SSD grapples with discrimination, equity
Last updated 6/8/2021 at Noon
A few years ago, the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) investigated a case at Sisters Middle School, where Black student Natalie Soleim was bullied for months. Oregon Department of Education concluded that discrimination and sexual harassment were involved, with “sufficient evidence of a discriminatory environment.”
Since then, Sisters School District (SSD) has been grappling with equity issues. Superintendent Curt Scholl said the district has started equity teams “to have dialogue about how we support our kids and move forward.” There is one team in each building, meaning the elementary, middle, and high schools.
“As much as it pains us that we didn’t meet the needs of a kid — and that’s really the heart of this—we want to make sure we’re putting practices in place to try not to ever have that happen again,” said Scholl. “It’s a hard thing to be perfect, but we’re going to strive really hard to make sure we’re doing the right things, to make sure we don’t have a misstep.”
Scholl said the district’s goal is to meet every student where they are and treat them well. He suggested the staff is learning to recognize “both micro and macro aggressions, and how we support kids in that process.”
Microaggressions are everyday interactions that reveal subtle, unintentional prejudice that the speaker may not even realize they carry. Macroaggressions are actions or speech showing overt, deliberate racism or other types of prejudice.
The last few years have taught district leadership that being up close to an incident can make the issues difficult to see. In the specific instance of Natalie Soleim’s case, Scholl believes the staff may have been “too close to it” to have a complete view of the situation.
He said, “I think if we sit back and reflect and listen… I don’t think we [should have been] surprised” by the incident and ODE’s report. Staff found it hard to take “because our folks are invested,” he said.
Outside perspective is important, Scholl said, along with putting mechanisms in place for ongoing feedback.
To that end, Erika McCalpine, director of the OSU-Cascades Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Laboratory, has been engaged to do equity audits at the middle and high schools. According to IDRA, the Intercultural Development Research Association, the goal of an equity audit is to identify institutional practices that produce discriminatory trends.
Equity audits require input from stakeholders throughout a district, such as staff, administration, and students. Data is collected using listening sessions with district leadership, classroom and campus observations, focus groups, surveys, graduation information, and other sources.
“Achieving educational equity begins by initiating some uncomfortable conversations about relevant data: the good, the bad, and the ugly,” according to IDRA. “Equity audits provide schools and districts with clear indicators for how well they are meeting the needs of their students and which areas need more attention.”
In tandem with the district’s “mission and vision process,” the district invested in a program called Youth Truth which now helps gather feedback from students about issues that affect them.
Additional outside perspective comes from ODE. Civil rights specialist Winston Cornwall follows up on Natalie Soleim’s case regularly. Scholl said he had met with Cornwall and Natalie’s mother, Cheryl, last week, “continuing the dialogue.”
The follow-up process is a good reminder, Scholl said, “to continue outreach, to serve our kids and families.”
In addition to equity teams, district staff read a book on culturally relevant teaching last year. Some staff will attend additional training this summer. Next up will likely be a book study on implicit bias; administrators are looking for an out-of-district facilitator to support and lead it.
“We all have biases,” said Scholl. He welcomes opportunities to “have a reflective practice to look at that, what does that mean in our decision-making.”
Accountability for specific incidents involving district staff could not be discussed. Scholl said he was “trying to follow the law in communicating, but also following the law with both student confidentiality and staff confidentiality rights... Oftentimes that is a tough one because we’re limited at times with how we’re able to respond and say.” (Note: Natalie Soleim’s name and additional information were provided to The Nugget by the student and her mother.)
Scholl said he recognizes that “sometimes people don’t feel [there was] a complete process because we’re limited in the response based on those constraints. We recognize that as a challenge.”
The challenge of striving toward equity and dealing with bias is ongoing, according to Scholl.
“I don’t think you’re ever done with that kind of work,” he said. “It’s just like professional development. You can always get better — from every lens.”
That attitude extends across life roles.
“As a leader, as a teacher, as a husband, you can always do things better,” he said.