Silence breeds intolerance in our schools

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“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

— John F. Kennedy, 1961, who erroneously attributed it to Edmund Burke.

By Mike McGann, Editor, the Times

utmikecollogo-copyAs I sat and listened a Board of Education meeting for two hours of discussion about the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District’s largely exceptional standardized testing scores, a week ago, which followed a mere 10 minutes or so, albeit contentious ones, about the continuing issue of minorities being harassed in schools since the election of Donald J. Trump as president, the above quote came to mind.

For the second straight week, an East Asian-American parent came forward to offer concerns about incidents involving students of differing color and or religion in the district’s schools, citing five specific events that occurred. Understand, too, that these sort of incidents are like roaches — if you see one, it means there’s probably lot more you haven’t seen. Also, keep in mind, not everything that leads to fear happens in school — I’ve heard accounts of incidents in everything from youth sports to encounters at the supermarket.

In short, the dogs of racial and ethnic intolerance have been let loose to cry havoc — and we can either accept that and take action or pretend it isn’t happening. It appears too many local school districts are opting for the latter.

When UCF Board of Education Director Michael Rock suggested that “I don’t think we’re listening…” related to the parent who spoke Monday night, he was cut off by Superintendent of Schools John Sanville, who argued that the district’s buildings have shown good numbers in recent climate studies and the effectiveness of the Olweus anti-bullying program has dramatically cut bullying down.

Arguably true, just not factually so.

First off, Olweus typically has been shown to work best when started with younger students — the vast majority of the students currently in Unionville High School never encountered Olweus until middle school at the earliest. And even then, because of poor buy-in by faculty (as recently as a couple of years ago many members of the middle school teaching staff didn’t think the program worthy of class time and openly derided it in front of students) it is questionable at best whether the program really has taken hold for the students in the high school. Keep in mind, before Olweus was put in place, there were fairly broad denials that bullying was even an issue in the schools (it was — and to some extend is).

Second, the climate study is a cheerleading document. While most people agree that the UCF schools are excellent, few argue that they are perfect, with a number of social and instructional issues remaining. There are those who fear retaliation from coming forward with criticism (in fairness, not a reasonable fear, but one none the less often repeated to me), or others who don’t want to rock the boat. In short, a lot of people tell school officials what they want to hear.

But what they need to hear is this: we have stressed kids, angry kids, ignored kids and clearly, some scared kids. We ignore that at our peril.

Now, this isn’t to suggest that the school leaders don’t care — and it’s far from fair to single out UCF, as I’ve heard anecdotal accounts of similar and even worse issues elsewhere (Latino students, in another district, were allegedly told by teachers they were getting deported). But I do think school administrators can end up in a bubble that creates a feedback loop to reinforce a specific point of view — an all too common problem these days in the wider world.

And make no mistake, it’s all but impossible to change the thinking of all of the kids who come to school echoing their parents’ racial and ethnic biases. There will be moments out of control, out of hearing and out of sight.

Those kids take their cues from their parents, not teaching staff or administration.

These folks with less than tolerant views keep making their presence known.

Let us not forget that in another Chester County district we have a school board director who has vocally spoken out against the rights of gay students during board meetings more than once and there are families in Unionville and elsewhere in the county who have sent their children for gay conversion therapy. Others hold clear bias against Muslims, Latinos, Asians and yes, even African-Americans.

Yes, the intolerant makes up a tiny, tiny minority. But it only takes a drop of poison in a glass of water to kill you and hate is the deadliest of poisons.

So what can we do?

We have to tell these kids — loudly and publicly — that we stand with them. They need to know we care and we will defend them. And that starts at the top. We need our school leaders to speak boldly, forcefully to support these kids. We also need community leaders to step forward and lead on this issue.

What would I say, were it my position?

“This is your home — our shared home. You make us better and stronger and we value you. The ability of America to take and integrate different cultures and beliefs and become better for it is the single thing that makes us special. Don’t let the ignorance of a few make you forget that.

“We will always stand with you and see you as brothers and sisters. You are America.”

Hate is a poison. Don’t let it kill us.

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