In February of 2003, the Davis Joint Unified School district heard from well over 100 students, parents and community members about problems of violence, discrimination and taunting at the schools.The experience was an eye-opener for many on the school board and in the community who while they thought there was a problem, had no real idea of how bad it was--how deep and how widespread--at particularly the high school.
As a result of these meetings--several of them over the course of a few weeks--the school board created plans for a school climate committee and voted to hire a part-time School Climate Coordinator. Interestingly enough, they did this at a time of district-wide and state-wide budget problems.
In the wake of the recent events centering on the anti-gay harassment of a junior high school student, the district is now evaluating whether or not to expand the position.
During the meeting last week, the school board asked Mel Lewis, now the district's School Climate Coordinator, to draw up an action plan designed to reduce or eliminate harassment not just at Harper but at all Davis schools.
Lewis at the meeting pointed out he was doing a 1.5 time job on a half-time salary. The school board seemed to agree that the Mr. Lewis needs to be better sourced as did the father of the student, Guy Fischer. Fischer said "this is a full-time problem. There are a lot of things that could be done."
Lewis clearly has been given a strong mandate and he needs the resources to follow through on that mandate. We are supportive of the expansion of the climate position, at the same time some of Mr. Lewis' comments at the Human Relations Commission meeting on November 9, 2006 were of concern to us. Mr. Lewis at that time pointed out that the school district did a better job in this regards than adjacent school districts. That may or may not be true; however, this was not the time to make such an assertion.
However, it seems that the larger picture is pretty clear. The school district clearly needs to expand their programs because these types of problems do not appear to be going away.
Moreover, the community needs to be more aware of these types of ongoing problems. Most people at the school board meeting expressed a variety of mixed emotions of these events--one of the common ones was surprise and shock. Unfortunately, at this point, people in this community should be neither surprised nor shocked that these types of events still occur. They occur regularly albeit beneath the surface. We cannot deal with these types of problems if we are not aware of them. Therefore, one huge task of the school district if they are to be educators is to make the community well aware of these ongoing issues.
Finally, these issues do not exist in any sort of proverbial bubble. They extent beyond school district jurisdiction, they go into the community, and out beyond the community. As Mr. Fischer and his family's experience shows us full well, the harassment that his son suffered and continues to suffer went well beyond the boundaries of Harper Junior High School, affecting their home and home life.
This is a job for not only the school district, but rather a partnership between the schools, the city, the county and even the community. And yet, at the same time this issue has erupted, the Davis City Council is considering cutting back on the powers of the Human Relations Commission. Education is not the only role of such a body. They need to be able to actually investigate and make recommendations to the City Council for action, not just more talk.
We're pleased that this dialogue is occurring. Many in the community know that these problems have existed for quite some time but they usually bubble just beneath the surface of public consciousness. The suggestions for preventing future occurrences are good. Now the school district needs to take strong steps to make Mr. Fischer comfortable sending his son back to school.
---Doug Paul Davis reporting
I came away from this meeting with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is clear, very clear in fact that the school board has a commitment and the desire to fix the problems. It was also clear that the intentions are good. What was disturbing however is that I did not get a good sense that they knew what needed to be done. This meeting seemed long on rhetoric--Keltie Jones, the school board president who is openly gay, talked about her dream of a society where the gay lifestyle is accepted on equal footing with the straight lifestyle, where billboards and magazines in society depict same-sex couples just as they do opposite sex couples.
On the other hand, I just don't know if they really know what to do to fix these sorts of problems. In some ways, this is not even a gay-straight-anti-gay problem, it is as much a problem of bullying and kids possessing the ability to pick on others by going to their most vulnerable spot. And for this young junior high school student, it was the fact that he has gay fathers.
Board member Jim Provenza hit on a key point that got lost in the multiple discussions about what to do. The immediate concern--and Provenza was duly disturbed by this--is that there is a student who does not feel it is safe to come back to school. He came back initially and was harassed again. He then came back on a Monday, and was harassed by one of the same kids who was involved in the first incident and the Principal felt he had no proof this time and let the kid go back to class. This is very disturbing. And this is the part, that I don't think has been dealt with. I think the district has done a very good job with the bigger picture, but a very poor job with dealing with the immediate concern.
The other really good comments came from Hui-ling Malone, who is the daughter of Reverend Tim Malone and the student member on the board. She talked about the need for students to step out of the spectator's role. Moreover, teacher's need to be consistent about enforcing a no tolerance policy towards harassment. It is not enough for them to ask the students to write a reflective essay after the fact, they need to be vigilant and proactive.
Tim Taylor, another board member, emphasized that there is a strong need for a school district to educate. Everyone saw this as an opportunity to educate the students and the parents and the community on these issues.
Everyone on the board clearly seems to have the best of intentions. There was agreement that action needed to be taken, agreement there needs to be more education and the need for it to move beyond tolerance and towards something stronger. The big picture was well addressed but I think the short-term was not focused on nearly enough. The family is upset with how this was handled from a disciplinary standpoint and that seemed to be the weakest area of focus. Everyone has a sense for what to do in the longrun, no one offered much in the way of suggestions for the family to get their son back into school in the shortrun.
In the coming days, we'll have video clips from this meeting. In the meantime, there was an interesting dichotomy between those who were surprised that this could happen in Davis and those who were not. That's the bigger lesson that this community needs to take away from such events. It goes back to what Rahim Reed said last week at the HRC meeting--people in Davis tend to bury their heads in the sand and believe that these types of things do not happen here.
The striking thing was the message from the gay and lesbian community that they do not feel welcome in this community--at least some members conveyed that. In the last year, we've focused heavily on the minority community in terms of police harassment, but it seems clear that the gay and lesbian community have a number of under-addressed concerns as well that need more focus and scrutiny. If there is a teachable moment on this, perhaps it is this one--that we need to be vigilant, not because the majority of people in Davis are hateful, but because when a minority of people are, it reflects poorly on the rest of us.
---Doug Paul Davis reporting
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