GCSD reckoning with race was pushed by Black alumnae after George Floyd's death

Guilderland School Board members are all reading “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, which blends past with present as it traces the lives of five historic figures to teach young people about racism.

GUILDERLAND — The Guilderland school district is on its way to woke.

After decades of incidents of racial discrimination — several of which came to public notice when lawsuits were filed — school board members at their July 1 meeting were passionate about pursuing changes in curriculum, policy, and staff training and recruitment.

“If we do not seize this moment to make real changes, shame on all of us,” Superintendent Marie Wiles told The Enterprise on Monday.

Shortly after George Floyd, a Black man, handcuffed and lying on his belly, died beneath the knee of a Minneapolis policeman on May 25, a Guilderland High School alumna sent an email to Wiles and the school board, saying that Guilderland needed a comprehensive plan to address racism in its system.

“This was quite a difficult email to read because it hit so close to home,” said Wiles this week.

She talked to the writer, a Black woman who had graduated from Guilderland eight years before, and set up a group phone call in which Wiles, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum Demian Singleton, and three school board members — Rebecca Butterfield, Barbara Fraterrigo, and Gloria Towle-Hilt — listened to a half-dozen Guilderland graduates, all of them Black women, talk about the racism they had experienced while students in the district.

The women expressed their anger and frustration over the school’s curriculum. “They didn’t know about their own history; just the white version of history,” said Wiles. They did not know what their peers in college had been taught, and they frequently used the term “white-washed curriculum” to describe what they had been taught at Guilderland.

Wiles said that the district’s curriculum cabinets need to look at what is being taught and what is lacking. One of the alumna on the phone call said that, in the Guilderland High School course on global studies, a lot of study was devoted to Europe, a little to Asia, and nothing about Africa.

“It’s true,” said Wiles, surmising that the state Regents exam on global studies does not have one question on Africa. “What gets tested, gets done,” said Wiles.

While the course “should cover the globe,” she said, global studies is instead “blatantly focused on Europe.”

Asked if Guilderland will act on its own, apart from state guidelines, to teach more about Africa, Wiles said, “The State Education Department doesn’t exist in a vacuum.”

The Black women on the phone call also spoke of the sometimes inadequate response of adults at school when a racist comment or action was made. And, Wiles said, “They talked about the absence of teachers who looked like them. We have a very small handful of teachers of color,” said Wiles, “while we have a growing population of students of color.”

According to the State Education Department, the district has 190 African-American students, or 4 percent; 181 Hispanic students, also 4 percent; 647 Asian students, or 13 percent; 3 Native American students, or 0 percent; 169 multi-racial students, or 4 percent; and 3,617 white students, or 75 percent.

Hiring people of color to fill a variety of positions in the school, while challenging, is “high on our list of things to plan for,” said Wiles.

One of the alumna, Wiles reported, said something the district could do right away is to ban Confederate flags in the school building. “That was a powerful image that made them feel intimidated … disrupting their focus on learning,” said Wiles.

Asked where on school grounds a Confederate flag had appeared, Wiles speculated perhaps on clothing, like on a T-shirt, or hung from the back of a vehicle.

Such a ban, Wiles said, would involve “a huge discussion of First Amendment rights.” She went on, “We would have to demonstrate the speech would materially disrupt the learning environment … Now we have students who said it was an intimidating symbol. They kept quiet but it did upset them.”


Racial incidents

Over the years, The Enterprise has covered a number of racial incidents at Guilderland in which students and their parents felt the district was not responsive.

In 1996, John Birchler was teaching a 10th-grade class after a gay-awareness assembly when a student asked, “Why not call them faggots? That’s what they are.”

Birchler, who is white, pointed to Elizabeth Graham, the only African-American student in the class, and asked, “Why not call Liz a n---er … because that’s what she is? Liz, why not tell us what it feels like to be called a n---er?”

Graham was shocked and said the remark had humiliated her to the point where she could no longer trust white people.

She wanted a sincere apology. When none was forthcoming, she and her parents sued the district and Birchler. Supreme Court Justice Harold Hughs dismissed the suit, saying that “even clumsy efforts at legitimate classroom discussion were allowable.”

When the decision came out, Birchler said he felt good because freedom of speech had been upheld. “It would have been different if I had spoken hatefully — I didn’t … Other teachers felt they would be in jeopardy, too. We can all feel relieved.”

Several years later, as a college student, Graham wrote a letter to the Enterprise editor saying of Birchler, “It was like having a bleeding gun wound. He shot the gun and hit me. Yet he found it amazing that I was bleeding. He was sorry that I was hurt yet found nothing wrong with shooting the gun at me.”

Graham wrote to The Enterprise when she was 20 that, at 16, living in an “all-white community,” she had never been called a n---er. “If he made this association so quickly, did the rest of my teachers? Did the rest of my friends? And what about my peers, coaches, neighbors? They were all white. In a town that I had felt so secure in, I suddenly felt isolated and alone solely because I am Black, an irreversible characteristic,” Graham wrote.

She also wrote, “Though now, with a much stronger sense of self, I am still in the process of that healing. I ask that my community would first recognize the problem and then to mentally and spiritually join me in the healing process. Few things are done overnight. Purging racism from one’s mind is not one of them ….”

A decade later, in 2006, the Guilderland school district again felt relief when this time a federal judge dismissed a suit claiming racial discrimination.

The suit, brought by Garrett Barmore, stemmed from a 2003 incident in which two African-American students got into a fight in the school cafeteria with a white student who called them “n---er.”

The two African-American students — Barmore, who was 17 at the time, and his friend Andrew Dillon, who was 18 — were both charged with disorderly conduct, a violation, and third-degree assault, a misdemeanor. The white student, Jordan Peceri, was not charged in the incident.

Barmore’s lawyer, Paul Wein, said that, after the arrest, Barmore received death threats on his home computer; using the screen name “Death to Darkies,” the sender’s messages included white supremacist rhetoric.

“There’s a totality of circumstance … the failure to address racism at the school,” said Wein at the time. “School administrators did not do their job and they tried to make the victims pay the price for their own failure.”

The school superintendent at the time, Gregory Aidala, said at the time of the arrests, “Fighting is not going to be condoned or tolerated.”

The school resource officer at the time, Brian Forte, recalled just after the suit was dismissed that it had been difficult for him to make the arrests. “They’re both nice kids,” he said of Barmore and Dillon. They used to visit with him frequently at school — Barmore’s goal was a career in criminal justice — but the relationship “diminished” after the arrests, Forte said.

Judge Thomas J. McAvoy, in dismissing the case, reiterated four separate racially derogatory incidents directed at Barmore and concluded, “While these events constitute offensive and unacceptable behavior by students, they hardly amount to an educational environment permeated by race-based harassment, or of such severity that it would have impeded a reasonable student in Plaintiff’s shoes from accessing the educational opportunities provided at GHS.”

To hold the defendants responsible, the judge wrote, “would impose a standard requiring clairvoyance on the part of school officials ....”

“We were fair and consistent in enforcing discipline, according to our policies,” then-Superintendent Aidala said at the time.

The judge assessed $9,500 in court costs against Barmore, to be awarded to the district. Peggy Barmore, Garrett’s mother, told The Enterprise at the time that the district offered to reduce that amount if her son signed an agreement, stating he would not talk to the press; he did not sign, she said.


Why now?

Asked why Guilderland was eager to change now when earlier administrations had been unwilling, Wiles, who became Guilderland’s superintendent in 2010, said, “We’re at a watershed moment in our country. George Floyd and what happened to him just woke people up. Great numbers are starting to see there really is systemic racism that we haven’t been really appreciative of.”

She also said, “We’ve got the trifecta,” and referenced the coronavirus pandemic, economic uncertainty, and social unrest. “Maybe that’s what it takes to wake us up,” said Wiles.

An African-American mother with children in the Guilderland schools, Michelle Charles, pushed for change last year when she felt her children were being harmed by racism. She subsequently moved to a school district in Massachusetts where, she said this year, her children have “no issues at all with teachers, bus drivers, students, or curriculum.”

So, even before the racial reckoning that has swept the nation since George Floyd’s death, Guilderland had started a number of initiatives to increase awareness of the value of diversity.

One of them was to hire Stacy A. S. Williams, a cultural diversity expert, to talk with faculty about increasing their responsiveness.

Wiles described this week an exercise that Williams had done with Guilderland administrators, asking about their “lived experiences growing up,” making them aware of their privilege.

Williams asked a series of 30 questions. If the answer was yes — Did you have two parents raise you? — a paper clip would be added to a chain of clips. If the answer was no — Did you always have adequate food on the table? — a paper clip would be removed.

“I had a modest upbringing, but my chain is very long … I had a lot supporting me,” said Wiles. She has the paper-clip chain hanging on her computer. “I’m holding it now … It is really a powerful reminder some of us had more of a head start.”

Wiles says she has come to understand that “things built into our system create genuine barriers. That’s the lesson white people have to learn,” she said.


What’s ahead?

Wiles noted that the Guilderland community is predominantly white and predominantly privileged. The school board, she noted, had already set goals on understanding and appreciating diversity but now, Wiles said, there is “a much more profound level of urgency about the work.”

At the July 1 school board meeting, Gloria Towle-Hilt, newly elected the board’s vice president, spoke of what she’d learned in the “powerful hour-and-a-half” of listening on the phone call with the recent Black graduates.

A retired Farnsworth Middle School teacher, Towle-Hilt said, “There’s so much we miss, we don’t know what’s going on. Just hearing some of their stories, some of it was heartbreaking because we have our ideas of how things are going and then you hear from a kid who is now grown up what it was like, how difficult it was for them, and some of the issues they had to deal with we were never aware of.”

Towle-Hilt said the district should “provide people that will listen and will validate what students are telling us.”

Butterfield, who was also on the call, said, “I thought it was so courageous of them to come forward with their individual stories.”

Board member Kelly Person said, “There’s a lot of work to do.” She suggested forming a committee of parents, teachers, and students.

Wiles said she felt strongly about creating “a group of stakeholders that represent our school community and perhaps the community at large to think about a more comprehensive plan on how we address this issue.”

In addition to changing curriculum and hiring practices, Wiles said another idea to explore is hiring an “equity officer who can serve not only as an engine behind this task force but also … as a liaison to students, as a resource for students who may not feel like they know who to go to when they have been on the receiving end of some racist comment or experience.”

Seema Rivera, the newly re-elected board president, said, “I’ve seen equity officers at schools and universities and it ends up being … the people that are interested are the ones that are coming, and the ones that could maybe use some help are not coming.”

She suggested making equity issues part of the board’s goal-setting process.

“It’s great to have goals but we need to act as well,” said Singleton.

Board member Blanca Parker noted it was a long time to the next board meeting, in August, and asked, “Do we want to lose the momentum?”

“I think this is pretty firmly in people’s minds and hearts right now,” said board member Judy Slack.

“Being on that phone call was eye-opening for me,” said Fraterrigo. “Would it be possible … for the rest of the community to at least see a summary of some of the concerns that the young ladies shared?”

She added that she was “thrown for a loop with some of the things that happened.”

“None of that stuff surprised me,” said Rivera who is herself a woman of color.

“Could it cause harm to the students if it was a painful memory or in some way stigmatize them?” asked Blanca Parker.

Wiles said she would work with the district’s publicist to come up with a page about equity for Guilderland’s website. “I would want to get an OK from these young ladies,” said Wiles, and the web page would probably not use any names — neither the names of the women sharing their experiences nor the names of current staff  members who were cited in some of the incidents, she said.

“I hope we reach out to community resources … It’s an area of growth the district needs to do together,” said Blanca Parker.

Wiles concluded this week, “This is more than just about Guilderland Central School District. It’s about our larger community … The conversation has to extend to our larger community. I welcome everyone to be courageous and dive in …

“I think this is how we move forward as a nation and as a community. I always talk about ‘We’re here for all kids.’ I want to make sure we’re here equally for all kids.”

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