With protest outside, HSE school board gives 2 differing statements on Black Lives Matter
Corrections & Clarifications: This article has been updated to clarify what board member Suzanne Thomas said in a statement she read to the board.
Two statements were all that the Hamilton Southeastern Board of Trustees had to say during a Wednesday night meeting about Black Lives Matter or a pair of controversial letters on the issue from the district’s superintendent earlier this week.
Board president Janet Pritchett started the meeting, which was preceded by a protest outside involving about two dozen Black Lives Matters supporters, with a statement "that is shared unequivocally by the majority of board members: Black lives matter."
“The letter issued by our administration Monday caused harm," Pritchett said. "While we are deeply sorry, we know that our students, teachers and community deserve more than an apology."
She said that the district should “commit work to repair relationships, restore trust and prevent this hurt in the future."
Following her statement, board member Suzanne Thomas gave a statement, in large part agreeing with Pritchett and stressing her support for Black lives.
However, she said there were two things not included that made her make her own statement.
First, she said pointing out that there is an organzation called Black Lives Matter, which she said "encourages negativity."
Thomas shared the draft statement she read from with IndyStar after the board meeting, which included that the organization also encouraged violence. However, Thomas told IndyStar on Wednesday that she intentionally left out the word violence when reading it. She said she does believe the Black Lives Matter organization has “been linked to violence.”
She said she "110% supports" Black Lives Matter the movement, however she said the division between the movement and the organization is causing confusion in the community.
An analysis of more than 7,000 events in the U.S. going back to 2017 found the organization to be largely nonviolent.
And second, she said that she and other board members were elected to serve all of the thousands of students, educators and Fishers residents.
The statements followed a pair of letters sent this week from HSE superintendent Allen Bourff to district faculty. The first urged them to treat Black Lives Matter as a political issue in the classroom and the second included an apology and said the district “will not debate the humanity of any individual."
The board didn't discuss the letters, and it wasn’t on the agenda, which prevented the topic from coming up during public comment due to a district policy. That policy is why the board cut off one of the two people signed up for public comment.
Ahead of the meeting, roughly two dozen protesters stood outside the building holding signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and calling for change in the district. And more than 4,000 people have signed a pair of petitions advocating for change for Black Lives Matter to be discussed as a social issue, not a political one.
The HSE school district has nearly 22,000 students and nearly 1,700 are Black, per data from the Indiana Department of Education. Additionally, 2% of the district’s educators, which includes teachers as well as other certified employees of the district, were Black in the 2019-20 school year, the latest data available from IDOE.
Letters to faculty about Black Lives Matter
On Monday, Bourff sent a letter to faculty saying he knows there is disagreement on whether Black Lives Matters is a social or political issue but he was urging teachers to treat it as the latter.
In the letter he outlined strategies to use "when teaching about political issues.”
However, roughly 24 hours later, Bourff apologized in a second letter to HSE faculty, saying he was not asking that teachers abandon passion for social causes or that students not express themselves.
The second letter didn’t mention teaching strategies or say if he was still asking teachers to treat Black Lives Matter as a political issue or not. While he called it a "social issue" multiple times, Bourff never used the words "political" or "politics" in the second letter.
Teachers are encouraged to use the strategies in a bullet-point list "that were outlined in the first letter to assist students as they develop their own positions on this important social issue,” HSE spokesperson Emily Pace Abbotts told IndyStar ahead of the board meeting Wednesday.
She said 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 district’s new chief equity and inclusion officer in January. However, Pettigrew is away from work due to a family matter and was not consulted on either of Bourff’s letters, Pace Abbotts said. She added that Bourff did consult several district equity coaches on the second letter.
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.
Protesting for Change
Ahead of the meeting, a group of protesters stood outside the central office in the snow, wanting to hold the district accountable and calling for change. In the crowd were organizers of two petitions.
Amber Welch, who has two kids in the district, started a Change.org petition called “Black Lives Matter is NOT political." As of Wednesday night, the petition had close to 2,000 signatures.
The petition called for three things:
- Bourff to step down immediately, rather than wait to retire in June.
- The district should re-open applications for superintendent so that “valid and worthy candidates” who are “of higher character, preferably a person of color who can lead our school into the future from a healthier perspective” can apply.
- “Current events and history need to be taught from a non-white-washed and more honest perspective.”
A second petition, "Let HSE Teachers Talk About BLM During Black History Month," had more than 2,200 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon. The petition, started by students at HSE High School, asks the school board to say that teachers can talk about Black Lives Matter. "Our Black students and teachers deserve better than to have their history silenced."
Also attending were parents, who in some cases brought their students along with them.
Sara Holmes came to the protest Wednesday night with her third-grader because she said she’s invested in what happens in the classrooms at HSE.
Black students need to know their teachers are invested in them, she said, adding that the two messages made lines blurry for teachers. Holmes added that the second message from Bourff felt like a “band-aid” and a “back pedal.”
She said she’d like to see more diversity training in the district.
Melissa and Aaron Ferris have four daughters in the district – one in seventh grade, one in third and twins in first – and came to the protest because they said the messages were disturbing to them.
Public schools should be a place where students can go and discuss issues happening in the country, Melissa Ferris said. The couple said the district’s approach to teaching Black Lives Matter impacts all students and that they’d like to see more diversity in the district both with the board and employees.
Lia Stallworth, the parent of two graduates from HSE schools, said she was there because of her personal experiences with the district.
“We care about our community,” she said, adding that it was time for the district and the school board to be held accountable for the harm happening to Black students in the district.
She read the letters from Bourff and said she understood what Bourff was trying to do, but “he bumbled it.”
Stallworth said she’d like to see the district develop more direct anti-racism policies with action steps and consequences included. And the district needs to be ready to defend that against complaints.
“People are going to push,” she said.
In the statement from the majority of the seven members on the board, Pritchett thanked the community for its feedback.
"We are committed to uniting and not further dividing our school community," she said. "We thank every student, parent and stakeholder who has written to us expressing both compliments and concerns regarding your child’s educational experience and your expectations in HSE.”
Pritchett acknowledged the different perspective, ideas and values in the district.
“We have (made) and will make mistakes both individually and collectively,” she said. “…We ask students to not view mistakes as failure but as an opportunity to learn and grow. We, as adults, also have the opportunity to model this critical life skill."
In her separate statement, Thomas, who was elected in November 2020, said that Black lives are valuable and that she supports Black history in the classrooms.
“Make no mistake, please hear me loudly: Black lives matter, Black lives do matter.” She said. “Black people and the lives they live are valuable and valued within our HSE district.”
However, she said since the other statement didn't include the two points she thought were important, she wanted to do a different statement.
While protesters were outside, no community members were able to directly speak about the topic due a school board policy that says speakers must comment on agenda items.
Jaimie Cairns, a parent in the district who leads the advocacy group HSEqual, told the board that she was there to speak on the operations plan and began by saying trust is earned and that the board and the superintendent haven't earned the trust of "many members of our community and particularly the people of color in our community.”
Cairns said that students chose virtual learning for various reasons including health, but that other reason is “because doing virtual learning, students of color can avoid the racism they experience in in-person learning.”
She added that while she knows the letters weren’t on the agenda, “students’ well-being should be on the agenda every meeting.”
Board members interrupted her twice to say she needed to stick to the operations plan, before cutting her off before she was done.
After the meeting, Cairns said she feels the policy is applied unevenly and was upset that the public didn’t have an opportunity to comment to the board, especially when the board meeting started with statements on Black Lives Matter, but that wasn’t considered on the agenda.
“It’s OK if they want to have a voice,” she said, adding that she knew she was walking a fine line by talking about race along with the operations plan, but didn’t want the board to silence the community.
Because of COVID-19, she said public comment is limited and she doesn’t know if the board will read her emails.
After the meeting, Pritchett told IndyStar that the district plans to continue to do anti-racism work in the classroom and offer resources to teachers, but “we have some work to do internally.”
She said that she wants the district to listen to Pettigrew and let her guide the way.
Complaints to the district about BLM
Bourff’s first letter 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.
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.
Bourff wrote in his second letter that when it came to the parents saying the district overstepped, he “will be able to say that our attention has been on the development of thoughtful processes enabling our students to positively influence their community.”
Alex Morales, chair of the board for the Racial Equity Community Network, said Tuesday that the organization had heard last weekend that some parents had complained about lessons that included Black Lives Matter, and RECN encouraged parents who appreciated those lessons and others about Black History Month to share that with the district.
After the first letter, RECN issued a statement condeming it and saying it was "an example of systemic racism."