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Marion County superintendents band together against racism in schools

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Long before the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, racial equity procedures were in place in schools across Indianapolis. Interdepartmental attempts to address discrimination in schools have gone by many labels over the years: diversity and inclusion, racial equity and so on.

But with tensions high across the country and throughout the city — Marion County’s 11 superintendents felt acknowledgement of recent events wasn’t sufficient.

The Anti-Racism Initiative, a collective effort between every public school district in the county, launched in mid-June to actively combat racism in Marion County public schools.

“We saw what was happening in the larger community, and came to the conclusion that there was a lot of power in coming together collectively and naming our efforts and commitment as being anti-racist,” said Aleesia Johnson, Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) superintendent.

On June 19, each of the Marion County public school districts turned on the lights at a stadium in their district for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the amount of time officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck.

Each superintendent also participated in a video intended to reinforce their respective commitments to racial equality and equity.

For some of the district’s leaders, dealing with racism in everyday life is an all-too-real phenomenon. 

“I’m no different than any other African American male — I’ve been pulled over and I’ve been questioned,” said Dr. Shawn Smith, Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township superintendent. “It doesn’t matter if I’m a superintendent or have doctor in front of my name. I’ve been mistreated.” 

Jeff Butts, superintendent of Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, noted his own experiences as a white male reflect the mistreatment of African Americans like Smith.

“I was profiled early on in my childhood because of some friends I had, and the area I was in,” he said. “I certainly have not experienced profiling to the level that many of my colleagues have, but I have a very small taste of it.”

According to Butts, the Anti-Racism Initiative’s purpose isn’t just to address issues on a surface level.

“The goal is to dig a lot deeper into systemic racism, privilege and equity work,” Butts said. “If this isn’t important enough for superintendents to acknowledge, then everything eventually falls on deaf ears and doesn’t remain at the forefront.” 

One component of the initiative is “No Racism Zone” signage, which will be publicly displayed on each district’s high school campus before school starts to further highlight a commitment to combating racism.

Schools with large minority populations aren’t the only districts participating in this initiative. Other districts with significantly smaller minority populations also see the value in ensuring students learn the importance of being anti-racist.

“Since we’re not a majority-minority township, it’s even more important for us to see through that equity lens,” said Bruce Hibbard, Franklin Township Community School Corp. superintendent. Franklin Township schools is more than 70% white. 

The minority population in Beech Grove City Schools is also on the low end, at 10% to 13%. 

“We’re constantly trying to hire staff members that look like our students,” said Paul Kaiser, Beech Grove’s superintendent. 

Each district will work with the Indiana State Teachers Association to support the efforts of their Minority Affairs Committee, in addition to disseminating a guide for parents to educate themselves and their children about the need for racial equality and equity. 

“It can’t be the government. It can’t be politicians. It’s gotta be the schools. We’ve gotta make the difference,” Kaiser said.

Contact newsroom intern Mikaili Azziz at 317-924-5143. Follow her on Twitter @mikailiazziz.

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