Discussing diversity

In the last 20 years, the number of minority students at Clark-Pleasant schools has significantly grown, now making up 20 percent of the school district’s population, compared to 1 percent in 1997.

The number of minority students in the schools is expected to continue rising, with projections showing the minority population hitting 30 percent by 2027.

For school officials, that means making sure those students feel comfortable at their schools. But in the last year, the school district has heard or received reports of students making derogatory posts on social media related to minority students and shouting racial slurs in the halls, Clark-Pleasant Community Schools Superintendent Patrick Spray said. After the election in November, some students were chanting “build that wall” in the school, which was directed at students of Hispanic descent, he said.

With those incidents in mind, school officials are focusing on addressing situations when they happen with a new approach, including having students sit down and discuss incidents when they happen, and creating a more diverse and welcoming school environment by hiring teachers from multiple backgrounds and educating students on other cultures and beliefs.

On Tuesday night, the school district hosted a community forum led by a nine-person panel of students and community members from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds. They discussed the challenges of being minorities in the school system and what steps need to be taken to address and prevent racism and prejudice, with the goal of helping school officials find a way to reduce and respond to these issues.

“We have to do a better job with diversity in our school corporation,” Spray said. “We need to do a better job with that in our county, state and country.”

“We as a school community feel we can’t continue to hush the conversation and need to address it with students and parents.”

About a month ago, a Whiteland Community High School student took a picture of Sikh students and posted it with derogatory comments about them on social media, Spray said.

School staff decided to try a new approach to address the situation. Spray contacted the Peace Learning Center, a Indianapolis-based nonprofit organization that focuses on conflict resolution and addresses issues of racism and discrimination. Staff from the center hosted what they called a restorative justice circle, a method of conflict resolution in which those hurt or impacted by someone have the opportunity to explain to the offender why their actions were hurtful, said Tim Nation, the executive director of the organization.

Getting someone to correct their behavior is a far better solution than a suspension, Nation said.

Spray declined to comment on what further discipline the student who posted the image faced, saying that the school followed its standard policies and procedures.

For Karanpreet Singh Brar, a sophomore and one of the Sikh students whose photo was included in the social media post, experiencing that prejudice was hurtful, but he was also thankful for how the school and his fellow students responded to the situation, he said.

Brar, who immigrated to the U.S. from India two years ago, said he loves the high school he attends, and is grateful for the many people who stood up for him and the other Sikh students. He has forgiven the student who made the social media post.

“I’m not angry at her,” he said.

Much of the discrimination Sikhs face is because people aren’t familiar with the religion, and he hopes school officials will do more to make sure that fellow students understand what Sikhism is, he said.

As part of their faith, men and woman wear turbans and other coverings for their hair. Because of that, Sikhs are often mistaken for being Muslims or Arabs and face discrimination and accusations of being terrorists, said Brar, who was one of the members of the community panel Tuesday night.

Two African-American students, Ariel Booker and Sahdia Cooper, also talked about their experiences at school as part of the community conversation event. About 75 students, parents, teachers and residents attended.

Booker, who moved to Greenwood from the west side of Indianapolis two years ago, said attending high school in Whiteland was a huge shock for her. She recalled other students asking if she had moved to Greenwood from “the hood” and being called racial slurs.

“It’s hard to defend yourself when you aren’t the majority,” she said.

The school needs to teach more about slavery, the civil rights movement and racism in its history classes, Cooper said.

“Our students need to feel safe,” Spray said. “While physical safety isn’t the challenge, emotional safety is important.”

Spray conducted the meeting to get feedback from the community on steps the school could take. Some suggestions from residents included having more diversity among school teachers and making sure teachers have the training to properly handle issues of race when those topics come up.

Recruiting teachers who are minorities is something the school district is looking at. The makeup of the teachers and staff should reflect the diversity in the community, Spray said. The school district plans to take extra steps in the recruiting process to encourage more minority teachers to apply, he said.

“There is a lot of value in having the adults working in the school building mirroring the diversity of our student population,” he said.

The school also is considering having several staff members be trained in restorative justice by the Peace Learning Center. With that training, the school will have staff available to better handle and address conflicts when those situations come up at any grade level, Spray said.

While no further community events are planned at this time, Spray said he wants to continue the conversation about diversity with future community meetings and events.

“We are evaluating those opportunities,” he said. “We need to have more open and honest conversations about race.”

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”By the numbers” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

The number of minority students in the Clark-Pleasant School District has been rapidly growing over the past two decades and is expected to continue to increase.

Percentage of non-white students:

1997: 1 percent

2007: 11 percent

2017: 20 percent

2027 (projected): 30 percent

SOURCE: Clark-Pleasant schools