Discussion on school board social justice letter leads to heated debate

THREE RIVERS — A discussion on drafting and approving a letter from the Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education addressing social justice turned heated between a few board members during Monday’s meeting.

The topic of the letter was originally brought up during the July 6 meeting of the board. The letter, which was eventually tabled by the board, showed support for those who have “peacefully and constructively” protested the death of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who died in police custody on May 25, and asked that “fellow citizens, locally and nationally, work together to end the systemic racism that exists in this country.”

During the July 6 meeting, some board members, including Board Vice President Dan Ryan and Trustee Linda Baker, said while it was good to have a letter, they expressed concern about its “aggressive” tone, as well as the lack of reference to the district’s strategic plan and its goals for diversity and inclusion.

The discussion during Monday’s meeting started peacefully, with discourse about the letter itself, the language included in it, and who it ultimately should be written by. Ryan then reiterated his concerns about the original letter, saying although he had no problems with the principle of the letter, as it was written, it could be seen as “anti-police,” and that the strategic planning committee was the most appropriate place to discuss the issue going forward. The original drafted letter does not specifically make mention of the police.

Ryan, referencing the tabled draft’s commitment to “providing all students an education in racial and cultural differences,” said he wasn’t sure that adding anything to the curriculum was a good idea at this time, and that the strategic planning committee should be the ones discussing the issues of social and racial justice in the district moving forward.

“Since the strategic planning committee already made a commitment toward diversity, that this is the perfect forum to address this issue and come up with other equity initiatives,” Ryan said.

Ryan then said he’s worried the board could be venturing into the “political arena” if the district adopts any curriculum changes when it comes to racism.

“I understand fully the concern, not just locally but on a national level. I was just concerned about the language of it,” Ryan said. “I think we’re venturing into the political arena, which I think we have no business doing so. I think we potentially could alienate some parents and families because of this if we were to initiate a curriculum talking about racism.”

The discussion started to become heated when the curriculum was further discussed. Ryan said it was brought to his attention that there was “concern” around the Harper Lee novel “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and claimed that there was an effort to “ban [the book] from our curriculum.” He said there were many reasons why it was a good book to keep around.

“It is on the [Advanced Placement]-approved reading list, along with ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ by the way. It’s won a Pulitzer Prize. It inspired a movie that won an Academy Award, and we read this in a high school class, followed with a discussion that stimulated discussion about racial injustice, not only that, but gender roles and gender inequities, along with tolerance, compassion, and loss of innocence. Perfect themes to have a learning class discussion about,” Ryan said.

The notion that there was an effort to ban the book was refuted by Board Secretary Anne Riopel. Riopel said it wasn’t that the district wanted to ban the book, the problem was that “students don’t know how to handle the language of the book.”

“The education is to teach them about not laughing when you hear the n-word, or not laughing when you hear some of the things that occur in that book,” Riopel said. “It’s not that you want to ban the book, you want students to understand the inherent racism of it.”

Later in the meeting, Moag said he had only had “conversations” about the book with both Riopel and Three Rivers High School Principal Carrie Balk, but said there was no directive about not teaching it, saying “that’s where [the conversation] stayed.”

Ryan said the book could be handled “skillfully” by classroom teachers, and said it could be a “perfect way to segue into talking about racism and injustice in this country that existed in the mid-1930s and still exists today.”

Riopel reiterated her point to Ryan, saying the “whole idea” was to teach students “how to handle the comments.”

“For example, to have students in a classroom that laugh every time the n-word is said, then you know that students haven’t had the cultural training that they need,” Riopel said.

Ryan then asked where students would get that kind of cultural training.

“Martin Luther King gave his life for this, and it didn’t change that,” Ryan said. “Are we as the Three Rivers school system going to do this for students? Should this not come from parents? Should this not come from the community itself along with education? When is this going to happen? As I say, with a skillful teacher, they can talk about these sensitive issues with students. That’s what teachers are for. That’s what education is all about.”

Trustee Kevin Hamilton then chimed in on the conversation, and said he was the one who originally brought up the book with Moag. He said the n-word is used in “To Kill A Mockingbird” “about 48 or 49 times,” and shared an incident he had about a group of Black students in Three Rivers that came to him and said they were uncomfortable with other students’ reactions to the n-word when they read the book.

“They were pissed off, because every time that word was said in the classroom, they felt uncomfortable because kids were sitting back laughing, and they got to the point where they refused to do the work,” Hamilton said. “I totally get how you would feel that way, because you don’t have to worry about that. It’s frustrating to not have an answer for those young men.”

Ryan, who was still not convinced that the district was not trying to ban the book, claimed Hamilton wanted to “erase all literature that has the n-word.” Ryan then asked Hamilton why the n-word in literature was not allowed, but was acceptable “in conversations between young Black men on Facebook,” using both versions of the n-word in bringing up those examples.

After a few more seconds of Ryan and Hamilton talking over each other, Nowak brought the discussion to an end, reining in both Ryan and Hamilton. Julia Awe then asked whether or not the board took up a vote to ban the book, with Riopel saying there was not. Moag said having these types of conversations helps the board “move forward.”

“I hope you guys get comfortable with this discourse, because moving forward, having these conversations, that’s where we move forward,” Moag said. “With all the stuff going on, I really haven’t thought a lot about it. I saw firsthand [the Capital Hill Occupied Protest] out in Seattle, and the movements going on out there just about every other night. I’ll never begin to put anybody else’s shoes on, because I’ll try to understand, and I think that’s what we’re after here.”

Nowak said she would draft a new letter with board member input, and implored board members to give her their thoughts to have a letter ready to be finalized by their next regular meeting on Aug. 17.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

Three Rivers Commercial-News

124 North Main Street
Box 130
Three Rivers, MI 49093

Telephone: 269-279-7488
Fax: 269-279-6007
General email: info@threeriversnews.com