Findings and suggestions for Chelsea's Diversity, Belonging, Equity and Inclusion initiative

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The Chelsea school board subcommittee that was formed to look into the district’s Diversity, Belonging, Equity and Inclusion initiative presented some of its findings and suggestions at the September 13 board of education meeting.

The findings include an understanding that this initiative is important in the district, and one suggestion is that the books that are part of its resource list need to be properly reviewed.

School board member Jason Eyster, in reporting back to the others on board, said an advisory committee was formed, which included himself and other board members Shawn Quilter and Laura Bush, with the purpose to examine the district’s DBEI initiative, and bring back findings and suggestions.

The advisory committee held two meetings with the first one having presentations from the administration about the initiative. This meeting also included a lot of community feedback. The second meeting on Sept. 2 also had more questions asked and information given.

On the basis of those two meetings, the committee, with Eyster speaking on behalf of them at the Sept. 13 board meeting, presented the following findings.

First of all, Eyster said parent input has been very valuable in understanding the problems that have arisen from the initiative.

Secondly, he said it is clear teachers, staff and the school board care deeply about Chelsea students and the DBEI initiative reflects this concern; in that its goal is to help to make sure every child has a sense of belonging and that they feel included.

In looking at the timeline, he said the district has always had a commitment to the overall idea of diversity, so this isn’t really a new concept and it has been going on for years.

He said the actual DBEI initiative was started in February 2020. Noting that some in the community might think it was created in reaction to the death of George Floyd and protests that followed during the summer of 2020, Eyster said that this wasn’t the case.

However, he did say Chelsea did respond to those things.

In some other research into the overall idea of a diversity initiative, Eyster said they found in the market place with businesses there is a strong commitment to diversity initiatives by Fortune 500 companies.

He said some want to paint this as a narrow concept, but he says it is one that has been embraced by many businesses and is seen as being a central concept, with implications both morally and financially. In addition, he said for many businesses it also has human resources implications with retaining and obtaining employees.

However, Eyster did say they did find that in the district there may have been a zeal in pursuing some of the DBEI activity, and at times a rush.

Noting there was some oversight; Eyster said they found that maybe in dealing with the issues with COVID that there probably wasn’t a sufficient amount of oversight, especially with the initial materials that were presented as resource materials for DBEI.

In reaction to that, he said the resource list and some of the other concerns have been taken down for review from the DBEI website.

A lot of the concerns expressed about the initiative have centered on the book, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. The specific concern is about an excerpt from it that was cited by some parents as not being appropriate for their children.

This book was listed on the resource list that had appeared on the DBEI website.

In looking at this part of the overall DBEI issue, Eyster said they could not find anyone who is fully cognizant of what is in that book.

With the feedback the board has received, Eyster said that one parent said they should read all of the books in the library. He said that’s beyond their purview and, although he loves reading, that might not be realistic.

However, he said they do suggest it is important that the texts on the DBEI resource list do need to be properly reviewed.

Examining what oversight they have, he said they discovered and discussed that there are certain district policies/regulations pertaining to electronic media connected with the district that gives the board and administration the ability to remove documents.

He noted the concern of some in the community that wanted the board to remove the book.

However, he said this type of power was not within their oversight authority when it comes to books in the library, so taking a book off the shelf is not in their power as a school board.

“While I have my own personal views about this, we are in a country that in many ways is so fortunate that we do protect the written word and the spoken word,” said Eyster, who then cited a story of a client of his from China who was seeking asylum.

The client told him a story about the authorities taking books about politics, economics and social development from his family’s apartment and burning them on the street.

In another finding, Eyster said the current guidance that was given to teachers about controversial discussions is in accordance with district policy and rules, and extensive training has been provided and the process has been followed.

If there are incidents with this, he said they should be reported.

The suggestions to the board, according to Eyster, include the district developing a more effective method for vetting books that are chosen for DBEI and other purposes. He said the administration has informed them that work on this has started.

A second suggestion is to develop a more effective method of reviewing web page links into the school district website, which is also underway. Another suggestion is to develop a reviewing policy for written materials that is similar to the ones for electronic media.

In conclusion, he said as an advisory committee they did not vote on anything, but merely sought out findings and made suggestions to give to the board for it to discuss and review.

Looking ahead, school board president Kristin van Reesema said these findings and suggestions will be further discussed at a board meeting in the near future.

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