As Rajaah Alagib finishes her last year at Albemarle High School, she has spent months working with fellow students from across the division to craft a policy that she and others hope will lead to lasting change.
“We’re leaving our legacy,” she said.
Alagib and three other students brought the fifth version of their anti-racism policy to the School Board for its review Thursday. Eight students volunteered to create the policy, which the board directed staff in July to develop. The division's Office of Community Engagement helped the students to craft the policy.
Alagib said the policy is not attempting to solve bigger issues — such as redistricting or tracking, the practice of assigning students to different classes based on perceived ability — but rather it’s focusing on smaller goals.
“Basically, we want a policy that champions diversity and it really emphasizes the fact that our school system and the American public educational system is not as equitable as we might have thought it was before,” she said.
The five-page draft policy requires anti-racism training for staff, quarterly reports from schools and alternative discipline processes, among other provisions. Students also suggested changes be made to the class recommendation process to make it more transparent and to address the role of institutional racism in tracking.
Patrick McLaughlin, the division’s chief of strategic planning, said this is the first time the school system has turned over initial policy creation to students.
Kate Acuff, chairwoman of the School Board, told the students it is important to have them involved because “you live it every day in your schools.”
Board members are hoping to adopt an anti-racism policy early next year. They said they would like to see more clarity about the training requirement, reporting stipulation and feasibility of the policy before voting on the policy.
Kimalee Dickerson, a consultant for the division and doctoral student at the University of Virginia Curry School for Education & Human Development, worked with the students to develop the policy. The division’s Office of Community Engagement oversaw the creation.
“The policy can chart a course of action to uncover and address some of the forms of racism we discussed, but it can’t alone eliminate racism,” Dickerson said. “Regulations can help put the policy into practice.”
The policy doesn’t include specific metrics for accountability. Schools would provide a quarterly report to the School Board with data on racial disparities in areas such as student achievement, suspension/discipline and gifted identification.
Students also suggested that the division create an anonymous way for students and staff to report racism and other forms of discrimination. Currently, the school system is looking into purchasing such a reporting system.
The anti-racism policy does not include a ban on Confederate symbols on clothing or school property. The Hate-Free Schools Coalition of Albemarle County has called for such a ban since February. In July, the board had considered amending the dress code to ban Confederate symbols on clothing. After that meeting, the board moved to create an overarching anti-racism policy.
Several community members criticized the lack of a ban during public comment at Thursday’s meeting.
“You’ve had enough time,” said Lara Harrison with Hate-Free Schools. “You have failed to show us that you are anti-racist. White people sitting around talking about how much to ban or whether to ban this imagery while the kids continue to suffer is the epitome of white supremacy.”
Hate-Free Schools has not been involved in creating the anti-racism policy, speakers said at the meeting.
Dickerson said the committee had extensive conversations about including a ban on Confederate imagery. In the end, they decided to focus on various forms of racism. The purpose of the policy is to take action against individual, institutional and structural racism, according to the latest version of the policy.
Students said they think addressing systemic issues and educating their peers would be much more powerful.
“Instead of weed whacking [racism], we wanted to pull it up by the roots,” said Noel Brockett, a senior at Western Albemarle High School and a member of the policy committee.
Thursday’s discussion on the draft policy lasted nearly two hours. Board members heard from the students who created it and highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of it. They have not proposed specific changes to the policy yet but plan to continue discussing it.
Students on the committee have met several times this school year, learning about division policy and hearing from panels assembled by Bernard Hairston, assistant superintendent for school community empowerment.
In creating the policy, they said they drew on their own experiences in the division.
“It’s easy to pretend that actions weren’t racist if we don’t say they were,” Brockett said. “… I know I learned in elementary school that Robert E. Lee was a great guy. … As an elementary-schooler, I didn’t know that the Union was the hero because of the way we didn’t acknowledge the racist actions of the Confederacy.”
The proposed anti-racism policy calls for the School Board to develop and implement an anti-racist curriculum for all grade levels.
“It’s really essential for us to talk about the untold history,” Alagib said. “That’s something that’s really not mentioned in our classrooms right now.”
The students also want the division to examine all curricula for racial bias. The policy calls for the creation of a staff position to oversee that review, as well as implementation of the other pieces of the policy.
School Board member David Oberg said he supports that idea and added that the new staff member should report to the board.
“I fully trust [Superintendent Matt] Haas, but superintendents change,” he said. “… I want to see a policy that actually does something, so that 20 years from now, it’s still working.”
Cyrus Rody-Ramazani, a senior at WAHS and a member of the policy committee, said students didn’t want the policy to become another link on a website or a piece of paper stowed away. To combat that concern, they suggested requiring every school to post a public statement rejecting all forms of racism.
“Which is vital so that everyone is aware of this, and they understand that these are the values that we hold and it’s what is expected,” he said.