Howard County schools’ annual Black History Month events, which included last weekend’s Black History Expo, speakers and classroom projects, had a new participant this year: The local chapter of the national Black Lives Matter in our Schools.
Black Lives Matter in Schools organizers, who held a series of “Week of Action” events, also published a list of demands of the school system, in line with those presented by the national organization. They including hiring more teachers of color, mandating cultural proficiency, bias and restorative justice training for all educators and implementing ethnic studies and culturally relevant curriculum in all grades.
The group’s events in Howard County, part of a national movement that emerged in Seattle, ran nightly from Feb. 5 through Feb. 9, and included a screening of the coming-of-age drama movie “Moonlight,” a discussion of restorative justice and the school-to-prison pipeline, and an open mic night to celebrate black female educators.
Matthew Vaughn-Smith, a reading specialist at Forest Ridge Elementary School and one of the organizers of the programs, said the group is also pushing for teachers to discuss tolerance and social justice in classes.
“It was more of an empowerment piece for black students who hear a lot of negative things about being black in the media and give them an opportunity to see themselves in a positive light,” Vaughn-Smith said.
The group’s programs, Vaughn-Smith said, were not officially endorsed by the school system but were endorsed by the Educators of Color Coalition, a 75-member group formed last year.
The events were attended by a diverse group of students, parents and educators from diverse backgrounds, but Vaughn-Smith said the programs received little response from the school administration, which he thought could be because of the polarizing effect the Black Lives Matter can have in some communities.
“As a school system you have to take into account how community members are going to respond to it, and a lot of people aren’t receptive of the cause,” he said. “Whether Black Lives Matter is anti-police or those types of sentiments, surely there’s going to be some parents and community members who feel that way. You have to weigh the politics of it.”
According to Vaughn-Smith, he and his co-organizer Wilde Lake High School teacher Erika Strauss Chavarria had scheduled a January meeting with officials including Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Kevin Gilbert, to discuss the programming, but the meeting was canceled; school spokesman Brian Bassett said he he could not confirm whether the meeting was scheduled.
Bassett said the group did not submit a formal request for the school system to promote the events or curriculum and the administration did not promote the week of events, but could not comment on what individual schools may have decided to promote.
Some school officials were more publicly supportive of the Black Lives Matter programs. Board of Education member Bess Altwerger displayed a Black Lives Matter in Our Schools Week of Action T-shirt during the board’s Feb. 8 meeting.
Vaughn-Smith said he and other organizers are in the process of formalizing their demands to present them to the Board of Education in the spring, including specifics on the number of teachers of color they would like hired.
The school system has begun rolling out programs related to the other demands, including increased cultural proficiency training and widespread implementation of restorative justice practices in classrooms.
“Because [Superintendent Michael Martirano] is a man who preaches and practices equity, now is a better time than ever to ensure we are providing teachers that look like [students of color],” Vaughn-Smith said.