Thursday, May 23, 2024

Some voices from members of the Black Student Union at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School are shown in images throughout this story in screen captures from the group’s final video of the year.

Six months after Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School’s Black Student Union released its “Cambridge Minority Reports Volume 1” detailing racist microaggressions – and macroaggressions – encountered at the school, there have been a flurry of voices in the public realm refocusing attention on the students’ complaints. These include an electric School Committee subcommittee meeting, a highly unusual public comment session at a regular committee meeting, new BSU videos, recent public comment pressure from families of color and white allies, a districtwide letter and editorial by Superintendent Kenneth Salim, a podcast on Public Radio International and a fiery graduation speech by the student government president pressing for more responsiveness to students.

It is too little, too late for the seniors who graduated last month, and the school community enters the summer with flagging student activism, with the few students who remain committed possibly without a group of allies or an adviser to assist.  

There are hopeful signs of greater urgency from a variety of sources – including administration – to find ways to support the students and change the culture. At the same time, some teachers, including those who say they support student efforts to eradicate racism, worry that their voices are being lost and that too many are being swept up in accusations of racist treatment, and are looking for strong school leadership. Perhaps most importantly, public comment has shown that most people in the community don’t know what administration has been up to.

Attempt at conversation, but debate seems shut down

The December release of the student club’s second video seemed primed for an explosive response. The stories of a couple of dozen students ranged from harmful assumptions – presuming someone was not an honors student because they were black – to outright vulgarities – calling someone an “animal.” Although in describing incidents the students did not name names, identifying details such as the subject of a course made it possible for many in the school to know which teacher the students were talking about. Some staff felt “attacked” by the video, misunderstood, unable to defend themselves or surprised that issues they thought had been resolved were still festering. Some staff even avoided looking at the video.

Another voice from the Black Student Union video.

Instead of opening public conversation, the reaction was tightly controlled. The school’s Register Forum newspaper reported that the videos “struck a chord with a lot of CRLS students and staff” and “spark[ed] conversations in all corners of the building,” but also that most of those discussions stayed in the halls. The BSU students saw the muted impact as a rebuke – there was no school walkout of support, as there had been two years before for sexual harassment claims, or would be for the gun protest a couple of months later; student School Committee member Juliette Low Fleury pointed to the contrast of the support she felt the Jewish Heritage Club received when swastikas were painted on bathroom walls to the almost fearful reactions to the BSU video.

While there was one schoolwide discussion in homerooms, a public statement from Principal Damon Smith said the video was “not approved” by the school and “was not going to be shown.” Many homerooms watched a slide presentation narrated by Smith on microaggressions, with no reference to the video. The Register Forum reported that most class discussion was confined to how microaggressions “affect Harvard Square” instead of CRLS, one student said.

Students reported that they were concerned that the teacher adviser, new-to-Cambridge Kevin Dua, was facing pressure to look elsewhere for a job – though Smith, who expressed empathy for the students’ message while admitting he also had to protect his staff, says Dua’s job is safe. The BSU’s next video illustrated the students’ perceived voicelessness, with a scoreboard in the final frame: “CRLS: 0, Racism: 1.”

School Committee response

School Committee members responded with concern in two public discussions. Two weeks after the Volume 1 video, the committee voted unanimously to pass a motion to work “in conjunction with the CPSD administration [to] create a working group that should be made up of a diverse subset of stakeholders that solely examines race, class and microaggressions through the vehicle of a comprehensive and uniform practice procedure and policy for students, families teachers and administrators for CPSD” – a motion later referred to by many members as “strong support” of the students.

This year’s new committee (Laurance Kimbrough was elected as Richard Harding left) unanimously passed a stronger and more specific motion May 15 by Kimbrough and Mayor Marc McGovern directing “that the superintendent will work” with stakeholders, including students, administrators, parents and community members to “create a concrete process for reporting matters of cultural competency so the matters may be handled with care, compassion, transparency and urgency, providing opportunities for learning and progress,” with a reporting process in place by the start of school next September.

In their final meeting of the year, the committee passed Manikka Bowman’s motion charging the superintendent with hiring a “trained diversity and inclusion specialist” to deal with “interpersonal, sociological and psychological impacts” of racist incidents.

Another voice from the Black Student Union video.

The wider community starts pressing

While four parents and teachers supported the BSU students in public comments during winter and spring School Committee meetings, the main voices continued to be the students themselves via the BSU and Cambridge Youth Council (several students are members of both) who have appeared frequently to read statements. Some parents expressed support for the students in social media – sites that students did not see. 

bullet-gray-small April subcommittee. The first real public discussion on the issues raised by the BSU videos didn’t happen until an untelevised April subcommittee meeting on school climate for “the purposes of discussing family concerns regarding cultural competency,” run by members Emily Dexter and Kimbrough. 

The meeting was emotionally charged. Chairman Kimbrough – black, and a former student and staff member at CRLS, as well as the son of a teacher at the school – established a community meeting feeling by allowing the public to not only provide statements in a public comment period, but to follow up later with questions and thoughts. Administration members Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk, Chief Planning Officer Lori Likis and Assistant Superintendent Maryann MacDonald reported on work done over the past two years on “cultural competency” training. Black and white parents, many of younger children, spoke of the “heartache” they felt in hearing the student stories. 

Parents from the Haggerty School, where BSU students had been invited to present their work, reported their deep concern that these students continued to feel unheard. Deb Richards was representative: “I heard that BSU wasn’t supported. They did not feel validated or heard, and were being called divisive and militant. I was floored. What is the district doing about this? I have the feeling that I’ve been kind of duped. I thought this was a less racist town.” 

bullet-gray-small Regular May meeting. These comments were repeated at the following May 15 regular committee meeting, creating one of the most unusual public comment sessions the committee has seen – so unusual, McGovern responded by changing committee practice to no longer allow people to cede their time to another speaker. (With a three-minute limit per person, “ceding time” has been an allowable practice for years, although it is not addressed in the rules. After three of 16 speakers ceded their time to one person, McGovern announced at the next meeting that ceding time “was not allowed.”) McGovern also broke protocol and allowed a response from Salim immediately after public comment; he acknowledged both the importance of the issue and a public impression that there had been no response, despite increased attention.

Another voice from the final Black Student Union video.

For more than an hour there was heartfelt testimony, poetry and song, all directed at attacking racism in schools and providing support to students. Ashley Herring, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Cambridge and mother of a 3-year-old son whom, she said, she chose not to send to Cambridge Public Schools used that ceded time to alternate between requests, slogans (“The revolution is young people”), singing (“Black lady, one day you gonna have your way”), chanting (“Cambridge is violently silent and silently violent”), and poetry (“A Black Boy Flourishes.”)

Many of the speakers said they’d felt a lack of urgent response. “I watched the videos in horror and expected something different,” parent Mary Shalou. said. “I didn’t see a response.” Specifically, many called for “a distinction between anti-racism and cultural competency.”

“I am deeply disappointed that our city didn’t show up for the BSU to say, ‘This is unacceptable,’” Rebecca Bailey said. “There must be a role for a districtwide parent group putting it front and center.” 

Administration’s public reaction: Careful, low profile 

The December letter to families acknowledging the BSU video and a follow-up all-school discussion (without necessarily showing the video) was Smith’s only message to the high school community. Smith and union president Monahan did not respond to media requests for comments and CRLS staff was cautioned not to talk “publicly” about the video. 

In December, Salim responded to a request for a comment by Cambridge Day on the video with a statement, which included: 

While cultural proficiency work has been a professional development focus for our high school and the district, these student testimonies show that we need to dig deeper and do more to ensure that we have a learning environment that is inclusive and culturally responsive for every student every day … We will continue to work with students, staff and administrators on this important and very difficult work … In addition, building leaders have met with staff members individually and have created additional opportunities this week to speak with any faculty who have questions or concerns.

There were no other public statements from school or district administration until Salim’s May 22 letter (a week after the dramatic public comment at the school meeting) advising the community about the PRI “Otherhood” podcast – a 30-minute exploration of the BSU videos, including interviews with a student, Salim, Smith and Dua. The title, “Why it’s so hard to talk about racism that happens in schools,” explains the podcast’s lingering impression that CRLS has not figured it out. Salim included references only to the leveling up of first-year English and history classrooms and the focus on bringing in more teachers of color. Smith has made no further public statements.

Race at CRLS: A timeline
July 2016 The comments of several Cambridge Rindge and Latin School teachers and students – including two prominent teachers citing a race-related hostile workplace as reasons to quit the school – spark a debate in and outside of the school; attract Massachusetts Teacher of the Year Kevin Dua, who restarts the school’s Black Student Union, and Ramon de Jesus as program manager for diversity development to the school; begins a public dialogue; reportedly create tension in the school, and lead to a policy that teachers should not talk to the press.
December 2016 CRLS joins other schools state- and nationwide in confronting increased racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic graffiti on its property.
October 2017 CRLS’ revived Black Student Union releases a “public service announcement” of students singing the “Black National Anthem.”
Dec. 5, 2017 The BSU releases “Cambridge’s Minority Reports: Volume 1” with students recounting micro- and macro-aggressions while at the high school.
Dec. 5, 2017 and onward Some CRLS teachers are reportedly upset to be “wrongly accused” or not given an opportunity to give “their side of the story.” Some reportedly threaten to sue the school. Principal Damon Smith and Cambridge Education Association president Dan Monahan are forced to walk a fine line in supporting student voice and protecting staff. High school staff start to be told by administration that they cannot talk publicly about the issue to families or the media, according to staff who chose not to adhere to the rule.
Dec. 7, 2017 Smith sends a letter to school families saying the administration “have been made aware, and viewed the video” and that there would be a “schoolwide community conversation” during special class sessions a week later. “First and foremost,” the email continued, “as evident in the video, the impact of microaggressions and the lack of cultural competency in our professional community is a necessary conversation we must continue to have as a school.” 
Dec. 7, 2017 Smith sends a slightly different letter to school staff, adding “As important as this ongoing dialogue is, the administration did not approve how the video was distributed, nor did the administration agree with elements of the video that implicated specific staff members. For this reason, as we continue towards making CRLS a more culturally competent community, we will not use this particular video as a vehicle during the Community Conversation next week.” 
December CRLS students meet in schoolwide special homeroom meetings to discuss the issues raised in the video. Some but not all classrooms show the video. Teachers and administrators “create additional opportunities” to speak with faculty and students who have concerns, Superintendent Kenneth Salim said.
Dec. 19, 2017 School Committee unanimously passes a motion by member Patty Nolan and then-member Richard Harding supporting efforts by the BSU and teacher and BSU adviser Kevin Dua “to engage students and start difficult conversations about race and identity and the student experience.”
Jan. 27, 2018 BSU releases “Cambridge Minority Reports: Volume 2” using historical civil rights footage projected over silent BSU students, ending with a student writing a scoreboard: “Racism: 1; CRLS: 0,” and “we made BSU and our videos to feel human here. People soon called us ‘militant’ and ‘divisive’ here. How are you stopping that racism from winning here?”
Feb. 6, 2018 Members of Cambridge Youth Council support BSU students and push for hiring more teachers of color; with Assistant Principal Robert Tynes, they ask for more student involvement leading workshops on anti-racism.
March 21, 2018 BSU releases “Superwomen: No. 1” video for International Women’s Month “celebrating the beauty, sincerity and empowerment of young black and brown women.”
April 26, 2018 Untelevised school subcommittee meeting on school climate brings parents and students expressing deep concern about “lack of response” to BSU videos; administration explains progress in “cultural competency training.”
May 15, 2018 Fifteen parents and students take part in an unusually dramatic public comment session at a School Committee meeting demanding response and support to the BSU students.
May 21, 2018 PRI releases national “Otherhood” podcast “Why it’s so hard to talk about racism that happens in schools” about CRLS and the BSU, expanding public knowledge of the local issue, and sparking misgivings among many staff unhappy at having Cambridge singled out.
May 22, 2018 Salim sends letter districtwide about the “Otherhood” podcast, and highlights the “leveling up” of two high school classes and an initiative to increase the hiring of nonwhite teachers.
June 6, 2018 BSU releases “Cambridge’s Minority Reports: Volume 3” explaining the importance to students of “creating a safe space” at BSU, but also the pain that followed by some teachers and students now labeling them “divisive” and “other.”
June Public comments in School Committee meetings continue to press for “urgent response.”
June 7, 2018 CRLS school government president Sophie Harrington delivers a searing graduation speech, starting with a charge about the school motto “Opportunity, Diversity and Respect:”: “Over the past four years, it has become clear to me that our motto is a collection of words without a real call to action…When students have ideas that will bring us closer to the aspirations in our motto, we are sometimes greeted with hostility or, in other cases, not even a response.”

BSU students report in their “Volume 3” that after the first two videos, several teachers sent purportedly supportive letters to black male students, even though the vast majority of the students in the videos were female. 

Behind the scenes, though, the district has focused on revamped cultural competency training. None of the public responses to the videos have listed all these initiatives, let alone in one place. These include several that were begun before the videos; all are ongoing (mainly presented in the untelevised May subcommittee meeting):

bullet-gray-small The District Plan makes “providing equity and access” one of five key strategic objectives; all educators will have cultural competency training under the guidance of the Disruptive Equity Education Project.

bullet-gray-small The District Plan-driven creation of Dynamic Diversity Development initiative to increase hiring of teachers of color.

bullet-gray-small An Exploring Culture program that uses a “train the trainers model” to build capacity on cultural competency with an initial eight-week training course by Wheelock College’s Aspire Institute. Likis said the key difference from previous efforts is that every school is involved and “training is not optional”; it began in October, and Dua and the BSU students came to a meeting.

bullet-gray-small Each school is developing an “action plan” for cultural competency in their school community.

bullet-gray-small A joint educators union/district “Building Equity Bridges” project is underway “to deepen our understanding of the root causes of inequity in our schools,” supported by a $295,000 Nellie Mae Grant.

bullet-gray-small There’s ongoing work by union/administration working groups on diversity and professional development.

bullet-gray-small A “Microagressions Working Group” at the high school includes members of the community, educators and students, created in response to the videos. 

bullet-gray-small An Exploring Cambridge program ongoing for the past two years is “helping teachers get out of the building and [get to] know our community and our kids.”

What is the staff and student body response?

Public comment from district teachers and staff has been almost invisible. Shortly after the summer 2016 article on the exodus of teachers of color, staff were asked by administration and their union not to respond publicly. This message was reiterated after the “Volume 1” video. Still, some teachers have said off the record that they support the students. Others are defensive and flinch at one ex-teacher’s notion expressed in the PRI podcast that Cambridge “is the most racist district I have ever been in.”

Some have expressed enthusiasm for the new cultural competency professional development work; one recently praised a teacher of color colleague’s “terrific and important work” in leading staff workshops. Others are strong allies that try to strongly support the BSU and teacher of color colleagues. Monahan has supported the concerns of the BSU students in School Committee testimony, and points to ongoing staff work on creating more supportive environments.

But many, many of the teachers have said that they are “afraid”: afraid to respond publicly in any way or be “called into ‘the office’”; afraid they will unwittingly offend and be labeled permanently as racist. It’s impossible to know what the majority of CRLS staff feel.

The public and the students know that at least some teachers reacted very negatively to the videos and even talked about “suing” the district for not protecting their identify or allowing what they saw as a “mischaracterization.” (The videos were not school-sponsored projects; they, like the school newspaper, The Register Forum, are student-produced with a faculty adviser.)

BSU students report some support from teachers who viewed the videos, but even more of a chilling effect from other teachers, with suggestions that teachers and even some fellow students now view them as changed, as “divisive” or “militant.” The clamp-down on staff voice has left many students – BSU and otherwise – feeling “in the dark” and shut out of the conversation. “This is a call to action for adults in Cambridge: Please listen and support us,” said school government president Sophie Harrington, who is white, in her graduation speech. “Come to our classes; respond to our emails.” The mood at CRLS, for students and staff, is uncertain and very guarded.

The speech, in video provided by the city’s cable channel, 22-CityView:

How it’s ending this year

It’s impossible to know if the official reaction to the video would have been different if a couple of teachers were not made identifiable to insiders, as suggested by some administration and staff, including Smith in the “Otherhood” podcast. Was that the real objection to the video? The real reason some staff felt it was “inappropriate” or suggested it undermined staff rights to even acknowledge the message of the video? 

The BSU, started with great enthusiasm last fall, is “99 percent not likely to return next year,” Dua said at the end of “Minority Reports Volume 3.” The vast majority of the BSU were seniors, who have now left the school. After the release and response to “Volume 2,” BSU’s membership dropped precipitously, with many students feeling “black and brown students were scared to be associated with us,” a student said in the final video – reflecting some of that despair at being unheard seen from the start. Dua himself has been cagey about whether he will return next year, and about what the determining reasons might be. A final BSU meeting right before school’s end attracted more than 50 students, but only a few tentative hands went up when Dua asked how many students were committed to returning “to this room” next year.

Salim has said publicly that as an immigrant child himself, he feels resonance with the issues expressed by the BSU students (as does Smith, who is black). “Continuing work around cultural competency … is important, challenging, urgent work,” Salim said at the May meeting of the School Committee. “Having voices of students at center will continue to be our approach.” 

A final voice from the Black Student Union video.

Next year the cultural competency training will continue – the district still abstains from calling it “anti-racism.” The role and volume of student and family voice will bear watching. Deputy Superintendent Turk, a black woman who has been in Cambridge her whole life, said that her “100-year-old mother sat in these very seats” urging help on the same issues. She sees hopeful signs, though, this time: Today “there are voices and people coming out that perhaps in the past did not feel as though they could. It feels like we are in a different place.”

McGovern, also an alum and parent of students in Cambridge Public Schools, shares her optimism that the urgency will continue. At the close of the final committee meeting of the year, McGovern said:

“I heard that the [BSU] seniors … felt they weren’t heard. I really hope that they are able to look back at the amazing work that they did. We are having a discussion about microaggressions … that we have needed to have for years. It was really pushed forward because of those kids. If they are watching: They were heard.”

This post was updated July 4, 2018, to clarify that Ashley Herring is an organizer for Black Lives Matter Cambridge. She was previously identified as the founder.