The Niskayuna school board last week adopted an anti-racism policy, banning racist symbols like the Confederate flag and committing to wide-ranging efforts to mitigate the effects of institutional racism in education.
The policy – paired with a resolution outlining the board’s broader anti-racist commitments – calls on the district to examine policies and practices for disparate outcomes, expand diverse staff recruitment efforts and develop new anti-racism academic programming across all grades.
“We condemn racism, hate speech, violence, and bias in all forms,” according to a school board resolution approving the new policy. “We acknowledge that a need exists to remove barriers that hinder our district from increasing the diversity of staff, and we will work to dismantle systemic racism in our schools and to openly talk, challenge and confront racism and inequities.”
(The policy defined anti-racism as “the work of actively opposing racism by advocating for changes in political, economic, and social life.”)
The policy itself explicitly bans the Confederate flag, Nazi swastikas and Ku Klux Klan imagery as racist symbols that “actually disrupt or are reasonably forecast to disrupt the learning environment.” Schools can limit actions that would otherwise be protected as free speech or expression if it is deemed a material disruption to the school environment, under Supreme Court precedents.
A group of Niskayuna educators over the summer signed an open letter urging the school board to unequivocally ban Confederate symbols from school property.
“To ask our students of color, knowing the history of this flag, to sit in classrooms with students who are displaying Confederate flags is unacceptable,” teachers wrote in the letter, which was signed by over 75 employees in the district and a majority of the high school faculty.
The policy outlines a series of the district’s beliefs and commitments – for instance: “students of all ages are able to talk about bias, race, and the impacts of racism” – followed by a series of action steps. The action steps include providing “bias awareness and anti-racist training” across the district, identifying and addressing barriers to increasing staff diversity, and reviewing curriculum and materials to ensure classroom experiences reflect all students.
The new initiative also sets up the district’s educators and students to examine the district’s own place in a history that has led to Black students disproportionately attending underfunded and under-performing schools. In a resolution adopting the new policy, the board committed to “exploring the history of red-lining in Schenectady County and the separation of the Niskayuna Central School Distrct and Schenectady City School District” and working to ameliorate the disparities in educational outcomes among students in the neighboring districts.
The resolution, though not the policy, also asserted that “Black lives matter.”
“Everybody is thrilled,” student representative Selwa Khan, a senior, said after the board approved the policy last week.
Niskayuna won’t be the only Capital Region district to approve a new anti-racism policy this school year. A wave of national racial justice protests during the summer evolved into local rallies and calls for improved diversity and inclusion initiatives in school districts around the region. Students, recent alumni and other activists have called on school boards and district leaders to ban Confederate imagery, adopt more inclusive curriculum and acknowledge the mistreatment many students of color have faced in districts around the region.
The Schenectady school board in recent months established a committee to develop its own new policy to serve as a statement organizing the rest of the district’s programs to address inequities and improve outcomes for students. The board adopted a resolution June 17 formally committing to creating the new policy.
The committee of members from across the district has started to develop the policy and will soon begin meeting with different groups of stakeholders inside and outside the district, interim Superintendent Aaron Bochniak said during a recent update to the school board.
The Shenendehowa school board this fall established a similar committee and charged it with improving equity in three areas: curriculum and instruction, personnel and professionalism, and organizational structure.
“Not only are we reimagining the practical provision of education, we are also transforming the fundamental structures that have validated privilege and perpetuated discriminatory and racist practices, and ultimately pervasive, uneven outcomes for generations of young people,” according to a document outlining the committee’s goals.