School Board eyes equity statement on inclusion

By Ruthann Carr

After almost five hours of deliberating a hybrid start at its Oct. 14 meeting, the School Board got a first look at an “Equity Statement” (see sidebar) crafted by a 40-plus member task force.

Don Stribling, executive director for human resources, operations, and student services, directed the task force and presented the statement.

Charles Rittenhouse, (Cunningham) asked: “Why was it a necessity for this? I mean we already have anti-discrimination policies in there.”

Stribling said it wasn’t a necessity nor was it being presented as a policy, just a statement.

Rittenhouse said, “So just pretty much about any group can come up with a statement and present it to the public schools?”

“I assume they could request it,” Stribling said.

James Kelley (Palmyra) and Shirley Stewart (Rivanna) wanted to know if everyone on the task force agreed with the final statement.

Stribling said some members wanted different language, but all signed off on the version presented to the Board.

Andrew Pullen (Columbia) weighed in.

“I do not disagree with the statement…what I do question is the timeline, the intent, the reasoning,” he said. “I believe the committee is too large and there was a lot of political activism rather than reason on the committee. In fact, in the first meeting, I was not thrilled at all with the level of political activism.”

Pullen and Chair Perrie Johnson (Fork Union) both served on the task force. Neither attended the third and final meeting.

Pullen agreed with Rittenhouse that Fluvanna schools already have codes of conduct policies that address hiring practices, anti-discrimination and how to report it.

“In my three and a half years I’ve never seen a report of discrimination within the schools, have you?”

Stribling said, “Yes. There are informal ways to come to a resolution on that.”

Pullen said several of the members of the committee had been in the schools for years and seen many positive changes.

“To see the changes they’ve seen and the progress they’ve made and for someone to suggest there’s systemic racism in the schools, I think it bothered them. Do you believe there is systemic racism in the schools as some suggested?”

Stribling said, “I’ve seen research and there is literature that shows structures that there is a case for that.”

Pullen suggested again the group was too large, and he had some issues with theories of restorative justice and well-meaning policies that address it and fail. But he didn’t want the group to disband, wanting them to keep working on specific issues that need addressing, such as discipline.

“We have to understand that you cannot create policy or legislation that removes hate from people’s hearts,” Pullen said. “If there is systemic racism in the schools, why has this not been brought to us until it became politically necessary after some terrible events this summer,” Pullen said.

After this discussion and before the meeting ended, during Board comments, Kelley noted the late hour.

“I will say if not for it being 11:30, Andrew and I would be going toe-to-toe on his language related to diversity and inclusion. I don’t understand how you can at the same time at one side argue we don’t need it at all and on the other side make overtures saying you hope it continues as a working group. I sat in this room when you told me you hadn’t heard of white privilege until this year. I also continue to think that anytime someone disagrees with you, you paint it as political activism instead of having differing opinions. I think that minimizes and isn’t helpful to the conversation.”

Pullen said, “I still to this day don’t know what white privilege is. I’ve never experienced it. I’ve worked hard for everything I’ve gotten.”

“And that speaks volumes,” Kelley said.

Pullen said: “Nobody’s given me a damn thing in my life. I’ve worked for everything. And anyone in this room who knows me – Mr. Rittenhouse knows – I came from absolutely nothing and it had nothing to do with white privilege and I stand by that and we can move on.”

Kelley asked, “Do you think that how you look has nothing to do with how people perceive you?”

“No,” Pullen said.

At that point Johnson cut off the discussion for a motion to adjourn.

While the vote was taken, Pullen gathered his things, got up and walked out.

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