DURHAM/MIDDLEFIELD — After a number of incidents of racial discrimination and bullying in the district, parents and community members have expressed mixed opinions about the district’s plan to have a speaker on equity and racial justice lead a day-long event at Coginchaug High School.
The speaker, Calvin Terrell, is scheduled to lead the event on May 3, which will include a two-hour assembly in the morning with the sixth through 12th graders. In the afternoon, Terrell will meet with teachers and staff for a training session, and in the evening, he will hold an event that parents and community members will be able to attend.
Superintendent Doug Schuch said in a Board of Education meeting on Wednesday that he had decided to host an event at the school after speaking with students in the aftermath of incidents of racism that happened at the high school over the last two months.
“I’ve had the opportunity to hear the actual stories of a number of our learners, and I’ve begun to understand more clearly how they have felt since the time they entered our schools in elementary school simply because of the color of their skin,” he said. “These stories are heartbreaking and difficult to hear.”
Schuch told CT Examiner that he had spoken to high school students who told him about feeling left out or not fully included by their peers because of their racial background. Schuch said that these students had described feeling this way since elementary school.
“I think what was most sad about it was that they just kind of accepted it as ‘this is just how things are in our schools,’” he said.
Schuch said that although the district recently adopted an equity policy, he believes the district needs to go further. He said that the students had asked that the district do something before the end of this year that would bring together as many students as possible to discuss issues of bullying and discrimination.
“I believe that we have an obligation to make our schools safe and nurturing environments for all of our learners, and to make them feel respected and appreciated for who they are as individuals. That’s number one. And number two is that we aren’t currently meeting this obligation for all of our learners. We haven’t for a very long time,” said Schuch.
Schools around the country have been grappling with questions about how to teach about race. Schuch said that he felt that what made Region 13 different from many other districts was the lack of racial diversity in the area. Preparing the students to succeed in a diverse world, Schuch said, was the district’s responsibility.
In Region 13, concerns about racism in the district rose to the surface in February after a student at the middle school was the subject of racist comments, the use of the ‘n’ word and racist threats. Since then, Schuch told CT Examiner, there have been a series of smaller racial incidents at the middle and high schools that have resulted in students being disciplined, including with suspensions.
“I think what happened is, since the incident at the middle school, there’s just been kind of a heightened awareness of – a lot of stuff goes on and doesn’t get reported,” said Schuch.
While all the parents agreed that the bullying needed to be addressed, not all parents agreed that Terrell was the correct person to lead the event. The majority of the concerns they expressed centered around Terrell’s social media posts, which some parents characterized as divisive.
Parent Frank Amirault cited a social media post in which Terrell wrote that “white lies matter more than Black lives.”
“I don’t think this guy is right for our kids,” said Amirault. “I don’t like the message. It’s divisive.”
Schuch told CT Examiner that the district had increased training for teachers about their obligation to report bullying and discrimination. But to really address this issue, Schuch said he believed that there would have to be more than just enhanced discipline — there has to be a deeper cultural shift in how students relate to one another. That prompted the decision to bring in Terrell.
Terrell is the founder of the Social Centric Institute, an “equity consulting business,” where he has worked for 25 years. Terrell offers talks and workshops that teach people about racism and implicit bias, in addition to facilitating dialogue in communities that have experienced division due to racism or injustice.
According to his biography, he has worked with various universities, tribal groups, city and state governments
w, including the City of Flagstaff, Arizona, the Minnesota Department of Education and the Connecticut State Education Resource Center, which he has partnered with for 15 years.
Schuch said Terrell was chosen at the suggestion of the State Education Resource Center, which has partnered with Region 13 in its work on equity, and which led focus groups of the district’s middle and high school students in 2019 and this past fall.
Michelle LeBrun-Griffin, a consultant with the resource center, said that she had heard Terrell lead a number of events at the regional and state level and that he was an exceptional choice, able to connect with students and help them recognize the similarities and differences in their experiences.
“There is something very special and very unique about Calvin Terrell,” said LeBrun-Griffin. “He is a human being who permeates harmony and unity.”
The district is paying Terrell $6,000 to host the event, which covers speaker fees, hotel fees and meals. The funds will be paid out of a Title IV federal grant, which is used to promote an environment for “safe and healthy students” and give “access to a well-rounded education.”
Several students who attended the meeting spoke strongly in favor of having Terrell come and speak at their school.
Sophia Stephan, a sophomore representing the Coginchaug Alliance for Racial Equity, or CARE, said the group had sent an email to the board on Sunday with a list of incidents at the school that students had reported, as well as a list of “big-picture goals,” and a request to have stricter disciplinary measures put in place. They also asked to have more speakers like Terrell come to the school.
“I believe that we are able to recognize and comprehend our own thoughts from someone else’s. It makes sense that we should be able to receive information from all different experts,” she said. “I feel that kids, especially middle and high schoolers, could not and should not be protected from the prejudices of the world forever, especially those concerning their own privileges. Learning from the mistakes of the past is how we make positive changes for the future.”
Ariana Eddinger, an 8th grader at Strong Middle School who is also a member of CARE, said there had been incidents of racism in the district for years, and that the students who made racist remarks rarely faced repercussions.
“I personally have heard the ‘n’ word being said multiple times and other racial slurs being mentioned to people of color, and it’s in a way being normalized — which is absolutely not okay,” she said.
Parents who spoke at the meeting were split down the middle about whether Terrell should be allowed to lead the event for the students.
All of the parents who spoke at the meeting agreed that something needed to be done about the bullying happening in the schools. The main objections to having Terrell speak had to do with Terrell’s social media posts, which some parents saw as divisive.
“I read on his social media and I’m very appalled by it. I agree that the students might need some guidance but I also want to say that he’s not for our community,” said Durham resident Donna Reed.
Board members, while praising Terrell’s speaking ability and his message of unity, also expressed concerns about the social media posts.
“He was well-vetted, he was well-recommended but his social media comments don’t seem to jive with your words of harmony, healing, unity and community,” said Board Chair Lucy Petrella.
“I think from the pieces I’ve been able to hear of him he sounds like a phenomenal speaker … I think that he has a great message. Unfortunately I feel that … because of the social media posts, it has caused such a divide already that I am concerned,” said board member Maura Caramanello.
Terrell himself attended the meeting to answer questions. He explained that he used social media as a tool to provoke white supremicist and neo-nazi groups into having a dialogue with him about issues of race.
“Social media … It’s never been about real life. It’s about provocation, and I use it to provoke these conversations,” he said.
Schuch said that, at Terrell’s suggestion, the district would have an opt-out option for students who did not want to attend the presentation. Several board members said they were concerned that the students who opted out would be singled out by their peers. Caramanello said she was concerned that the students whose families kept them out of the event were the students who really needed to attend.
Audree Kane, a parent from Durham, said she would be keeping her two sons home on the day of Terrell’s talk. She referenced several YouTube videos of Terrell speaking, including one in which he asked middle school students to imagine that their loved ones were shot by a gunman, and another in which he said that “we need to get white folks off the pedestal and Black people out of the pit to meet on the field of justice.”
“It just seems like the school, or the district … it seems like they feel the responsibility is on their shoulders to educate our children on racial issues, social inequities and whatnot and in my opinion that is the responsibility of the parents, not the school,” said Kane.
Terrell said the situation in Amherst was “one negative in thousands,” and that it partially happened because the administration had not followed his protocol for the talk.
But Terrell said he understood the concerns that parents were expressing.
“What I hear from a lot of people is the concern of the wellbeing of their children. And that’s valid, that’s very valid,” he said.
At the same time, he said that he believed the children were ready to talk about these issues.
“I think people have a very low expectation of white children. They do not think white children can develop the mental emotional and maybe even spiritual fortitude that non-white children have been forced to develop in this society. And so putting white kids in a bubble … is not going to help them be globally literate.”
Terrell said he has spoken in multiple districts in Connecticut, including Groton, Simsbury, Avon, Hartford and West Hartford. He said his message included looking at the historical roots of racism in the country, but also “the possibility of humankind.” He said his talk focuses on the idea of respect, a word that breaks down to mean “to look again.” He said he asks the students to take a second look at their own lives, their initial thoughts about the people around them and the way that prejudice has shaped the lenses that people use to view the world.
“We don’t have to blow out each other’s candles to make others burn brighter. And that is what’s happening right now,” he said.
Not all parents expressed opposition to the district’s choice of speaker. Heidi Johnson, a Durham parent, said she was looking forward to Terrell’s speaking engagement.
“As a family, what we consider is whether our discomfort as a white family is more or less important than the needs of kids in school – kids of color who are experiencing negative interactions with peers,” she said. “I think some discomfort is going to be necessary for us to move forward.”
Another parent from Durham who spoke in favor of the event said her son, as a minority student, had negative experiences while he was in the district’s schools.
“He has come out of school with the impression that everyone in this town is a racist. And that makes me really sad. Because that’s not what I wanted for my child,” she said. “I do believe that it is the parents’ job to teach their kid at home, but unfortunately what a lot of these students are being taught is quite frankly disgusting.”
Board member Robert Moore also said he was in favor of Terrell’s event, particularly after hearing the perspective of the students.
“Working with the students who have come forth from the wellbeing committee, they are very ready to handle this conversation,” he said. “You have to raise some issues for you to talk about this. Otherwise it’s just passed over.”
Schuch said the decision to go forward with the event was mainly driven by the students.
“They are asking for this to be done. So I totally take any criticism about maybe this wasn’t the perfect person or the perfect time or the perfect communication … but I applaud all of us that we are willing to do this work, because it is such important work.”
Board members said they wished the board had been included in the vetting process for the speaker, and Petrella said she wanted the Board to be notified in advance as part of that process in the future. However, she also said that ultimately, the decision to bring Terrell in rested with the district and not with the Board.
Petrella and other board members emphasized that they wanted Terrell to be the first of multiple speakers who would come to the district.
“Mr. Terrell is one person, one opinion. And for our students to be global students I look at this as just a beginning because issues need to be looked at from various perspectives, not just one perspective,” said Petrella.