Reno High School - photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and a summer of social unrest – both locally and nationally – the Washoe County School District Board of Trustees formally adopted Resolution 20-011 on October 27, 2020. The resolution proclaims that discrimination and harassment will not be tolerated. The document further commits the district to create an unbiased, inclusive, and anti-racist society through education.

Since adoption of the resolution, the district’s Equity and Diversity Task Force has worked with schools across the district to gather feedback, and on Tuesday evening Trustees considered an associated action plan.

During Tuesday’s meeting, district Ombudsman & Strategies Officer, Dr. Paul LaMarca, said the objectives of the resolution will not be effected overnight. He added that efforts to address racial inequities in the 60,000 student district have been formally underway since 2010.

“The disparities that we’re really trying to address through this resolution, and we’re trying to address through this action plan, are long standing, and it requires a systems approach to remedy,” LaMarca said. “There are no silver bullets. There are no quick fixes. This is going to take a lot of effort for a systems approach. This requires institutional support, administrative support, support from every member of our educational community. It will involve the reviewing of policy, procedure, regulation, and practice. And so we thank you in advance for all the work that you will be helping us with.”

Following presentation of the action plan, Trustee Jeffrey Church spoke against moving forward with the resolution. Church represents District A, which includes south and southeast Reno, Washoe Valley, and Incline Village. 

“The story is told of a middle school student named Amy,” Church said. “She had a get-together with a number of her friends. Afterwards, the father commented on the wonderful diversity of the group of her friends. The daughter looked at him as only a teen-age daughter can do, and I’ve been there, and said, ‘Dad, what are you talking about?’

“The dad said, ‘well, the diversity,’ and he pointed out some of the people that were at the get-together? And she still looked at him and said, ‘Dad, what are you talking about?’

“Now, I kind of have to ask was dad being a racist? A constituent suggested to me that when we ID people, when we identify people by skin color, or any other factor, we perhaps have become the racists. Like Amy, perhaps we need to see beyond that. That anyone would look at a person and prejudge them in any way, including saying they’re marginalized based on any physical appearance, is repulsive to me,” Church said.

Church went on to say that the Civil Rights Act and state law identify protected classes of people by race, religion, sex, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, and other identifiers. Church said that he is part Latino and part “Jewish” and was offended that Jewish people were not mentioned in the resolution.

“I didn’t find the word Jewish anywhere in the presentation,” Church said. “Jewish by declaration is a protected race. A definition is, quote, ‘Jewish people are an ethno-religious group and a nation. Jewish ethnicity, nationhood and religion are strongly interrelated. Six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Perhaps some of them my relatives. Daily in the USA and worldwide, Jews were attacked in places of religious worship, and they’re vandalized, and worse. I’m offended that the Jewish race is being ignored. 

“Further, there’s about 547 native tribes in the US,” Church continued. “How are we going to teach Native American culture when there’s so many different tribes? 

“The next concern I have is if parents and staff can refuse this training. Can they opt out? The answer I get is no. The NRS you quoted says ‘may’ offer not ‘require.’ Come back to me when you have something that’s 100 percent optional, not required. 

“What are we going to do when a staff member or a parent or a student refuses to attend the training? Are we going to kick them out of school? Are we going to terminate the employee? We have to think this through before we act,” Church said.

Dr. Angela Taylor is president of the board and took issue with some of Trustee Church’s remarks.

“Honestly, I’m gonna say part of the comments that you said, and this is just one trustee talking, are the absolute reason why we have to do what we’re doing,” Taylor said to applause.

“There was nothing in the presentation that said exclude anybody,” Taylor said. “That’s an old way of looking at it. When you say ‘inclusion,’ when you say ‘all,’ when you say ‘everyone,’ that absolutely means everyone. And so to take a look and say, ‘Well, this group is left out,’ there’s no part of it (the resolution) that says that whatsoever.”

Several students affiliated with the group Washoe County Students for Change (WCSC) spoke in support of the resolution. Hannah Branch is a senior at Wooster high school and a WCSC founding member. Branch is also an organizer of a student-run tutoring group, the Reno Alliance for Free Tutoring or RAFT

“My team is proud and enthusiastic to support this plan of action as a reflection of a leadership and community commitment to a range of goals that we know everyone in this room shares, including the safety and growth of our students,” Branch said of Resolution 20-011. “We support this action because it’s the smart thing to do. We also support it because it’s the right thing to do. 

“Because a 2016 study found gains in attendance, GPA, and course enrollment of at-risk high school students as a result of the incorporation of culturally relevant pedagogy. Because Education Northwest reported in 2019, that students of color who have at least one teacher of color may be better on tests and be less likely to have disciplinary issues. Because research also suggests that white students showed improvement in problem solving, critical thinking and creativity when they have diverse teachers. 

“We know that our students are struggling, our test scores and national rankings are down and most importantly, we know that our district is doing everything possible to ensure the circumstantial and financial setbacks we face do not define the great potential of our students, faculty, and leaders. We know this plan is an important step to unlocking the scores and achievements that we are capable of. But perhaps more importantly, we know this is the right thing to do. 

“Through my work with Washoe County Students for Change, I’ve heard from students who have been followed by racial slurs in the hallways and plagued by racially motivated bullying and harassment in classrooms, something that’s been normalized. I have spoken to students who feel both painfully spotlighted and horribly unseen in school. And if you’re wondering why more of those students couldn’t be here today, almost invariably, those students whose stories I share in board meetings are those who tell me they don’t feel safe, speaking about their experience, and the social climate our district is currently experiencing. 

“Today, you have the power to change this atmosphere. I don’t tell you this to attack our district, I tell you because this district is my home. And when you care about your home, you’re willing to take the time to improve it. I tell you because I think, because I know, we can do better. And we have the opportunity to take an important step in the right direction. So today, let’s value evidence and student voice and students lives. We look forward to the passage of these actions and a continued collaboration with the district on the issues of equity. Thank you for your time.”

Long ago Brian Bahouth was a high school English teacher. He is a career public media journalist and editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Support his work.