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Heard loud and clear: Hundreds attend school board’s forum on race relations

By Cameron Macdonald

The Elk Grove school board on Jan. 16 hosted a forum to hear community members tell about ongoing issues of racial discrimination at their schools. They listened to more than 70 speakers for 5½ hours at Sheldon High School, where an estimated 500 people gathered at the performing arts center.

“Now that I know what’s happening, I’m not going to sit in silence,” Trustee Bobbie Singh-Allen said.

Speakers addressed issues such as mistreatment by on-campus law enforcement officers, the lack of diversity among faculty, insensitive comments toward African-American teachers and school administrators’ poor handling of racist incidents.

“At the end of the day, I don’t want any more forums, I want results,” said Betty Williams, the president of Sacramento’s NAACP chapter. Her organization provided 11 solutions to the school board for combating racial discrimination and promoting greater inclusion and equity of students.

 “I know that emotions are running strong, and now is the time that we need to see the humanity in each and every person; there are no sides tonight,” Superintendent Christopher Hoffman said at the beginning of the forum. “It is those of us in the room who will need to do the work.”

The school district’s focus was drawn to race relations in late December by videos posted online in which a Pleasant Grove High School student made bigoted remarks about African-Americans. The videos drew public outrage, and district officials quickly condemned them. The student is no longer attending classes in the Elk Grove school district, according to district officials.

Rachael Francois, an African-American student at Pleasant Grove High, earlier this month drew wide attention when she spoke to journalists about classmates who made racist comments around and toward her, as well as an incident where a noose was found on campus. She also said her school’s administrators failed to do anything to address her concerns. “We need to see what the next step is going to be, because if we don’t, nothing is going to change,” Francois told the school board. “Talk is big but actions are bigger; we shouldn’t be seeing these things over and over again.” The senior received a standing ovation after she spoke. She was also asked by district officials to lead the Pledge of Allegiance at the meeting. “It speaks to how long people have been caring about this issue, how she has been a catalyst to speak,” Francois’ uncle Les Simmons told the Citizen. “Now, we see there are hundreds of Rachaels, it’s generational.”

Several speakers at the Jan. 16 forum said Francois’ account reminded them of racist incidents they encountered while attending local high schools. One Pleasant Grove High graduate said there was a race-related altercation at her school over a dozen years ago. Grace Bailey, who said she is the only African-American teacher at Beitzel Elementary School, said a colleague once told her she did not act like she was black since she wasn’t loud and brash. She added that she stands with “the Rachaels.” “It’s not just the children, it’s also the adult allies who are being bullied,” she said. Dexter Powe told the school board he served as a Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy at Elk Grove schools for 12 years until he was dismissed from Sheldon High for no stated reason. He said fellow African-American deputies were also dismissed without reason. Powe caused several listeners to gasp when he said he learned the black deputies were nicknamed “The Soul Patrol” by a staff member. Powe suspected there was racial discrimination against him, but his filed complaints to district officials were never answered. “Please don’t let this be swept under the Elk Grove Unified School District administration’s rug,” he told the school board.

Sharie Wilson, the owner of the DreamGirls salon in Old Town Elk Grove, spoke about last fall, when a threatening, racist note left at her business. Wilson, who is African-American, mentioned that, like Francois, she was accused of making false claims of discrimination. District officials have long taken pride in Elk Grove Unified’s diverse student body, which speaks 88 languages and dialects, and lacks an ethnic or racial majority. During the 2015-16 school year, the district’s student body was 13 percent African-American, 29 percent Asian and Filipino, 26 percent Latino, and 21 percent white, according to a district report. Carlos Carter, a local parent and an outreach coordinator for UC Davis, warned the school board African-American parents may boycott the school district and not enroll their children in its schools if administrators do not address discrimination issues. “If we stop buying the homes and stop bringing the children here, will you listen then?” he said. Numerous attendees at the school district’s forum shared their solidarity with Francois.

“Rachael, I admire your strength and your courage,” said Lorreen Pryor, a Valley High School graduate and the president of the Black Youth Leadership Project. “We stand by you, but take a break because we got it from here.”

Several elected officials, such as Assemblyman Jim Cooper and Elk Grove Vice Mayor Darren Suen, also said they supported Francois. “We stand with the folks here this evening, ready to partner with you in making Elk Grove a ‘no place for hate’ city,” Suen said. Singh-Allen called Francois a “catalyst to a movement.”

When the forum came to an end, Trustee Chet Madison Sr. recalled the moment when he heard the news of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination nearly 50 years ago. The Vietnam War veteran was in his Army uniform at a Dallas airport, and he questioned why he was serving in the military as an African-American. Madison mentioned that two men, one white and one African-American, saw he was distraught and placed their hands on his shoulders to offer encouragement.

“Those positive words from two sincere men helped me through a very dark travesty in my life,” he said. “I say that, and I look for a positive to help me through my struggles.” Madison said he wanted to see more African-Americans in positions of power, whether they are principals, directors, or board members. He also shared concerns about policing at the district’s high schools. “(The officers) have to be told they’re not guarding a prison,” Madison said. “They should keep in mind that they should be a fabric of our community or get out.” The trustee later told the audience to not give up. “We will continue this battle of pushing this rock,” he said. “But it’s all around the nation.”

Public speakers throughout the night addressed a variety of issues and proposed solutions. Many called upon the district to hire more African-American teachers and said that practice could help African-American students better connect to their schools. A few speakers pointed out that the majority of the district’s teachers are white, while the district’s student body is diverse. The state reported that 68 percent of the district’s certificated staff in 2016 was white while five percent was African-American.

“What it means to have a teacher from a diverse background or ethnicity - having that teacher in the classroom every day is more impactful than words could ever put,” said Desmond Preston, a Florin High School graduate and a former paraeducator for the district.

Local activists Amar Shergill and Jim Kelly called for election reforms for the school board. They advocated having board members elected only by voters within their trustee areas instead of voters across the school district. They argued communities would be better represented on the school board and that candidates would not need large campaign funds to run.

“Good people don’t stand up because they don’t have the money,” Shergill said. Francois told the Citizen she felt encouraged by the forum.

“It wasn’t surprising because I always knew it was there, but it’s really encouraging and I think that the support is the whole reason why I’m trying to push this issue.” The Elk Grove school board will address the forum’s feedback at a special board meeting on Jan. 24 at the Trigg Education Center, 9510 Elk Grove-Florin Road. Its open session will begin at noon.

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