BEVERLY — City and school officials are condemning comments by two residents directed at the School Committee's only Black member during a meeting Wednesday night.
The residents, Donna Loiacano and Stephen Moloney, questioned the qualifications of Ward 2 School Committee member Kenann McKenzie, who has a Ph.D in education and has worked in the field for more than 20 years.
At one point in the meeting, Mayor Mike Cahill told Moloney, "Neither you nor Ms. Loiacano are really showing any respect for Dr. McKenzie as a human being and as a member of our School Committee."
"I just want you to stop, Steve. Please," Cahill said.
The remarks came during a portion of the meeting when members of the public were commenting on the school mask mandate for students. When Loiacano got up to speak, she pointed to McKenzie and said, "How does she get on the board? She wasn't voted in."
Loiacano then asked if McKenzie got on the School Committee because of Andre Morgan. Morgan is the school district's director of opportunity, access and equity and has no role in the election of School Committee members. Loiacano referred to Morgan, who has doctorate degrees in philosophy from American University and education leadership from Harvard University, as "doctor whoever."
In an interview on Thursday, McKenzie said she and the rest of the School Committee were caught off guard by the comments and felt "collectively traumatized." She said the reference to Morgan, who is Black, "made it a racially charged question, as far as I'm concerned."
"It is an added stress and burden to many people of color to have people stop you at the door and verify only you and no one else in the space," McKenzie said.
Morgan, who was at the meeting, said Thursday that the statements and behaviors of the two residents "were attacks on two members of our school community."
"While I found the comments to be inappropriate, I am appreciative to our speakers, for highlighting the importance and necessity of engaging in the work of diversity, equity and inclusion," Morgan said in an email.
McKenzie was named to the School Committee last December to fill the vacant Ward 2 seat. She was selected unanimously in a joint vote by the City Council and School Committee, according to a provision in the city charter dictating how to fill a School Committee seat when a member leaves before the end of their term.
Loiacano and Moloney both asked whether McKenzie will be on the ballot for this year's election. McKenzie has returned her nomination papers and will be on the ballot in the Nov. 2 election. She does not have any opposition, nor do any of the other incumbent committee members.
McKenzie is the director of the Aspire Institute and an adjunct assistant professor at the Boston University Wheelock College of Education and Human Development. According to her biography on the school's website, she has a bachelor's degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, a master's degree in education from the University of Virginia, and a doctoral degree in politics and education from Columbia University. She has worked in higher education for 20 years as an academic counselor, researcher, lecturer, policy analyst and administrator. She has also worked in the K-12 sector, as an administrator in the U.S. Department of Education, and as executive director of the National Board of Education Sciences.
McKenzie said this was the first time she has been attacked in that way since moving to Beverly. Neither Loiacano nor Moloney referred to McKenzie by name, instead calling her "she" or "the new member."
"This was the most aggressive any person has been," McKenzie said. "I have generally found people in Beverly to be incredibly respectful and welcoming. I have never felt like anyone was attacking me or questioning my judgment or my place in Beverly. It's happened to me in other places in my life, but this would be the first time it's happened to me in this capacity."
McKenzie said she did not respond to the comments during the meeting because "I did not believe that people speaking to me that way warranted a reply."
"At the same time, I told myself that there were people who came before me who had to stomach these kinds of assaults and move forward," she said.
McKenzie said she appreciated the support of her colleagues at the meeting. In addition to Cahill's comments, School Committee President Rachael Abell told Loiacano she was "getting off script" and stopped Moloney from speaking when his time was up.
In a statement on Wednesday, Abell said the School Committee does not condone "personal attacks on our members and administrators."
"We support a safe and inclusive forum as we strive to provide our students with access to the strongest possible public education curriculum," she said.
Abu Toppin, the city's diversity, equity and inclusion director, called the behavior at the meeting an "overt display of racism" and said it shows that Beverly is not immune to "ignorance and intolerance."
"But I know that's not what this city is about," Toppin said. "We are better than what was on full display (Wednesday) night. We have a whole community who is not accepting of hate, intolerance and ignorance. Now is the time for all of us to have courageous intent to drown out the sounds of misguided drums. That display of ignorance should fortify the need for us to come together now more than ever."
The two residents also claimed that "critical race theory" is being taught in the Beverly Public Schools. Critical race theory argues that racism is ingrained in the country's institutions.
McKenzie said critical race theory is not being taught in the Beverly schools. She said the district is working to make its school curriculum "more culturally responsive to students' needs." She gave the example of helping a student who speaks a different language access the course material, or helping students in intergenerational households be proud of their experiences.
"It's really about knowing who your students are, being mindful of their situation and how they learn best," McKenzie said. "This is not specifically about race. Culturally responsive teaching could apply to anybody from any background."
McKenzie said she is part of a blended family of white and Black children and does not want anyone to experience racism.
"They all deserve to feel safe and welcome in our schools," she said.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2535, by email at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @heardinbeverly.