Peabody school board calls for social, economic, racial justice

PAUL BILODEAU/Staff file photoAriana Duran, 17, of Peabody, shares some of her experiences with racism and discrimination as a student at Peabody High during the Peabody for Racial Justice, Equality and Unity rally at Emerson Park on June 13.

PEABODY — At a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally at Emerson Park on June 13, Peabody High student Ariana Duran, 17, and others spoke about the sting of being a student of color at the high school and the need for the community's help to make a change.

In front of city leaders, including the mayor and police chief, Duran spoke about moving to Peabody from a diverse community in Florida at the end of eighth grade when she was 14. 

As a freshman at Peabody High, she recalled being called a racial slur for Hispanics at lunch one day by a white student.

"I didn't know what it meant, so I asked," said Duran, her speech captured by Peabody TV, "and they replied with: 'That's what you are.' They were referring to my ethnicity."

Racism wasn't a big issue for her at her prior school in Florida, and this was not the last time she or her friends felt hurt by discrimination at Peabody High, she explained.

"My school needs change," Duran said. "Black lives matter in my school, so let's make it feel that way."

It appears the Peabody School Committee is listening.

On June 30, the school board passed a resolution, which was based on one recommended by the Massachusetts Association of School Committees "in support of social, economic and racial justice in our community." 

Vice Chairperson Beverley Griffin Dunne crafted it to make it Peabody-specific. While she did not vote on the resolution because she was chairing the meeting, it passed unanimously, and so did a motion to create an equity task force.

Among other things, the resolution calls for annual professional development on diversity, a commitment to recruit and retain "a diverse and culturally responsive teaching workforce," and an examination of policies "for institutional and systemic racialized and ethnic oppression" by putting in place policies that are both sustainable and evidence based.

The resolution also seeks to incorporate into the curriculum "the history of racial and ethnic oppression and works by Black and ethnic authors and works from diverse perspectives."

Dunne said she felt strongly about bringing the resolution forward because over the years she had been contacted by families who felt they had suffered inequitable treatment in the school system.

Amid protests following the killing of George Floyd by Minnesota police in late May, she said former student leaders have been reaching out to tell her about their experiences with discrimination in high school. She noted that Peabody takes pride in its diversity, holding an International Festival every year, among other efforts.

"In my opinion, it all gets down to training and knowledge and having an open mind to understand how best to get along with other people," Dunne said.

She then asked incoming Superintendent Joshua Vadala to create an equity task force, and also to examine programs and practices to make sure the district is providing equity to all students and staff.

Dunne also asked about professional development on equitable education not only for staff, but for students and parents. Practices and policies need to be reviewed so people feel comfortable coming forward if they feel they have been discriminated against, she said.

"I think this is not only relevant and timely but it is of the utmost importance," said Vadala, who agreed that an equity task force was important, and a lot of districts are doing equity audits that could inform both professional development and curriculum.

School Committee member Jarrod Hochman said he thought the resolution was "too narrow in focus" and should also address other forms of discrimination, such as bias against one's sexual preference, religion or political views.

Dunne said at first, she was looking to broaden the resolution, but then noted the schools already have policies and training on issues such as sexual preference and sexual harassment. Dunne said she turned to the definition of racism, which spoke not only to racial but ethnic groups as well.

"That's why the term 'equity' to me is most important," she said.

School Committee member Andrew Arnotis said he attended the June rally at Emerson Park, and took note that some Peabody High students "stood up and expressed themselves and made points that they had experienced discrimination and other instances of being put out in our own building."

"The folks I was standing with," Arnotis said, "you know we were all at a distance, but we kind of turned to each other and said: 'Wow, how brave are those students to come forward and express that this is what they are experiencing.'"

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