SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Local demonstrations have already sparked discussions about racial inequality, but now community members are coming to elected officials with demands to correct systemic racism.
On Tuesday night, more than a dozen community members spoke out about issues in the South Kingstown School District. The group, which has no official name yet, is a mix of all ages and races, according to community member Fil Eden.
Together, they’ve highlighted a series of problems and are demanding swift action – rather than a drawn-out subcommittee process – to “combat racial injustice in the school system.”
“Our hope is that this is going to start the conversation,” Eden said.
The range of demands include various changes to curriculum, discipline and professional development, but to help ensure this happens, the group would like the district to create an Equity Office.
The hope is that the office would be “tasked with driving the changes we’re asking for and given the authority and autonomy to hold decision-makers accountable,” Eden said.
While many of the speakers graduated from South Kingstown more than a decade ago, or now have children or grandchildren in the district, several community members voiced concern that racial inequality has not improved over time.
Paula Whitford, whose grandchildren are now attending South Kingstown Schools, said there’s great concerns about children not receiving an equitable education because of race, family income, where they were born and other factors outside of their control.
“We don’t feel like our children are getting equal education,” Whitford said. “We feel like there’s a stigma, it comes from where you live, and that stigma has to go.”
Other suggestions from group members included hiring more teachers of color, which has been shown to improve attendance and graduation rates of Black, Latino, and Native American students. Better professional development for teachers, to help them and their students better identify their own implicit biases, was another suggestion.
Community member Becci Davis spoke specifically to the responsibility of public schools to educate and engage students for success, and how policies around discipline are actively working against those goals.
“Every time a South Kingstown School District child is expelled or suspended for an extended period of time, the district fails in this mission,” she said. “Black and indigenous children are disciplined disproportionately to their peers in South Kingstown.”
One of the demands Davis brought forward on behalf of the group was to end racialized discipline, by conducting and making public a full analysis of all disciplines – from verbal warning to suspensions and expulsions.
The group also demands the district investigate why the racial disparity around discipline exists, and how South Kingstown contributes to the school to prison pipeline. For the next year, the group would like the district to place a moratorium on out-of-school suspension for insubordination or wilful defiance.
Davis recommends the district find alternatives to suspensions and temporarily take students out of the classroom when they’re being disruptive.
South Kingstown graduate Lilli Dwyer said her “biggest issue with the high school, and the school system in general, is with the curriculum.”
“I think it’s really important that we make a full-year, racial history of the United States course a graduation requirement for all students,” she said, stressing the need to hire teachers of color to teach these courses.
Other school districts, like Providence, are looking to make similar updates to their curriculum.
Another demand from the group was to end racial bias in regards to the placement of students in honors and AP classes. Looking back, a student who has long-since graduated said she couldn’t remember any minority students in her top level courses.
Recent South Kingstown High School graduate Ginger Mombelly found her biggest faults with the way history is being taught to students – only from the perspective of white men.
“This is sending a message to students that it’s only white men who’ve contributed to American History, which is not true,” Mombelly said. “The truth about these white historical figures is covered up, and the majority of history we learn is not accurate.”
As an example, Mombelly pointed out that students are taught about President George Washington’s wooden dentures, when in fact, his dentures were made of teeth pulled from the mouths of slaves.
“Our education system has made it visible that they don’t want Black Americans to be educated about our culture and our history,” Mombelly said. “The same goes for Native Americans and other people of color. Not having the opportunity to learn about our culture is a clear reminder of the white privilege so blatantly shown at South Kingstown.”
“For us, we need to take an optional elective to learn about our culture,” she added. “Blacks, Natives, Asians, Latinos and Arabs need to be the face of history books instead.”
Most students leave high school without learning about Black Wall Street, African History before colonization and slavery, the Haitian Revolution and other historically significant events.
“With the amount of our history that’s already been erased, it’s imperative that we preserve everything,” Mombelly said.