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My view: Where Canyons Schools got it right

By Jeanetta Wiliams

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 30 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

President Jeanetta Williams of the Salt Lake Branch NAACP.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

Having in the past week celebrated the marvelous life and work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., my cup is again filled with hope that our society is moving toward conquering the forces of hate and intolerance that threaten to thwart Dr. King's legacy. It is with that renewed hope that I write this piece in support of Dr. David S. Doty and the Canyons School District in how they addressed and continue to address the racial hostility that manifest itself at Alta High School in 2011.

After I became aware of the situation at Alta High School, in March 2011, I contacted the district personnel regarding a blog written by a courageous African-American Alta High student. I was advised that the district was aware of the blog and were investigating the incident. In that blog, the student expressed outrage over a classmate donning a Ku Klux Klan-style hood and taunting him during a school assembly. At that time, both the district and I thought this was an isolated incident and we discussed how best to approach sensitizing the students to the hateful and violent past embodied in the donning of the hood itself. As the district's investigation continued, other allegations of racial discrimination came to light, including racially motivated name-calling, taunts and threats of violence based on students' race and color. My discussion with the district turned from one incident to the need to open a larger community discussion on race, race relations and the district's responsibility to provide a learning environment that is free from discrimination based on race, color or national origin.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects all of us against discrimination based on race, color or national origin in public schools. Compliance with Title VI means more than simply disciplining students who engage in racially discriminatory behavior or conduct. Had it been that easy, my involvement with the district would not have been necessary. Compliance means counseling the perpetrators about the effects of their behavior, publicly labeling the behavior as a violation of the school's anti-discrimination policy, training school personnel on how to handle and confront this type of behavior, and addressing the community in an effort to foster healthy dialogue and provide a safe learning environment. As allegations of an active racially hostile environment fueled by student-to-student conduct at Alta High School were made, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took an active role in assisting the district in how to address those allegations and how to repair the relationship within the school community.

On one end, some argue the district, particularly, Dr. Doty, "blew the situation out of proportion." Others argued the district did not take action to stop and remedy the culture at Alta. Based on my involvement, once the district administration was made aware of the situation at Alta High School, they took swift and decisive action to identify and address the concerns. In conjunction with organizations such as the NAACP and the Southern Poverty Law Center, Dr. Doty and his administrative team continue to work towards providing a learning environment that is free from discrimination based on race, color and/or national origin.

Federal law guarantees public education for everyone in America, but it did not happen easily or without struggle. In our day, the struggle is to provide a safe learning environment, free from harmful words, actions and deeds. When problems or issues arise, we must come together and make changes. Facing challenges, we strive to do what is right. We must remember Dr. King when he said, "Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable ... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals."

Jeanetta Williams is the president of NAACP Salt Lake Branch and is a former member of the NAACP National Board of Directors.

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