A group of parents who have been working to increase cultural awareness and improve race relations in the Shawnee Mission School District the past four years told new Superintendent Mike Fulton and the Board of Education on Monday that the time to act has come.
Formed in 2015 in response to concerns about students of color facing discriminatory comments and actions at SM East, the group has been working for more than a year on a formal plan to improve diversity and inclusion efforts across the district.
The plan the group has put together includes 11 recommendations that reflect best practices employed at public institutions and private businesses.
Among the recommendations are the creation of a fully staffed office of diversity; hiring parent/school liaisons on diversity issues; and pro-actively working to cultivate a base of employees that better reflects the demographics of the district’s student.
If implemented, the group says, the plan would not only help improve the learning environment, but also “reduce SMSD’s exposure to liability from investigations, negative public relations and lawsuits by students, families, employees and taxpayers.”
During the open comment portion of Monday’s board meeting, a half dozen members of the group implored the district’s leaders to do more than pay lip service to diversity and inclusion efforts, referencing the recent negative publicity the Blue Valley School District has received after a former student sued for racial discrimination saying that she was was told she was “too dark” for the BV Northwest dance team as evidence of the risks the district faces.
Janet Williams is the mother of two African American daughters enrolled at SM East. Williams, who is white, told the board on Monday that she and her daughters have had a difficult time navigating issues of race at the school.
“What happens when someone says something hateful to somebody, where do they go, who do they reach out to? Time and time again they’ve been told, ‘That didn’t really happen,’ or it is just really, really diminished,” Williams said. “I’m just urging you, and begging you, at this point, to please step up and do something now. You need to show the families of color in this district that you support them.”
Looking to new superintendent for change
The group had seen the arrival of Mike Fulton as superintendent as a prime window of opportunity for Shawnee Mission to take meaningful action to address the racial environment at the district and address rapidly changing demographics. Fulton had led an effort to address changing demographics during his time at the Pattonville School District in the St. Louis area.
Fulton acknowledged the issue on Monday, pointing to the district’s hiring of an internal counsel as a move that was in line with the group’s recommendations and noting that the district was undertaking an extensive strategic planning process in which these issues would be further examined. He also said the district would be working to provide expanded cultural sensitivity training opportunities to staff, and that it would be adding a Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator position to the Student and Family Services office.
But the group’s members hinted that, after years of behind-the-scenes talks with administrators, they were looking for more.
Debbie Williams, whose sons graduated from SM East and who is a founding member of the diversity and inclusion group, recalled Fulton’s appearance during the superintendent interviews last year.
“I heard a candidate who talked about producing proficient learners, responsible citizens, and college and career ready students,” Williams said. “And I stand here to tell you that I believe that the diversity and inclusion plan that this group has put together will help this district do that. And I am so proud to be a member of the group that will stand side-by-side with the candidate who said that is how he wanted our district to turn out.”