Listening Circles on School Violence

The Edwardsville (Illinois) High School had two incidents this month that resulted in the district organizing “listening circles” for parents.

On Tuesday, November 5, “EHS Administration was made aware of a racially insensitive and inappropriate social media post that was sent off campus by one student to others via the social media platform, Snapchat,” Dr. Jason Henderson, Superintendent, Edwardsville Unit 7 Schools, wrote to parents.

That day, there was one fight on campus over the post and its online comments.

Dr. Dennis Cramsey, EHS Principal, wrote three emails to parents explaining the situation, including rumors (later proved false) of a student threatening to bring a gun to school. Cramsey canceled all “after school clubs, activities, and academic supports.”

The next day, one-third of all students skipped school. Police and other security were added, and school counselors and administrators were made available to those in attendance. Principal Cramsey told students he was forgoing the usual morning announcements for a long address. In part he said,

 

I do not condone any racist statements and I will not tolerate such racist behavior. I will not tolerate the use of the “N” word being used in any situation, in any conversation or in any setting at EHS. The “N” word has no home at EHS! I will also not tolerate students who respond to negative comments by fighting. […]

In addition to racial diversity, we have straight, gay, and lesbian, transgender, and other LBGTQ students, faculty, and staff. We have Christians, Muslim, and Jewish students and faculty and staff among other people of various faiths. We have a diverse population and that should make us stronger, not tear us apart.

I realize this announcement, in itself, will not solve some of the underlying issues, such as racism, that exist in our society. And, because racism exists in our society, racism exists within our school.

 

The day after that, November 7, a student threatened to bring a gun to school, in what was said to be an unrelated incident, setting off a second round of community anxiety.

Last week there was a special meeting of the School Board, and the district offered three public meetings of only 60 parents each, plus facilitators, for what they called Listening Circles.

The Saturday session ran from 10 to 12. The crowd seemed to be about 40 percent black, the rest white. They were broken into three subgroups, each of which met with a facilitator in a separate room. In the session I attended, the facilitator said he had been told to “be colorful,” so he wrote comments on an array of colors of Post-Its, which were then placed on large sheets of paper for three topics, all of which were meant to generate ideas for practical action.

Parents told stories of racial issues in the district, including a white boy cutting off the hair of a black girl at her desk; the proliferation of “Build the Wall” t-shirts and MAGA gear left uncommented-on by administrators, while a “Relax, I’m Legal” shirt on a mixed-race student resulting in a trip to the office and counseling about appropriate dress; and pickups flying huge American flags in the parking lot, as a kind of dog-whistle. Not all the stories were simple, and not all were about white racism directed at black students.

The discussion was heartfelt but calm, and everyone agreed the district often communicated poorly in general, so it was impossible to know what the baseline for conflict was. The parents who were present agreed that fights and other discipline issues had always occurred, but that the fight that had happened recently was picked up by the media because it was interracial.

They spoke of systemic racism and several agreed that Trumpism was the root, or at least the new growth on an old root. (One parent mentioned racial conflict in the Fifties, and another the region’s reputation for historical racism.) No one defended themselves over the right to wear MAGA gear, or the President for setting a national tone. No one said white people did not get a fair break, or that black people were to blame for problems. In a school where 80 perecent of the students are white, this surely meant some were not voicing what they felt or were not present to do so.

The parents in the room seemed to recognize that those who had chosen to attend may have already been of a certain mindset. But a kind of unrepresentative consensus and amity had resulted, I felt, which followed how race was treated where I live in Louisiana: there could be a squishy consensus across a community that racial epithets should not be drawn on vehicles, as happened in Edwardsville. But if you drilled down to some level of what this moment in our nation means, and why we are so conspicuously divided, ugly, intransigent lines would be drawn that would result in different expectations for teachers and school administrators.

Social media is one of the few places where differing sides actually speak openly with each other, even if in inflammatory ways.

After the smaller sessions, the groups were convened in the gym. The head facilitator, a young black PhD who had gone to EHS herself, thanked everyone and said she was wonkishly excited about digging into the data points the crowd had provided and interpreting their results. Policies would be determined. Progress would be made.

Dr. Jason Henderson, Superintendent, Edwardsville Unit 7 Schools also thanked the small crowd and said the district was “uniquely positioned” to effect change in this matter. Afterwards I asked Henderson what he meant, given our national issues. He said he had not meant to imply Edwardsville was exceptional in this regard, but that the community had the history, resources, good intentions, and will to effect change.

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