The Niskayuna school board is nearing completion of a new district policy that explicitly bans Confederate and Nazi imagery from school grounds and commits the district to an expansive “anti-racist approach” to education.
The policy, which is up for a second reading at the school board’s Tuesday meeting and could soon be adopted by the board, outlines steps the district plans to take to combat institutional racism and “unequivocally affirms that Black lives matter.”
The proposed policy bars “racist symbols that are disruptive to the learning environment,” specifically highlighting Confederate imagery, Nazi swastikas, Ku Klux Klan symbols and “other white nationalist/white supremacist groups.”
In noting the display of such imagery in the past “has disrupted the learning environment and created unease in the community,” the policy emphasizes the standard spelled out by the Supreme Court in determining whether free expression can be restrained in public schools: student expression can only be limited if it causes a material and substantial disruption to the education of students.
But the proposed policy goes further in detailing a commitment to expanding staff diversity, deepening the curriculum’s focus on race and bias and reckoning with the local history and modern reality of deep education inequities within Schenectady County.
“The Niskayuna Central School District is committed to an anti-racist approach to public education to ensure a learning environment that is free from hate and the legacy of school segregation for all students and staff,” according to the policy. “The district unequivocally affirms that Black lives matter.”
The proposed policy emerged after dozens of Niskayuna teachers signed a letter calling for a ban of Confederate imagery from school grounds. School board members echoed those calls and developed a proposed policy that both bans the hateful symbols and asserts the broader anti-racism commitment.
“The district takes a strong position against systemic and institutional racism and will review existing policies and practices from an action-oriented approach, to complement existing diversity, equity and inclusions policies,” according to the policy.
During last month’s board meeting, student representative Selwa Khan, a high school senior, said she wants to see the district do more to incorporate anti-racism into curriculum, highlighting a need to teach more about local history and Niskayuna’s legacy of exclusionary zoning, the Middle East and North Africa and LGBTQ history. She said the lessons should occur in mandatory classes and not just electives.
“I feel like we can do a lot better,” she said.
Latisha Barnett, the district’s chief equity officer, at the meeting said she “100 percent agreed” and noted ongoing efforts to build a more inclusive curriculum. Marie Digirolamo, assistant superintendent for instruction, said district leaders planned to incorporate an anti-racism lens to a cycle of regular curriculum reviews.
The proposed policy asserts students in all grades have the ability to discuss bias, race and the impacts of racism and commits to “implementing anti-racist programs at all levels.” The policy also calls for a focus on increasing diversity among staff, expanding training opportunities, recognizing and honoring the contributions of Indigenous peoples and examining and repairing the educational disparities that exist between Niskayuna and Schenectady.
“[The district] committs to exploring the history of red-lining in Schenectady County and the separation of the Niskayuna and Schenectady school districts, examining the root causes of the resulting disparities in educational outcomes and beginning the process of working with the Schenectady City School District and relevant community groups to ameliorate these discrepancies,” according to the policy.