BLM banner draws support and concern on South Whidbey

— Created September 16, 2020 by Kacie Jo Voeller

By Kacie Jo Voeller

A Black Lives Matter (BLM) banner hanging on the tennis courts at South Whidbey High School has sparked a conversation in the community. The banner, which was placed with the approval of South Whidbey School District officials July 28, has drawn both support and concern from area residents.

Jo Moccia, superintendent for the South Whidbey School District, said the banner was placed in line with the district’s vision of equity and inclusion for all students. The school board also approved an equity and inclusion policy Aug. 26.

“The school board prioritized challenging the current educational system as it relates to how each and every student engages in our comprehensive program,” she said in an email. “Through listening to students, families, and staff members it became glaringly apparent that we have challenges associated with how our students, more than 18 percent of whom identify as non-white, experience school on our campuses. This led the board to adopt a strong focus on equity and prioritizing dismantling barriers for our students.”

Rufus Rose, a Clinton resident, said he and other community members were concerned the banner may be divisive and not acknowledge factors outside of race impacting students.

“My concern about the BLM banner is that it is a one-sided approach to an education issue promoted by the school district without balance,” he said. “Visuals work, without balance they can easily mislead. This visual is extremely political and out of place on public property, especially on public school property.”

Moccia said the Federal Office of Special Counsel had determined BLM to be neither partisan nor political and the banner was placed to support inclusion. 

“The Black Lives Matter banner is not a political statement, rather a public declaration to our BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) students and families that we see them, we hear them, and we value them just as we value all our students,” she said.

Rose also said he felt the banner did not accurately reflect all of the factors affecting today’s students, and said the banner may only reflect the racial component of challenges students might face. Rose said he believes the banner does not invite discussion of what he referred to as the “multivariant analysis” of all the various factors impacting young lives, and without acknowledging other factors, such as home life, he feels young people may not be receiving the best education possible.

“If there is only a Black Lives Matter Banner up there, I am concerned that it is not balanced,” he said. “I think they (the SWSD officials) are sincere. I think they want to make things better, but I think they are missing an opportunity to demonstrate there are other elements that need to go into the study of what education needs to be. You have to talk about the bad parts as well as the good parts.”

Moccia said she has received many positive emails in regard to the banner, in addition to some negative responses. She said the district remains committed to the goal of promoting equity and inclusion for all students.

“Our goal is to provide students enriching environments that respect who they are, value their individual stories and histories, and through thoughtful and engaging instruction and materials, help them to reach their full potential,” she said.  

Rose said he felt having a discussion about current and past issues was important, and he would like to see debates involving teachers, students and community speakers happen. Rose said he was also concerned about communication between the community and the school district in the wake of COVID-19 and the challenges presented by having communication moved online, such as having board meetings via Zoom.

“I think the virtual school board meetings that they (the district) are having now make it very difficult for the community to get involved,” he said. “I think our social structure has changed.”

Moccia said the district welcomes feedback and parent involvement and is working to put together teams to discuss various issues.

“We are moving forward from a district level team to building level teams that will include students at the upper grades,” Moccia said. “It is important that we improve our own knowledge and become antiracist and lead by example. We are working within our school community to dismantle the barriers and systemic racism that our institutions across our nation have, perhaps unwittingly, perpetuated. We always welcome parent input and I am happy to have folks email me directly. They may also email the school board, come to board meetings, follow us on Facebook and check our web page.”

Rose said he was concerned displaying just the BLM banner would not be effective in creating the best learning environment for students. He said he believes an education reflecting and acknowledging a wide range of ideas will help lead to better-prepared students.

“Biased performance by officials displayed when trying to improve equity allows and encourages confused behavior in our communities and lower-quality education of our youth,” he said.

Moccia said the school district aims to support all students in their educational journey.

“As individuals, we do not exist in a bubble,” she said. “The events unfolding in the world impact us all in different ways. They impact our students. Students need to have the ability to process their world in safe environments where they can learn how to question, fact find, seek knowledge and understanding, make mistakes, and grow into citizens that will be able to move all of us forward as a community by innovating, creating, and leading.”