SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — In a series of votes last month, the South Kingstown School Committee took several steps to address and rectify what several students said is “systemic racism” within the town’s school system.
The votes came after hours of testimony to the committee from those who said they’d either experienced or witnessed instances of discrimination or racism in the schools. A group of advocates called Towards an Antiracist South Kingstown (TASK), a coalition of South Kingstown students, former students and parents, called for the changes following local protests related to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May.
TASK member and student Sarah LeClair said the schools must work to prioritize both the education and safety of students in South Kingstown.
“One of the important ways we can do that is making sure we have teachers who represent the actual kids who are attending, and that means having a more diverse staff,” she said.
Among the changes approved at the July School Committee meeting was the creation of an ethnic studies course, required for graduation starting with the Class of 2024, and an audit of the curriculum to ensure it includes “cultural equity” and representation of minorities.
“This is important, because we have to have a baseline to start from to make the very necessary changes we’ve heard from TASK that are needed in our curriculum,” committee member Sarah Markey said.
Out-of-school suspensions would be removed, except for cases of physical violence.
“The issue of discipline and the ways it’s imposed, especially on our black and brown students, is urgent and concerning,” Markey said. She called for the committee to set a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions in order to establish “more holistic, humane, restorative discipline policy.”
On the administrative side, all staff would take part in “antiracist” professional development activities.
“This is not an issue about our teachers or staff or administrators being racist,” committee member Emily Cummiskey said. “It’s an issue of a systemic and historical issue, in that we’re moving toward being antiracist.”
All contracts, policies and guidance documents would begin to incorporate “antiracist” language. And the school department will create a plan to ensure public sharing of data related to discipline, the school workforce and school programs.
“I think it’s necessary that the data is available on who’s getting hired, how many people of color are applying and being hired,” former student Sierra Rowley said. “This data needs to be easily accessible to the public. It will help us to measure where we are right now and if we are making progress.”
Lastly, the committee voted to authorize the formation of an advisory board.
The board would by created and charged by Robin Wildman and Jonathan Lewis, both of whom are Kingian nonviolence trainers who met with the committee last month.
The committee was in support of the move, and discussed whether Wildman and Lewis would be advising the board or working in a consulting role.
Wildman said she’s been contacted by community members interested in helping.
“We want to center this advisory board around the experiences and expertise of the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) community,” she said. “Definitely students. I’m so excited to work with them and they’re ready to go. I think they have a lot to teach us about ways to do things better within the district.”
The advisory board could gather information and the demands from TASK and come up with recommendations, Wildman said.
“I’m ready to get started yesterday,” Wildman, a former South Kingstown teacher, said.