The Burbank Board of Education heard the first reading on the proposed revisions to Board policy governing the selection and evaluation of instructional materials at the regular meeting held on Thursday, May 20.
Several parents, students and community members called in during Public Comment to share their views on the proposed revisions, which included a consideration of materials that do include the N-word. Most commenters stated they did not want school texts with the N-word to be allowed and that they were concerned about the possible return of the N-word in a classroom setting, which was banned by Superintendent Matt Hill in November 2020 after several families complained about its inclusion in some core English novels taught by some Burbank Unified teachers.
“This began with the Superintendent’s request for us to review our criteria for the selection of instructional materials based on the challenge to the books last fall,” explained Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Services Sharon Cuseo. “We started with a small District team under my oversight and we met with each English Department during their department time so we could be inclusive and not exclude any teacher from participating.”
“That meeting was to get information from them about what was important to them to see in the criteria. Then we had a more general meeting with other content area teachers so that we could receive their input. We also met with principals, curriculum specialists and the instruction subcommittee of the larger DEI [Diversity, Equity and Inclusion] Committee and asked for their input as well.”
“Then we took all of that information and drafted the first revision to the policy, which is this first reading,” Cuseo continued. “As part of the staff language, we also discussed the use of the N-word and the primary question for us was how do we protect students from the use of the word without removing works from celebrated Black authors from our schools or our collection of novels and also the important interviews of enslaved people that are known as the slave narratives and are housed in the Library of Congress and have been an important part of the curriculum? So that’s what we were wrestling with and that’s why the recommendations for the limited use of the N-word is in the draft policy.”
“After that, the draft went to all teachers in the District, administration, PTA Council, DEI Committee members, selected student groups and the Board and we received a lot of feedback. That feedback was collected and presented to all of you, and the suggested edits are in this report. There were 20 of them. There were seven or so that were grammatical… then there were two larger camps of: just ban all use of the N-word and then, there was another camp of remove all restrictions of using the N-word.”
“Some of the other recommendations like professional development or contextualizing the N-word historically – all of those things also depend on where we go in terms of the primary focus,” she also said. “For example, are we going to [not] allow the use of the N-word or are we going to remove all restrictions on the word or are we going to allow it under very limited circumstances, because then that impacts the rest of the suggestions for edits.”
“It feels very clear to me, based on the feedback we’ve been getting for the last number of months, and this is not a knock against our teachers by any stretch of the imagination,” commented Board member Emily Weisberg. “I know that as a teacher myself, that it’s often really hard when I’ve been pulled into meetings with my supervisor and told ‘Hey, look, the way that you’re teaching this is not working.’ And there’s that immediate instinct to get defensive because I’m like, ‘What do you mean, I’ve done it this way before and it worked.'”
“And then I had to push past that and think about what my job was… ‘you don’t teach books… you teach students.’ So when I hear all of the comments that our students and our parents have made, it feels like we have not given our teachers up to this point the resources and tools and support that they need to be teaching books that contain the N-word. I’m not saying this is in perpetuity, for the rest of time, we remove these books, but I feel like right now I can’t in good faith feel like this content is going to be taught responsibly without providing extra support.”
“So I think that some of the criteria that was included in here in regards to what has to happen in order to teach books that contain the N-word is great, but I also think that we need to just hit pause and provide our administrators, provide our staff, provide our teachers support they need not only in the classroom but campus wide. Campus culture needs to shift before we can bring these back. Not saying the word is great, but that doesn’t make the space safe. The word is still there, the word is still present. Students are still going to hear it outside of the class.”
“Giving students the opportunity to opt-out is, in a way, creating a separate but equal environment. How many students are going to feel comfortable doing that and not fear retribution from their teachers?” Weisberg also said. “How many students are going to actually miss out on a rich academic experience because they’re choosing not to read the book with their classmates? So it feels to me that if the solution is to remove the kids from the class then it’s not a solution.”
“I use slave narratives when I teach – I teach seventh and eighth grade history – and I have been able to find slave narratives where I’ve been able to either redact the word entirely or it’s not used. I am very sensitive to wanting to make sure we have authors of color featured… we’re also talking about including authors of color who aren’t writing about oppression… or slavery… but also are positive protagonists celebrating Black excellence or Latinx excellence… We need to not be reading books that contain this word until we can provide support and tools that all of us need to do this responsibly.”
“When almost two years ago we created this committee [DEI Committee], the idea was that, as a District, we can do better,” commented Board member Armond Aghakhanian. “These individuals, including our teachers and parents and members of the community, have been involved with this committee two years now meeting several times a month, having these difficult discussions. Because they also know that we can do better, as a community.”
“I think ultimately what it comes down to, if we are going to do the right thing, is about integrity. And for me, it’s very simple. Even if one child is put in a position because we’re using the N-word, then we should not support books that have the N-word.”
“I am certain there are many, many books out there that can talk about all these topics that don’t use the N-word. It’s time for us as a District to do the right thing, do better, by providing alternatives. I think it’s also beneficial to our students. We’re talking global worlds here, we’re talking about training students to go out there and learn about different cultures and I think teaching them, using alternatives and changing this mindset that we have to use the same book because so many years we’ve been using this, doesn’t work.”
“Let’s not cheat our students also by not giving them the right tools and teaching them what else it out there,” Aghakhanian also said. “Let us also make sure we remember this is not only about the students but it’s about our whole community, our whole system of education and how we can change to make the world better.”
“Fundamentally, we want to create safe spaces for our kiddos,” commented Board Clerk Steve Ferguson. “To what degree is the topic right now and I tend to favor a more cautious approach as a result. I think we’ve identified as a group, as a governance team and as a school community that, hey, this is clearly traumatizing kids. And, I think we can acknowledge that the context around that word has changed. It has always been a tool of terrorism. It has always been a tool to make people feel less than and not equal to.”
“How it’s being deployed in literature back then versus how it’s being deployed today is a social science conversation that attempts to inform a lot of people on an experience they will never fully understand.”
“The opt-out provision is a no-go for me personally, I don’t support that in the policy,” Ferguson continued. “I do support taking a bit of a moratorium to review and talk forward and to figure out how we want to approach this. I will support additional training as well… Teachers and a lot of folks who do feel more successful in navigating this content, usually had training and had the ability to fall back on that.”
“It’s pretty simple, isn’t it? We just don’t have any books with the N-word in it. End of story,” Board Vice President Charlene Tabet commented. “There may be teachers out there who feel they’re capable of teaching that, but there may be some who aren’t. So you have to set the bar so that the kids feel safe, so that there’s less of an impact on children who could be hurt. Just say no, we’re not doing it.”
“You could provide training later on if you want to bring some of those books back. Who are we here for? What’s the deal? Just say no. I think we’re making it too complex,” she concluded.
“There isn’t another word comparable. No one could call me… a derogatory name against my race that would be anything comparable,” commented Board President Steven Frintner. “There were some comments… that no derogatory words should be used… but I don’t know that the visceral impact of that word is different than almost any other derogatory comment.”
“It’s almost impossible to write a Board policy and regulation like this and trying to get it right and get it to where everyone can accept it and feel satisfied that we’ve done right. There are wildly different opinions on this.”
“There are lots of novels by lots of Black authors that incorporate that word and not just a historical context like talking about slavery but in a modern context that are important pieces of work. And if you say we can’t use it at all, you’re taking those out of the equation. I’m just taking all that into consideration. But, you do have to consider that what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working. And if you think about that as well…”
“This isn’t just a few students [who have been complaining],” Frintner also said. “Maybe it’s only a few people who have finally spoken up. But this has been certainly an ongoing issue for years and it’s still an issue.”
“Because no one asks the question, why are the people not speaking up? There is a reason… a historic reason, thank you for bringing that up,” added Aghakhanian. “We hear it.”
“To go forward right now and say there are acceptable circumstances at the moment that these books using this word can be taught… I can’t see that being the way we would want to go,” Frintner continued. “I certainly support expanded professional development for our teachers.”
“I’ve really had to take time in the last year to two years, trying to recognize and reference [white privilege]. It’s hard for people to understand… Something still isn’t there for our students. And we need to give our teachers the tools they need,” Frintner also said. “I don’t think we should be married to the same books for 40 years like we have been.”
“It’s up to all of us. We all have to be engaging in ways to change school climate and school culture and that’s hard,” added Weisberg. “It’s digging in for the long term. This is one part of a larger endeavor.”
“This is not banning books. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. I come from a country that you would have been thrown in prison and probably never come back because you read a book that was banned,” Aghakhanian added. “This is very personal to me, when people use the word ‘ban’ so loosely and comfortably, not knowing what it means, the freedom of expression and speech, how important that is.”
“Once we move forward more and more on this, we will give voice to a lot of communities who otherwise currently don’t have a voice,” he also said. “As we speak, the AAPI [Asian American Pacific Islander] community is being attacked. What I’ve learned over the years is that there are people who are racist and who are bigots and you can try and try and nothing will change. But policy changes things… You create a culture, an environment where people feel safe… we’re here for our kids, but there is no home for hate.”
“We the District need to do a better job of providing supports [for teaching difficult work],” Weisberg added. “We know there are teachers who have been doing this really, really well.”
“Ultimately this is about our kids,” Aghakhanian said. “This is not about the teachers, this is not about teachers versus parents, this is about a better educational system. This is a lengthy process that will not happen overnight.”
“Teachers have to teach political things every day, and have to teach uncomfortable things every single day, so the importance around protecting academic freedom and the ability of a teacher to teach is critical,” Ferguson said. “This is challenging the boundaries of that, and we want to get to a place where kids are safe and there’s no way where those two exist right now… We’re going to have a lot of work to navigate to keep personalities working together. I think we all need to lead with the intention that teachers I think, one, want more training on this, want more support on this and we need to meet that, and, two, we need to create safe learning environments for kids and right now that doesn’t include any include any use of that word.”
All five Board of Education members agreed to proceed with cutting the opt-out provision and continuing the pause of not allowing instructional materials to include the N-word, while further looking at the policy in coming years.
District administrators noted the changes and will revise the draft according to Board direction. A second reading and final draft will be presented at a future Board meeting for approval.
The first reading and working draft of the proposed revision to Board Policy 6161.1 and Administrative Regulation 6161.1 can be viewed online at this link.
The Burbank Board of Education is comprised of President Steve Frintner, Vice President Charlene Tabet, Clerk Steve Ferguson and members Dr. Armond Aghakhanian and Dr. Emily Weisberg. More information on the Board can be found online on their webpage.