While there is a difference of opinion over the exact words spoken, a white Farmington Public Schools teacher was placed on suspension last month, accused of using a racial epithet with a black student.
The race-related incident at Farmington Central High School is one of several that have occurred over the past few years.
In October 2018, a Harrison High administrator was placed on leave after an open mic captured her comment that a group of mostly black cheerleaders doing a routine looked like strippers. And in 2017 a teacher was placed on administrative leave after pulling a black student out of his chair to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
Superintendent Dr. Robert Herrera, who joined the district on July 1, said there is some comfort in knowing the district “is not tolerant of these behaviors… We’re taking a hard line as to how we’re handling this.”
’Students are our first priority’
The district went as far as possible in disciplining the employee in the Farmington Central incident, Herrera said. While some may feel the punishment fell short, he added, the district cannot simply fire a tenured teacher.
Also, he said, “The students are our first priority in this, not the adults. We want to make sure they’re in a learning environment where they feel comfortable and they have trusted adults… At the heart of everything we did was to create a safe learning environment for those kids.
The district provided support for students and held a community forum for parents, students, and staff. Herrera said principal David Reese “has a lot of trust from that school’s community.”
“He’s committed to restoring that environment to what it was,” he said. “We just need a little time to heal.”
Herrera acknowledged that changes need to be made across the district, but said that “trying to establish a level of fear to get people to be more compliant isn’t a way to change the culture of the district.”
’District of schools’
Over the last decade, Herrera said, the district’s culture has become far more diverse, and not just ethnically. With more students on free and reduced lunches, there’s also a greater economic diversity.
In addition, as he’s gotten more familiar with the district, Herrera said he’s noticed individual buildings seem autonomous and have their own identity – creating a “district of schools”.
“That has fragmented us,” he said. “We have to make sure our adults have training, and make sure they have strategies for working with minority groups. We’re committed to doing that.”
Addressing these issues will be part of an upcoming strategic planning process, Herrera said. The district will undergo two equity audits, which involve independent examination of programs, achievement levels, policies, procedures, hiring and recruiting practices, even the purchasing of supplies.
“Once you start addressing equity… you start addressing all the factors that affect students feeling like they can be successful,” he said.
Without “clear, visible stories” about celebrating the district’s diversity, Herrera said, there’s no counterbalance to the stories about individuals who’ve made poor decisions.
“These incidents seem to be defining us as a school community,” he said, “and I think that’s unfortunate. We need to get across what we’re doing to use our diversity and strengthen our school environment.”