A group of young Broadalbin-Perth alumni in recent weeks has forced the Fulton County school district into an emotional discussion over its commitment to diversity and inclusion and how it can strengthen its school culture.
Young minority students who attended the district as recently as 2017 – the district is over 95 percent white with about 80 students of color – described enduring callous remarks grounded in their racial and ethnic backgrounds.
An Indian American woman recalled being called a terrorist by classmates; an Asian American woman remembered her classmates judging how smart they were by comparing themselves to how she, “the smart Asian,” did on tests; a Black woman recalled that in second grade a friend told her they could not be friends because her uncle said she couldn’t have Black friends.
“You might say times have changed, people have changed, but fast forward 10 years later I come home to find out my sister was called the n-word at school,” Tyese Fraser, who graduated from the district in 2014, said at a June 22 virtual school board meeting. “Instances like that are instances where the B-P education system has failed its students.”
White alumni calling into the same meeting and the board’s July meeting as well, cited regular appearances of the Confederate flag at school and said they wished they had been better prepared to confront classmates they felt were doing harmful things.
Those alumni – ranging from the class of 2011 to 2017 and including a valedictorian, salutatorians and the children of district teachers and staff – all had a similar message for the district school board and superintendent: “Do better.”
Lakshmi Kesari, valedictorian of the class of 2016, a first-generation Indian American, called into the district’s June 22 board meeting and described times when her classmates referred to her and her family as “terrorists” and part of the 9/11 attacks. She said classmates called Indian food “disgusting.”
“You might be wondering why I didn’t say something. Well, I did,” Kesari told the school board. “Oftentimes when I confronted people about how their comments were hurtful I was gaslighted and told that I was too sensitive or it was just a joke. And after being told that by everyone time and time again, I stopped advocating for myself and started to doubt my own feelings and thoughts.”
She said “having just one person” that understood her feelings would have “made all the difference” and having a larger community of support would have been even better.
“So B-P needs to do better and be better,” she said during the meeting.
In early June, some alumni asked the district to make a statement that it is “committed to providing a school environment that is inclusive, just, and focused on equality for all.” They also want the district to look at curriculum reforms and offered a list of recommendations. But they have grown frustrated with what they see as inaction on the part of school officials.
Broadalbin-Perth Superintendent Stephen Tomlinson, who said he taught many of the alumni as students, said he has grown frustrated with what he sees as their unrealistic expectations and misunderstanding of how the school board and district operates. He said decisions alumni have made in recent weeks were making it harder to achieve what they want and unfair to the school board. He cited an online petition begun by alumni prior to the board having a chance to discuss their requests, and filing coronavirus-related complaints with the state over the district’s original plan to hold the June board meeting in person with attendance limits and no virtual component.
“I’m disappointed,” Tomlinson said in an interview Friday. “I’m disappointed because these are some of the best kids to graduate from Broadalbin-Perth; I’m disappointed how they are going about it.”
Tomlinson also raised the specter that the former students were pressing a “political agenda” out of step with many of the district’s residents and suggested the graduates were asking for the district to endorse or promote the Black Lives Matter movement. During the June 22 meeting, Tomlinson called Black Lives Matter a “hot movement” at the moment and that in two years “it might be something else.” (On Friday, he said he regretted using that language.)
But he also pointed out that he hadn’t heard these concerns from the alumni until after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the nationwide protests that followed. “They are pushing the Black movement,” he said during a Thursday phone interview.
Tomlinson said it would be inappropriate – and illegal – for the school board to make an affirmative statement in favor of any social movement. He also said he and the board had to consider everyone in the community and how people would interpret or perceive a statement or actions.
“I have a responsibility to see the side of everything, not just their side,” Tomlinson said. “That responsibility is so deep and fundamental in my role. So far this group has not shown an understanding of the complexity of the pressure they are putting on the school district.”
The alumni acknowledged being in part motivated by the calls for racial justice around the country and wanted to bring that energy back to where they grew up, a predominantly white community they said is ignorant to many of the challenges faced by the district’s minority families.
Christina Lin, a 2017 Broadalbin graduate and rising senior at Wellesley College studying economics and philosophy, said the experience of encountering greater diversity in college has helped her better understand her personal identity as an Asian American and how it was affected by growing up in a largely homogeneous community. While in Broadalbin, she said, making friends and fitting in often meant conforming and adjusting to other people’s conception of what it meant to be an Asian American. She said it was difficult to develop a sense of race in relation to her identity when all the people surrounding her had “overwhelming assumptions” about what that was.
“I don’t think I realized how much of an impact it would make in terms of how I saw myself or how I saw other people,” she said of her college experience in a recent interview. “In a crass way, it’s almost weird that being smart and Asian was not a personality. It was a tough realization for me.”
Lin has a sibling still in the school district and hopes things will change for future students.
“It would be nice to know the institution and the community around us is actually thinking about these struggles that people of color experience and recognizing there are instances that people do feel unsafe and unwelcome and that people have felt unsafe and unwelcome at school,” Lin said. “It frequently feels like the experiences that people of color had are more quickly left unaddressed.”
The unfolding pandemic, resultant recession and national unrest scrambled the plans of the young alumni, some of whom graduated college in May at a chaotic period. Some are searching for jobs; some are grappling with reduced hours. Some of the former students returned home to finish out college or work remotely from their childhood bedrooms. Some are tuning in from around the country to board meetings forced to go virtual during the pandemic.
As the alumni started to watch protests and demonstrations calling for racial justice, they formed a Facebook group to discuss how to spur action in their home school district.
Kesari graduated from Cornell in May with an anthropology degree and plans to go medical school after a year off from school. She said she wanted to be a part of making change in the school system that helped form the person she is.
“We felt it was necessary for us to bring that same sort of advocacy to our school,” Kesari said in a recent interview.
After addressing the school board at the June meeting – telling them she had been called a “terrorist” while in school – she felt like district officials failed to recognize the significance of her experience and others like it.
“They didn’t acknowledge anything we said,” Kesari said.
Board President Stephen Syzdek called the experiences “less than pleasant” as he thanked the speakers for their courage to make the public comments.
“As you might imagine, any sort of curriculum change or shift requires some discussion and debate,” Syzdek said at the meeting. “I don’t think anyone questions your motives or the ideas, but like anything else it’s an institution and we have to talk this through.”
Kesari said she felt like district officials were underestimating the community’s willingness to focus efforts on creating a better experience for students of color, and as a result for all students.
“I don’t hate my community,” she said. “I really do love my community. I just think we can do better.”
In early June, the alumni created a four-page document outlining recommendations for the district to expand teacher training, class curriculum and student programming focused on diversity. The document recommends being more explicit in teaching systemic racism and the effects it has on society, focusing more on the people affected by slavery, teaching young students about the civil rights movement, hosting a multicultural day, creating a social justice student club, diversifying staff and other recommendations.
Two of the alumni, Zoe Simonson, a 2016 graduate, and Henry Caughey, a 2014 graduate, reached out to Tomlinson by email around June 4; Tomlinson invited them to meet in person. They shared the document and proposed statement.
Simonson and Caughey said they were optimistic after their meeting with Tomlinson around June 9, but started to sense resistance when in response to a follow-up email from Caughey, Tomlinson indicated he was concerned a “statement can be misinterpreted by so many groups and people, and this could cause more harm to the change that we want to make.” He did say he would talk about making a statement and their other ideas with the board at its meeting a few days later.
Before the meeting, the alumni started an online petition pressing for a statement and other action. More than a half-dozen alumni spoke at the board meeting, growing frustrated with Tomlinson’s comments that Black Lives Matter was a “hot movement” and that he wished the students describing incidents from multiple years ago had been acting “in a more proactive way rather than a reactive way.”
Tomlinson also said he didn’t want anyone in the community to have a wrong perception of what a statement meant, noting “in no way do I want to disrespect any of the law enforcement agents that I’m in contact with every single day to make sure our school community is protected” — even though the alumni’s proposed statement does not mention police.
“It shouldn’t matter what the community really perceives if you are standing on the side of inclusion,” Sal Salerno, a 2012 graduate, said during the meeting.
Tomlinson pointed out that just the board president and vice president were aware of the ongoing conversations with alumni prior to the June meeting and that the alumni gave them little time to absorb the comments.
The alumni, though, felt like their concerns were dismissed at the board’s July 20 meeting as well, leaving with the impression the board felt they were “doing enough” under existing policies and practices.
“Even after they heard these extremely moving testimonies from people of color, none of them said anything,” Simonson said of the board’s reaction at its June and July meetings. “Their words were literally we are doing enough.”
The Gazette reached out to the district Wednesday and indicated it planned to publish a story this week.
On Thursday, Tomlinson published on the district website a statement under his name, which said the district “is committed to equity and inclusiveness.”
“There is no place for racism in our community or in our country,” he wrote. “As a school district, we are continually ‘striving for excellence’ and we are committed to working with our community to uphold our core values of courage, citizenship, inclusiveness, service and heart.”
While many of the alumni said they were glad Tomlinson made the statement, they also noted he did not include any specific next steps for how the district planned to improve on its commitment to inclusion. Some of them also thought the timing of its release was curious – coming eight weeks after they first proposed the district make a statement of support and one day after a media inquiry.
“I’m very glad he made a statement, because I think it’s a very a good first step and will mean a lot to people in the community, but it’s a little sad that it seems it’s being made to save face so the district doesn’t look bad,” Simonson said. “What’s missing is any mention of how they are going to commit to this and any further actions.”
Tomlinson said he had been working on the statement for about three weeks and that the board had directed him to make a statement before The Gazette ever contacted him. “The statement was written to make a direct correlation to our mission statement and core values but also without taking a stance on one social movement or the other,” Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson said he wanted to move past the rancor that has emerged over the past two months, noting he had a meeting planned Monday with two alumni and that he hoped to “hit the reset button,” but also wouldn’t commit to establishing a diversity task force charged with exploring the kinds of ideas the alumni proposed.
Simonson called the creation of a task force a “minimal first step” after the statement and promised she and others would not drop their case in the coming weeks and months, acknowledging that what they are asking for will take years to fully realize.
“We’ll continue to go to every single board meeting until they actually do something,” she said.