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Harford students say HCPS should do more to address bias and racism incidents, develop more culturally diverse curriculum

A majority of the more than 3,900 Harford County Public Schools students who participated in a recent survey on racism, implicit bias and other types of discrimination within HCPS said they think their schools are welcoming places for all students, regardless of their identity, and that they are comfortable talking about racial issues with others.

“You can see that more than three quarters of our students ... agree or strongly agree that they are comfortable talking about racism with a parent, an adult they are close to, or their classmates,” Yakoubou Ousmanou, manager of research and program evaluation for the school system’s North Star program, said while presenting the survey results to the Board of Education earlier this week.

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The survey does reveal, however, a number of students have heard either their peers or an adult staff member make a comment or joke considered racist or hurtful.

“Almost three quarters — 74% — of all students say that they have heard a classmate or a peer make a racist comment or a joke, either to them or about another student, or that they listened to another student making a biased or hurtful comment. This was concerning, and we felt that it was important to highlight that,” Ousmanou said.

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Many respondents also do not think the faculty and staff at their school is as diverse as the student body, and they would like to see the curriculum better reflect the experiences and history of African Americans and other people of color.

The survey was administered in June following the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, which sparked massive protests around the nation, including a number of protests in Harford County.

Phoebe Bailey, a rising senior at Joppatowne High School and the student representative on the board for the 2020-21 school year, worked with former student representative Christian Walker as well as Ousmanou and Paula Stanton, supervisor of equity and cultural proficiency for HCPS, on developing and administering the survey.

The group “decided that getting the feelings of students across the county, and trying to find what needed to be worked on was one of the best ways to address” concerns about racism and discrimination, Bailey told board members.

Their presentation happened early Tuesday, as the board meeting started at 6:30 p.m. Monday and ran until after 12:30 a.m. Tuesday. Much of the meeting covered public comments and discussion among board members and HCPS leaders about plans to hold all-virtual classes for the school district’s more than 38,000 students next year as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

Superintendent Sean Bulson acknowledged the late hour, but he stressed that HCPS “cannot afford to lose momentum on this incredibly important topic” of racism, even in the midst of extensive preparations to keep students and staff safe during the pandemic.

“Obviously, every single student didn’t respond to the survey, but we got somewhat of a glimpse as to how the students of Harford County feel,” Bailey said.

Ousmanou and Stanton stressed that the survey results are preliminary, and a final report will be presented to the board at a later time. A professional development session on cultural proficiency and equity is scheduled for Sept. 4, giving teachers and staff time to talk about their experiences with racism and bias and how they can recognize it in their schools, “disrupt” the incident and find “ways to bring about changes in behavior,” according to Stanton.

Student concerns

The survey was distributed to students in fifth through 12th grade; 3,947 students responded, and information was compiled from 3,912 surveys after the raw data was cleared up by removing incomplete, irrelevant or duplicate responses, according to Ousmanou.

He noted that 61% of respondents identified themselves as white, followed by about 17% who are Black or African American — 10.4% of the responses came from students of two or more races, 7.1% from Asian American students, followed by 4% Hispanic, .5% Native American or Alaska native and .3% who are Hawaii natives or other Pacific islanders, according to the survey results.

The responses also were broken down by gender, with about two-thirds coming from female students, then 31.7% male and 2.2% who identified themselves as non-binary, meaning people who do not identify as strictly male or female.

Board member Tamera Rush took note of the large number of responses by white students.

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“I think these results could be very interesting in how we look at them,” she said.

Students were asked to respond to a number of open-ended comments and questions about whether or not they think schools have a climate in which all students are treated equally, if they are comfortable talking with peers and adults about racial issues, how well their school curriculum and materials cover the experiences of people of color, if racism and implicit bias are problems in their schools and if HCPS is doing enough to address those issues, as well as if a peer or adult staff member has made a racist comment or joke to them personally or if they hear such remarks made about other students.

Other questions and comments covered if students have been encouraged by administrators, teachers and staff to get involved in extracurricular activities or take honors and advanced classes. The survey also covered what role the student representative to the board should take in being an advocate on racial issues, according to Ousmanou.

About six in 10 respondents “either agree or strongly agree that HCPS needs to do more to address both racism and implicit bias,” Ousmanou said.

Many students suggested that schools initiate harsher punishments, such as suspension for several days, following a racial or bias incident, according to Bailey. She noted respondents also acknowledged that harsh measures “may not stop the offender from saying whatever it is they were saying from the beginning.”

Ousmanou and his colleagues do not recommend stronger punitive measures. He encouraged HCPS officials to “review the literature around that before making changes to policy” on punishments.

“We may gain short-term changes, but if we really want to fundamentally improve the school system and culture, we need to take a different approach,” he said of punitive action.

Next steps

Bailey highlighted one student’s comment about how “racism isn’t something that just disappears.”

“The person addressed the fact that baby steps need to be taken,” Bailey added. “You can’t take one giant leap and expect things to change right away.”

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School board members thanked Bailey, Ousmanou and Stanton for their work and said they are eager to learn more about the school system’s next steps — Stanton discussed future steps such as consistent analysis of processes, programs and policies at the district and school level and how they can be improved, identifying any gaps related to bias and addressing them, as well as holding “courageous and crucial conversations” with HCPS families and other members of the Harford County community.

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“We really want to make sure we heard the diverse perspectives of our community,” Stanton said.

Board Vice President Rachel Gauthier said the initial survey results show “really valuable information.”

“I think it’s a really good thing that we’re starting to really look at our system and look at our kids and look at our community, and start seeing what we can do to improve, so that we make sure that everybody has a voice and everybody is being treated as they all should be,” Gauthier said.

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