After a well publicized racial incident on a high school bus, the Ladue School District was challenged to do some soul searching. Who guides stakeholders to have emotional conversations about race, equity, inclusion, and diversity? What does real-time problem solving look and sound like when it comes to these issues?
On a Monday night in early December 2016, the NAACP partnered with the Ethical Society of St. Louis to host a town hall meeting. Faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni, and Ladue residents came together for a challenging conversation among stakeholders. NAACP member Kenny Murdock, a social justice facilitator, led the discussion sparked by racially offensive student-to-student comments on a Horton Watkins Ladue High School bus. Two students were disciplined following the November 2016 incident.
"Tonight is about how a community heals itself, and how does a community work together to make itself a little bit better?" said Murdock to several hundred Ladue stakeholders. "If we can't agree that there's problem maybe we're not starting on the same page."
Murdock wears multiple hats: election specialist under former Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Political Action Committee, speech-writer, and podcast host of the Murdock Report. He has also worked with the NAACP as a youth counselor and social justice facilitator.
“To be a good facilitator you have to be able to actively listen, understand what people are talking about, kind of, in the real time here and now,” said Murdock.
Why is it so hard for people to talk about race?
“Because a lot of people don’t want to have a conversation where you get passionate and people can get upset,” said Murdock. “What I remember from that night, tangibly, is a lot of frustration. A lot of families wanted to have more conversation and a lot of school administrators thinking about how can we get tangible resources to actually address these problems ongoing. I think the different stakeholders had different competing agendas. It made it a very frustrating night but it made it good night in that finally some people began to get a voice out.”
A few minutes into the town hall meeting, Murdock addressed the audience at the Ethical Society.
“Does anybody want to stand up and say what they think the problem is and whether or not there actually is a problem?”
A black male student: “It's kind of hard when I'm shut down constantly for giving my point of view and my perspective. I mean, that's just every day.”
A white school board member: “I can’t think of one teacher who I think would put up with micro-aggression or passive-aggressive behavior as we used to call it during my time. So on one hand, there’s credible information that this is happening, and yet I have trouble thinking that a teacher I’ve dealt with would put up with it.”
A white mother: “There is a problem in the community that goes way past the schools. These schools in this community are successful for our white children. Far more successful for our white children than they are for our black children. Frankly, it’s up to the white people to say we don’t want that anymore. So I’m saying that.”
An African-American woman: “The more complex part of this is the families our children come from. A really important part of this community is parents and all the baggage that their experience brings with them.”
A white male teacher: “What has helped me understand it is conversations like this. Of simply talking with people of color and hearing about the fact that you have to have that talk with your son. You have to prepare your son in a different way to be a leader. You have to prepare your children in a different way than I do.”
A black student: “It’s not going to be something that only Ladue can fix. It’s not going to be something only the schools can fix. But I think it would be a very good start if we started to make the school an environment where we are all inclusive, not just race, but also religion, sexual identity, all of those things.”
A black female alumnus: “I think that Ladue is one of the best places in the country. I'm sorry that this happened, but I think they're going to deal with it. I think we're all going to deal with it.”
Murdock said a painful racial incident can become an opportunity for adults and students.
“When I was their age I used bad language. When I was their age I had bad manners. That’s why they’re in school to learn,” said Murdock. “It is the faculty and the administration that must go through the training so they can model the behavior so they don’t make the little errors that students pick up on and exacerbate.”
Complex issues. Different perspectives. Centuries of uncomfortable racial history.
“The problems with race and identity in our society didn't start a few years ago. So you can't expect to heal them in a year. It takes a long time, it takes generations, and it takes long term communication, but you can always plant the seed now,” said Murdock. “Continue to have hope. Hope’s not gone.”
Susan Downing, communications director for the Ladue School District, sent the following information when asked about an update on district initiatives. Following is a portion of her communication to 5 On Your Side:
Immediately following the protests, and prior to the NAACP Town Hall Meetings, the district held a number of internal conversations with students and staff. These conversations were facilitated by Education Equity Consultants, the Diversity Awareness Partnership, as well as district administrators, teachers and counselors.
We had already been doing a lot of work around DEI and knew there was still more work to be done, just as there is in every other community in our nation. However, the protests and internal conversations served to do two things: One was to allow us to identify and focus our energy on the greatest areas of concern. The second was to take advantage of the increased attention on these topics by our students, parents and staff in order to provide momentum for pushing these initiatives forward. Please keep in mind that there was a great deal of media attention to the Ladue School District on these issues prior to the Town Hall Meetings.
The NAACP Town Hall meetings provided a voice for our broader community and they gave the district an opportunity to further confirm what we were already hearing in our discussions. However, they could not be accurately characterized as creating turning points for our district, nor would it be reasonable to say that any of the initiatives we are doing wouldn't be happening if it wasn't for the town hall meetings.
The initiatives we have undertaken were not a result of the NAACP Town Hall Meetings. The NAACP Town Hall Meetings, and all of the other initiatives we have undertaken, are the result of there being a renewed awareness in our community beginning this past fall that we have diversity, equity and inclusion issues to address, as do all school districts and communities across our nation. I would hope and request that the accurate "cause and effect" of what we are doing would be reflected in your story.
Following are major initiatives by the Ladue School District:
- Extensive staff training at all levels. An example would be the requirement that all district administrators attend Educational Equity Consultant Just Organizations - Leadership & Racism Institute within the next three years, with 27 administrators volunteering to do so this coming summer.
- A partnership has been established with Education Equity Consultants in order for the Ladue School District to more specifically identify areas of need in the area of DEI and means to address them. This is beginning with an Equity Audit which is currently underway and is being facilitated by Billie Mayo and Phil Hunsberger.
- On the morning of Feb. 17, 2017, the entire Ladue School District staff (over 500 staff members) gathered to hear a presentation by Dr. Terry Jones of UMSL regarding the history of racism in Missouri and St. Louis, and to participate in a discussion about implicit bias that was facilitated by Sarah Riss and Tony Neal of Education Equity Consultants.
- Increased efforts are being made to develop a staff (administrative, teaching and support) that is more reflective of our student body. Due to the difficulty of hiring staff of color -- as they are very much in demand and not plentiful enough in number to meet the demand -- we are working on various efforts to recruit earlier - pre-graduation.
- A commitment to the use of restorative (as opposed to disciplinary) practices to keep students in the classroom as much as possible. Please note the Ladue School District is one of the districts in the area taking the lead on eliminating K-3 suspensions.
- Development of an extensive DEI section on our soon-to-be-launched new district website, outlining these efforts, as well as the many additional opportunities for students, staff and the community to learn more and participate in various events and trainings, and have access to related resources.