Black Lives Matter in a fall discussion meeting, she was not given a specific answer and was told to avoid political conversations.

Parents and young alumni who spoke to IndyStar said they get the impression that teachers are reluctant to talk about social issues given the potential backlash. 

A student might disagee and their parents’ initial reaction is to lash out at the teachers, said Mia Morales, a 2020 graduate of Fishers High School and Alex Morales’ daughter.

She said teachers are in a tough position and want to be part of the change, but often feel like they can’t and don’t have the support to do so.

Students wear masks and keep distance from each other, health and safety precautions of the coronavirus pandemic, Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, at Fishers High School.

Mia Morales said that she is concerned for students after Bourff’s first letter, but also for teachers.

“They do so, so much for students,” she said. “And I don’t think I could have made it through Fishers High School without the teachers that supported me.”

She added the teachers that stood out to her are the ones who took a “brave step forward” to support students of color.

Mia Morales and other recent graduates who talked to IndyStar said they didn’t remember much discussion of Black Lives Matter while they were students and were discouraged from talking about it.

“It really is unfortunate to me,” she said. “We are in a moment of history that will change the world…and HSE Schools is on the wrong side of history.”

Next steps

To Iseghohi, he wants the HSE administration to be proactive, instead of reactive – something he’s tried to communicate since founding the Future Black Leaders as a freshman.

“That will be their biggest downfall,” he said. “They will wait for the issue to happen and respond on Twitter.”

Young alumni and parents who talked to IndyStar agreed that teachers should be able to tell their students that Black lives matter and talk about the movement in class.

And Jakob Miller, who is now a freshman at Purdue, said he wishes that an ethnic studies class was required for high school freshmen.

He said he took the class as a senior at Fishers High School, and what he learned there “is a drop in the bucket” to the three classes he’s done as an African American studies minor at Purdue.

Both young alumni and others who spoke to IndyStar said they also thought it was clear that no Black person read the first letter which was focused on Black lives.

“When you are impacting the lives of black and brown people, you have to listen to their voices,” said Alex Morales. He added that knowing the district does have a chief equity and inclusion officer, but that she is away, is one of the layers that makes the letter hurtful.

He said RECN plans to go back to one of its original goals to make sure that children and teens have safe spaces to be themselves.

He added that when Pettigrew returns, the group plans to work with her on this issue and make sure that she is supported by parents.

“This is about humanity and we need to take this down to the base level,” he said, "the school shouldn’t make some statements that pit some students against others."

Bourff, who has been superintendent since 2015, previously announced his plans to retire on June 30. The district is currently searching for a new superintendent and applications closed last week.

Call IndyStar education reporter MJ Slaby at 317-447-1586 or email her at mslaby@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mjslaby.