Nearly a month ago, a racist online threat prompted Charlottesville City Schools to close.
The immediate response was to increase security measures. But parents are concerned about how the threat fits into a larger question regarding how students are being taught about diversity and inclusion.
Earlier this month, Matt Haas, superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools, read a letter of apology from João Pedro Souza Ribeiro, the 17-year-old student who pleaded guilty of making the threat, and also addressed the security measures. In the same presentation, Haas described security measures the district is considering, such as installing buzzers at Monticello High School by the end of the school year and offering a reward of up to $300 for those whose tips about threats lead to an arrest.
Kim Powell, assistant superintendent of Charlottesville schools, said the district has pursued over the past five years $100,000 to $150,000 a year to improve security systems. It plans to make upgrades at Charlottesville High, Buford Middle and Walker Upper Elementary schools by the end of May.
Although school safety has become a national concern, Haas said the district doesn’t simply address it by adding cameras or locking doors.
“Those are good things to do to make things more secure, but it’s very important to work with students and help them grow in an environment where they feel secure and respect the needs of other students,” he said.
He added that one way to expose students to diversity is by having a more diverse staff, explaining the district’s partnership with the African American Teaching Fellows program, which has a goal of increasing the number of black teachers.
Tamara Dias, executive director for AATF, said all students need diverse role models.
“It’s important for you to have teachers of color because you are going into a world that’s diverse,” Dias said. “It’s important that students have the opportunity to engage with not [just] students, but teachers who are different than them.”
Initiatives to expose students to diversity
A parent at the recent news conference expressed concerns about the schools’ efforts in implementing programs to teach students about racial discrimination and inclusion.
Annie Evans, world studies coordinator for Charlottesville schools, said students are exposed to a curriculum that highlights diversity starting in kindergarten. Second-graders go on field trips to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and Evans noted that when she was a child, the tour didn’t discuss slavery directly. The tour has been redesigned, allowing students to ask questions about what they’re curious about.
“We’re being more honest about who lived at Monticello, not just some people who lived at Monticello,” Evans said, adding after the tour, students create art pieces and write reflective essays.
She stressed she’s seen the impact that the tour has had on students who’ve gone at a young age because they don’t feel uncomfortable talking about race or slavery by the time they advance to middle school.
“The kids feel they’ve talked about this in second grade to fourth grade, so it’s not that awkward,” she said.
Other initiatives include students volunteering at the Jefferson School City Center, allowing them to do research on local history, conduct research on community bridge builders and a project on Angie Thomas’ novel “The Hate U Give.” The book has been added to the ninth-grade curriculum.
“There’s always a layer in talking about there was lots of different people who made America what it is,” she said.
Anne Ernst, a Charlottesville High School library media specialist, said juniors participated in an essay contest sponsored by the Jefferson School. The writing prompts involved topics on slavery, education and the Jim Crow era. The first, second and third place won $3,000, $2,000 and $1,000, respectively.
“I’m always looking for opportunities to buy bilingual books — and books that represent non-white cultures,” she said.
Ernst said she works with the dual enrollment senior class, which conducts a cultural research and a legacy research project. The goal is to create some sort of social action that they can put out into the world.
Ernst said she understands sometimes people have privacy concerns when they’re exploring difficult issues, such as sexuality, proper ways to respond to a friend who’s alcoholic or has parents going through a divorce. They might not want to carry a book around, she said. So, she purchases e-books that include topics on suicide and depression, immigration and legal issues.
“I’m always on the lookout for new authors, and how I can bring these books to our community,” Ernst said.
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