Board Of Education Hears First Reading Of Anti-Racism Statement, Clarifies Actions On Challenged Books

(Photo By Ross Benson)

The Burbank Board of Education heard the first reading of Burbank Unified School District’s Anti-Racism Statement, an update on distance learning and attendance, reports from student reps and responded to some concerns from the community during Public Comments during their regular meeting on Thursday, October 1.

Assistant Superintendent of Educational Services John Paramo gave the first reading of the proposed District Anti-Racism Statement. BUSD has been working with the community, through the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Committee, to “identify areas where the district can improve.”

“The Policy subcommittee [of the DEI] has been working on an anti-racist statement. While the district is not ready to create an anti-racist policy yet, the committee believes that a public statement regarding the vision for Burbank Unified School District to become Anti-Racist in practice and policy is critical.”

The statement is “100% reflective of our community members and stakeholders” on the committee, said Paramo.

The first reading of the BUSD Anti-Racism Statement is: The Burbank Unified School District officially denounces racism as the product of white default/supremacy culture and recognizes the impact of systemic and generational racism as traumatic to our country, community, and school district. In light of continuing racial violence, including the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Andres Guardado, Dijon Kizzee, and many others, we also recognize that Black people in this country have had a unique and traumatic history in terms of racial relations, equality, and equity. We stand with the truthful and humane statement that all lives cannot matter until Black lives and the lives of indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) matter. We are taking steps to actively work towards being fully anti-racist, not only in word, but also in policy, practice, and accountability. Change is rarely easy, but with the support and cooperation of the entire Burbank school community we know that we will reflect a district that is truly unified.

Board members asked a few questions and gave feedback on the statement to Paramo.

Burbank Unified School District office. (Photo By Ross Benson)

Two women spoke during Public Comment time, to express their views regarding the Anti-Racism Statement. Jennifer Jackson felt the statement itself was racist. Dana Morris asked the District to stop the anti-racism work until meetings could be held in person and denied the concept of systemic racism.

Superintendent Matt Hill thanked the women for their comments and responded to their concerns.

“I want to be very clear about why we chose to use the word around white supremacy… and racism,” Hill said. “The definition we are using is very clear about having an organized system of race that benefits power and privilege. It’s true.”

“In this country, across this country, we have a history that is harmful and hurtful,” he continued. “We need to acknowledge it. I do appreciate the words that were used [in the comments]; we need to heal and move forward. I feel that’s what this statement is saying. But first we have to acknowledge our history as a country and our history as a city.”

“Burbank was a sundown city. We had racist policies and practices in this city,” Hill added. “We all have biases. We need to acknowledge that. We need to have difficult and honest conversations about this, and that really is what the heart of this statement is.”

“White supremacy is not really about the KKK and neo-Nazis but how the systems, policies and structures were established in this country. We have to have critical thought about that and make sure we are healing and moving forward.”

“It’s not whites vs. Blacks, or any race, but to acknowledge the systems and structures we have in this country, city and school district and moving forward,” Hill said. “This statement is clarifying that we are just beginning the work and we need to move forward. We are going to be uncomfortable, some of us may say things that others may be offended by. We need to listen and learn and heal… together, with empathy and care.”

Justin Riner, English Chair at John Muir Middle School, also spoke during Public Comment to question BUSD’s procedure of removing four books from core curriculum lists (To Kill A Mockingbird, The Cay, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) at the beginning of the semester.

“I think we all want the same outcome and to insure the books we are teaching in our schools are the best and most relevant for our students at this time and represent all of our students,” said Hill, thanking Riner and DEI Instruction sub-committee member Polly Steinberg, who also spoke during Public Comment, for their comments. “We’re not looking for censorship or to ban the books.”

Hill explained the process and timeline of how the challenged books procedure works, noting the books were challenged for prolific use of the N-word. Steinberg noted in her comments to the Board that Huckleberry Finn uses the N-word 219 times throughout the book.

“It was my decision to ask the English teachers to not teach these four books this semester,” Hill said. “I feel that given the nature of the complaint and the concerns and the harm it has caused our students – especially our Black students – in this District…”

“I felt we should not ask them to opt out of instruction but we should pause and go through the process and come up with a strong recommendation,” he also said. “We want to respect the professionalism of our teachers. We want to respect our students and our families. But we have to acknowledge even the fiercest supporters of these books have highlighted the problematic nature of the books.”

“So we need to decide as a school district, are these the best books for our students? They will always be available. I keep stressing that because the censorship and banning conversation should not be part of this conversation.”

“We have to talk about our reading list and if these are the best books to teach these lessons. So we will provide updates as we proceed,” Hill added. “If anyone has questions about the process, please reach out to me and I’ll help address that.”

Board member Dr. Roberta Reynolds applauded Riner’s request for clarity about the process.

“It’s so important we listen to all the perspectives,” she said.

Reynolds also pointed out the BUSD policy regarding challenged books, saying, “they MAY remain in use. It’s ‘may’ not ‘shall.'”

“Certainly, some of these conversations ahead lend themselves better in an in-person situation,” Board member Steve Ferguson said. “It’s something to be mindful of, moving forward.”

“While it would be easier to have the difficult conversations in person, it’s not something we can even think of slowing down,” Board Clerk Charlene Tabet commented.

Board Vice President Steve Frintner said,” I think it’s important for people to hear different points of view and take the time to study [the issues.]”

“We have to acknowledge the systems that have been put in place for more than 400 years,” he continued. “To say there isn’t a system of white supremacy that has been put in place in this country… is to deny the reality of this situation. We need to acknowledge it so we can move on.”

“We are asking for everyone’s patience and understanding,” commented President Armond Aghakhanian. “It’s a very difficult topic but it is a topic we need to talk about and we need to respect individuals and families who have directly experienced racism, that it may be too painful and difficult to talk about. For the sake of our children and the future, let us have a civil conversation.”

Hill also gave his biweekly report on Distance Learning to the Board. Currently, BUSD is averaging about 15,000 free meals each week picked up by students. The District has loaned out 6229 Chromebooks by September 29, with 3000 more on order. They have loaned 1566 hotspots, with 50 additional on order.

Attendance for synchronous (live) learning is close to 99% average for all grades. Asynchronous learning continues to see lower attendance with 78% of students for Monday through Thursday and 72% on Fridays.

The specific number of disengaged students went up a little, but represents different actual students, and hovers at about 1% of the school’s approximately 15,000 student population. School administrators and Board members discussed intervention actions and tracking, along with how to connect with those disengaged students.

The video and complete agenda of the Burbank Board of Education meeting for October 1 can be found online here.

The Burbank Board of Education is comprised of President Dr. Armond Aghakhanian, Vice President Steve Frintner, Clerk Charlene Tabet, and members Dr. Roberta Reynolds and Steve Ferguson. More information on the Board can be found online here.