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Keeping perspective on racism in schools

12/02/03 12:00AM By Charles Johnson
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(Host) Commentator Charles Johnson says that maintaining a positive attitude is important when working to improve race relations in schools.

(Johnson) "Racism Thrives in Schools, Panel Says" and "Report: Racism Rampant in Schools" are headlines of local newspapers after a press conference held by the Vermont Advisory Committee to the U. S. Commission on Civil Rights. If we take these words at face value, we must conclude that "racism" is alive and growing vigorously in Vermont schools.

But my work as Safe Schools Coordinator for the Vermont Department of Education takes me to schools throughout the state, and as an African-American, I have not encountered a single school that welcomes or encourages "racism" or "racial harassment." Instead, I have personal experience with a number of schools working to resolve such incidents.

Our demographics are changing. Children of color are an increasing part of Vermont's school population, and it s not surprising that conflicts occur when new people come together for the first time.

An approach to confronting "racism" and "racial harassment" is most effective when local differences are clearly acknowledged, and where creative imagination confronts dysfunctional stereotypes, and heartfelt actions are pursued.

A couple of tools uniquely effective for this purpose are "study circles," and "family group conferencing."

With Winton Goodrich, of the Vermont School Boards Association, I introduced "study circles" to Vermont schools several years ago. This is a way to structure public conversations that are collaborative, preventive, fair, candid, and humanizing, leading to practical, systemic action, especially concerning matters of controversy.

"Family group conferencing" or "restorative justice" comes to us through Dave Peebles, of the Vermont Department of Corrections. It is an effective way to resolve incidents of bullying, "racial harassment," and other offences. It encourages a comprehensive resolution that goes well beyond a given incident.

While we must be deeply concerned about the safety of a single child who is being racially harassed, statistical data can be misleading. The best of data seldom tells a complete story.

It's easy to see how a widely publicized racial incident can be misconstrued to characterize the climate of an entire school.

Legislation that encourages more litigation is not the answer, nor are accusations that feed on the emotions of self-pity, self-importance, or separation. Race harmony requires intelligent cooperation, and a commitment to responsibility, trust, caring, and respect for one another.

There is still work to be done regarding race matters in Vermont, but it is my experience that "racism" and "racial harassment" are not "rampant" in Vermont, and it is my belief that together we all have the power to make sure that such behavior cannot "thrive" in Vermont schools.

I'm Charles Johnson of Thetford.

Charles Johnson is a teacher and former secretary of education for Massachusetts.
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