The Upper Arlington Equity Project writes an open letter urging the district to consider student voices. 

BY BEN UNDERWOOD, ‘21. 

In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests last summer, several students and alumni founded the Upper Arlington Equity Project, a group that aims to foster equity and inclusion in the school district. While the group first formed through a petition to remove Student Resource Officers from Upper Arlington buildings, the group soon began having conversations with district administrators and leaders about ways to make the district a more welcoming environment.

The district enacted some reforms, such as forming an Equity Advisory Board (EAB) and hiring as Executive Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Matthew Boaz, whose hiring was approved by the Board of Education late last year. The EAB includes a leading role from Boaz, Superintendent Paul Imhoff, a small group of high school students, teachers from across the district, parents and two Board of Education members.

With these changes, some students and alumni felt that not enough action was being taken. So, students in the UAEP wrote an open letter and posted it on their Instagram page with almost 400 followers.

“That letter was just a culmination of all our frustrations, because we just felt like nothing was being done, even though [the district] said that they were going to do stuff,” said senior Erin Huang, a board member of the Upper Arlington Equity Project.

The letter, which has eight demands, was posted on Jan. 27, and has since received 228 likes. UAEP also encouraged its followers to send a message in support of their letter to school board members, administrators and city council members. Since then, it has caught the attention of several city leaders, including a city council member, several members of the Board of Education, and Superintendent Paul Imhoff.

While the letter has been discussed between UAEP and some members of the district, no direct response to the letter or its demands have been made to the public.

THE DEMANDS

Implicit bias training has been a part of staff professional development workshops for several years at this point. In 2019, all staff members went to a workshop about it, and speakers trained in implicit bias have spoken at staff professional development workshops several times since then.

Huang said that this does not go far enough to fix the problem. 

“Maybe they took the courses or whatever, but when there are still [white] teachers reading the N-word out of books and saying sexist jokes, they clearly have not been receptive to that course,” Huang said. “They’ve taken it, but they’re just not really taking it in.”

As an alternative, the Equity Project’s letter proposes that the district carry out ongoing training for all faculty, club leaders and coaches.

Another suggestion from the Equity Project is to revamp administrator’s responses to the SpeakUp! Hotline. (The SpeakUp! Hotline provides a way for students and parents to report bullying, drug abuse and other issues of that nature). 

The district’s web portal to the hotline assures those submitting the form that, “Your information will be reviewed and reasonable action will be taken to address the situation.” 

Huang says that, while this may be true, some students who used the hotline never got proper follow-up communication.

“The [administrators] never contacted some students who [filled out the form] with a personal email or anything like that. It was just an automated message,” Huang said. “That was one of the things we were kinda concerned about because if a student is in trouble and they’re vulnerable, it would be nice if a teacher or administrator would be able to help them hands on.”

FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), a 1974 law aimed at protecting student privacy, may be to blame. The act prohibits the district from disclosing student records, which would include information about any disciplinary action or follow-up action pursued by the district. 

Huang cautions against blaming any specific individual for the woes of the district. 

“We wrote this letter, not from a place of aggression or malintent, but just to say ‘here’s what we want,’” Huang said. “We weren’t trying to attack any teachers, because obviously a lot of them are doing really great things.”

Since last summer and UAEP’s founding, some others have joined in on advocating for the termination of the contract with the UA Police Division for School Resource Officers (SROs). This was another demand listed in the letter. Since its release, the district is beginning plans to review the SRO program with input from students, parents and faculty in the district. 

Some other demands included in the letter detailed wishes for a more diverse staff, revitalization of curriculum for “students of all backgrounds” and transparency among the work on the EAB or with Boaz as the new director of diversity, equity and inclusion.

IN THE FUTURE

The eight proposals laid out in the letter, not all of which have been enumerated here, seem ambitious, but according to UAEP, they do not fully cover the changes that are needed.

Huang believes that, with enough concerted effort, the future will look much rosier. 

“A lot of these attitudes and cultures are fostered at a young age, and so, if we start by changing the curriculum, changing the adults and the resources that are available in schools, kids will grow up and eventually, in the future, hopefully the culture of our schools will be a lot better and these kind of [prejudicial actions] won’t happen as much,” she said. 

Alas, as the letter acknowledges, “there is no comfort in change and no change without time.”