Wednesday, April 24, 2024

To this point, I have resisted writing about the controversy over a January classroom conversation at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. But since a fellow elected official has chosen to attack me personally based on misstatements of fact and a selective recounting of events, I must respond. 

Last January, all members of the School Committee were invited by a CRLS history teacher to participate in a panel on Internet censorship. I agreed to participate because I shared the teacher’s and students’ concerns that filters on our high school computers were blocking student access to valuable information.

In introducing the class, the teacher, who is African American, uttered the “N-word” several times, including to state that it was one of the words blocked by the school’s Internet filters. I then commented that there are many filters in the high school environment, and that the students would also not find the N-word (here I used the full word) in textbooks. It was my assumption that the teacher himself was using the full version of this taboo word because he felt it was hypocritical to use the euphemism (“N-word”) in a discussion about censorship of racial slurs.

At the end of the class, the teacher informed me that my utterance was offensive. I immediately told him to give my email address to students in case they wanted to communicate to me their concerns. That night I emailed him an apology. I offered to return to the class, and sent an email to CRLS administrators and the superintendent to ask for help in communicating with the students. None responded. The following week I met first with the teacher, who told me, “For some students, this will be just another apology from a white person.” For that reason, rather than apologize directly to the students when I met with them the next day, I tried to engage them in a discussion about what had happened and what they felt I should do in response. This was clearly a clumsy mistake, and was taken by some students as a lack of apology. Realizing I had miscommunicated, I then apologized unqualifiedly, and did so again in public meetings and in the local press.

After my second visit to the class, I sent the teacher an email again apologizing. I also offered to help him and his students work to change the Internet policy, and included a link to an article entitled, “How Internet Filtering Hurts Kids.” A few days later, the teacher responded, “Emily: Thank you for sending this along (along with the article link today; was helpful for students to analyze it today for their project this afternoon); much appreciative. I’ll be sure to not only forward your words on next steps (with the filter) with my students but also the Black Student Union; will definitely keep you posted in the coming weeks. Take care.”

Based on this friendly email, I thought we were moving toward a resolution. But 10 days later I learned that the teacher, four students and another CRLS adult had filed a complaint against me, and that my colleague, Manikka Bowman, was advancing a motion to have the district investigate me for illegal discrimination. The investigation was later changed to a program review to be conducted by an outside lawyer. Part of the lawyer’s task was to review videotapes of both class sessions. These videotapes were shared with all School Committee members, but cannot be released to the public because of student privacy concerns and because the teachers’ union protested their release. Bowman, now unhappy with the results of the program review, has taken it upon herself to review the videotapes, mischaracterize them and render judgment on me. 

I agree with Bowman that the lawyer’s report did a poor job of capturing the full totality of events, including the above facts and the students’ perspectives. It is also regrettable that the videotapes cannot be released. Others who have viewed the tapes have found the events far more nuanced than Bowman describes.

That said, I again apologize unreservedly to the students and the community for my mistakes.

The question now is how to move forward. Do we try to learn from this experience, or do we continue to create rancor and make insinuations of bad faith, as Bowman does in her column? 

Finally, while I understand that not all of Cambridge voted for my reelection, I was supported by some of the same voters who supported Bowman: More than one-third of Bowman’s No. 1 voters listed me as their No. 2 choice. The events above were well covered in the press, and the electorate chose to weigh my recent mistakes against my long track record working to improve our schools. I intend to continue to do that work in my third term.

Emily Dexter is a member of the Cambridge School Committee, recently re-elected to a third term.