After Black Lives Matter letters spark outcry, HSE Schools slate racial justice town hall
Hamilton Southeastern Schools will have a virtual racial justice town hall later this month.
The district announced the event, scheduled for 7 to 8:15 p.m. March 23, on Thursday. It will be via Zoom and include breakout room discussions. Attendance is limited to 300 people, per capacity limits on Zoom, HSE spokesperson Emily Pace Abbotts said.
The town hall is the first community event for the public to comment to the district on diversity, equity and inclusion since Superintendent Allen Bourff wrote a pair of letters about how to teach Black Lives Matter nearly a month ago.
"Are you interested in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) work? Would you like to engage in a critical dialogue about racial challenges in our schools, student identity and a sense of belonging? Join us for a special Town Hall via Zoom," a flyer from HSE reads.
Per the flyer, the event is for "parents with an interest in equity and inclusion practices." However, Pace Abbotts said anyone in the school community can attend.
She said she expects that the superintendent and other district leaders will attend, but since the since the event was just announced, it is too early to confirm. She said school board members were invited as well.
The town hall will be facilitated by Nataki Pettigrew, the district's chief equity and inclusion officer, along with equity coaches from the district, according to the flyer.
Superintendent wrote letters about Black Lives Matter
Last month, Bourff wrote a pair of letters about Black Lives Matter 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 letters sparked outcry from the HSE community who started a pair of petitions and protested outside of a HSE school board meeting in support of Black Lives Matter. Many said they were hurt and disappointed in the letters and that Black Lives Matter is an issue of humanity, not politics. Community members also called for more diversity within the district staff including at the superintendent level and doubted the district's commitment to Black Lives Matter as a movement.
HSE has nearly 22,000 students and almost 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.
HSE hired Pettigrew in January. However, she was away from work due to a family matter and not consulted on either of Bourff’s letters, Emily Pace Abbotts, HSE spokesperson previously said. She added that Bourff did consult several district equity coaches on the second letter.
Pace Abbotts said the town hall will help Pettigrew understand the issues the district is facing and hear from the community, and called it a listening and learning session. She added that it’s also an opportunity to know who wants to get involved for the long-term.
After the letters, the HSE school board issued a pair of statements on the topic at a board meeting that same week in February.
School board president Janet Pritchett read a statement she said was from a majority of the board that stressed the importance of Black lives, and said that students, teachers and the community deserve more than an apology.
Pritchett said the district should “commit work to repair relationships, restore trust and prevent this hurt in the future."
A second statement was read by board member Suzanne Thomas and echoed the importance of Black lives. However, Thomas pointed out in the statement she read that while she supports Black Lives Matter the movement, she did not support the organization.
While the school board gave statements at the beginning of their meeting that was the same week as the letters from Bourff, they did not accept public comment regarding the letters or diversity, equity and inclusion. The board cited a policy that public comment is only allowed on agenda items and those items were not on the agenda.
HSE requires town hall registration
The HSE school board is currently in the selection process for the district's next superintendent as Bourff previously announced his retirement, slated for June 30.
Interviews started last month and the board is expected to announce the next district leader later this month.
Per a timeline posted to the district’s website, the town hall will be the day before a school board meeting where the next superintendent’s contract will be discussed and roughly a week before the next superintendent is announced.
Each week, Bourff records an update video for the district, and in his video last week, he said the district has had a period of "reflection and discussion" on current issues related to Black History Month and Black Lives Matter, which was "catalyzed" by his letter.
After previously calling Black Lives Matter a political issue and then calling it a social issue, Bourff said in the video that Black Lives Matter is a "national movement and an American cause" that is more than political, but a social and humanitarian cause.
He also brought up that the district will be asking to hear concerns and solutions related to equity and inclusion.
A student forum at each of the high schools will be this month as well and one for teachers will be later in the semester, Pace Abbotts said. She said there will also be more opportunities for parents as well.
HSE is requiring registration for the town hall. You can register here: t.ly/Qtjv.