Scottsdale Unified School District asserted its commitment to fighting racism and inequality within its schools through an initiative aimed at developing an action plan to increase awareness, respect and celebration of the district’s diversity.
Superintendent Dr. John Kriekard read a statement announcing the initiative, which will include the forming of a group of concerned citizens, students, administrators and teachers to discuss how the district can better focus on equity and inclusion.
SUSD released the statement publicly on June 8 ahead of the June 9 meeting.
In addition to the group, Dr. Kriekard said the lights at the five SUSD high school football fields would go on at 8:46 p.m. that night and would stay on for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. This was to show “solidarity to the people demonstrating peacefully for change,” he said.
George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, died while in Minneapolis police custody after Derek Chauvin, a White ex-police officer, knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Mr. Chauvin is facing charges of murder and manslaughter.
This series of events has sparked nationwide protests of racism and police brutality. While many of these protests have been peaceful, many have turned violent, leading to rioting and looting similar to what happened at the Scottsdale Fashion Square on May 30.
As of late, many of the protests have been peaceful.
Dr. Kriekard said the district must do its part to be part of the solution to eliminate the “bias and inequality that still exists in our society and systems.” He said SUSD needs to embrace this mindset in all facets of its operations.
“Many times, we say the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of meetings and other events and yet, I was so struck tonight by the significance of pledging ourselves to ‘liberty and justice for all,’” he said during the meeting. “That has got to be our message.”
The committee, which Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Dr. Milissa Sackos is leading, is still in it early stages as Dr. Kriekard said he and his staff are actively seeking members.
Rather than seeking volunteers, he said his staff is looking for those who have been actively involved in seeking equality in the community. Dr. Kriekard said he wanted to include students on the committee, saying he asked the student who suggested turning on the field lights to join.
He said students have always brought insightful perspectives and he saw that during the pandemic shutdowns as district leadership met regularly with the Student Advisory Board.
“Some wonderful suggestions and help with our problems from the student perspective came through and they’re so mature and responsible in giving us suggestions that, in some cases, were more realistic than some of the things adults were sending us through emails,” he said.
The idea behind the committee is to better give voice to sections of the SUSD population that Dr. Kriekard said may not have been heard in the past.
Once gathered together, Dr. Kriekard said the district will listen to those viewpoints and discussions about how the district can be better in terms of inclusion. Ideas that came out of the meetings would come before the Governing Board for input.
Boardmember Jann Michael Greenburg said he wants regular updates from the committee, preferably every few months. He hopes these committee updates would become a regular process for the district. Dr. Kriekard said he expects the board to receive informal updates more frequently than every few months.
Board President Allyson Beckham took it a step further by requesting a board member sit in on the meetings. She also suggested bringing in an outside diversity expert, similar to how the district brought in an outside expert for its wellness committee.
She said she also wanted to ensure the public know what the committee is bringing and that the board follow through on reviewing suggestions from the committee.
“This is not something that just happens overnight and gets done,” she said. “It will be something that is ongoing because we are really looking at changing behaviors and really having that self-reflection to understand what this really means.”
Board Vice President Patty Beckman said the recent death of Mr. Floyd has caused her self reflection and a desire to improve herself and other areas of society. She said she hoped for accountability and a measure of progress to ensure future changes are lasting.
She also pointed to the Teen Town Halls where she said she got a raw look into what challenges students in the district were encountering. Some of those suggestions included a call for a more diverse teaching staff and more diverse music at prom.
Ms. Beckman emphasized her desire to hire more teachers of color and the district is recruiting in ways and areas it hasn’t in the past. She also called for more training to help eliminate unconscious bias and curriculum that represents the impact of people of color on the nation’s history.
“I am encouraged about what we are discussing this evening and I am hopeful for progress,” she said. “This week has deeply impacted me. I will never be the same and I am better for it.”
Boardmember Sandy Kravetz shared comments she posted on social media decrying Mr. Floyd’s death as another example of racial inequality in the country. She said while parents play a primary part in teaching children about these issues, the schools have a responsibility as well.
“We have a responsibility to ensure all our students feel welcome and safe in all our schools in order to provide an environment conducive to learning so every student has an opportunity to reach their fullest potential,” she said.
Ms. Kravetz complimented several schools for their work such as some adopting the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place for Hate program and other hosting Be Kind assemblies. She said while these help, teachers and administrators need to ensure campuses are places of peace and inclusivity for all.
“Students must feel valued and safe no matter the color of their skin, ethnicity, religion, country of origin or gender identity or ability,” she said. “There is no place for hate, bullying or denigration within SUSD. This work begins with self reflection and by considering our words and through our deeds.”
Mr. Greenburg said he’s noticed problems with racial prejudice within schools since he was attending school at Arcadia. He shared a story about the day after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, an Arcadia student came to school flying a Confederate flag.
To many, the Confederate flag can represent Southern pride and historical commemoration but to many others, the flag represents racism and White supremacy. Mr. Greenburg said he hopes Dr. Kriekard’s efforts will help eradicate prejudice from the district.
“I am cautiously optimistic but optimistic none the less that things will get better,” he said. “I just really appreciate the work done here and the opportunity to actually have a discussion tonight on what we can do and some of the concrete steps moving forward.”
While boardmember Barbara Perleberg said she didn’t have much to add, she did share an anecdote of one of her daughters who recently graduated from Saguaro High School. She said her daughter and her classmates went through school believing racism was “a thing of the past” because they got along with all their classmates, regardless of race.
“I always look to that as kind of a sign of hope that we do have students who don’t experience these awful things,” she said.
“Yes, times are reminding us that they are not all gone by any means but I hope our parents and our community members can know that there are students out there with positive experiences in SUSD that leave our schools not certainly feeling the sense of attacks or hate of racism and leave SUSD feeling loved and respected by all.”
Ms. Beckham expressed her support for Black students, community members, teachers and administrators in the district, saying she was “horrified and disheartened” over Mr. Floyd’s death and the abuse of force on the Black community. She said she is committed to better understanding the systemic racism in the district and the community.
She said the past two weeks have impacted her and caused her to try to better understand racial injustices in the country. Ms. Beckham plans to commit the remainder of her term to fighting any form of racial bias or inequality in the district.
“The work we do in the next months and years will be instrumental in creating a more equal and a more just community,” she said. “I am grateful for everyone and the commitments they’ve made here today and now, let’s follow through with the actions that we know will actually lead to transformation.”