A proposed diversity audit initiated by the Johnston School District’s former diversity, equity, and inclusion director is being called into question by three conservative members of the Johnson School Board.
West Wind Education Policy President Circe Strombo was at Monday’s board meeting to explain the audit process and provide details about how they approach the research once they have the requested data. However, Strombo was met with resistance by board members Derek Tidball, Clint Evans, and Deb Davis, all of whom ran on a conservative ticket and signed the “1776 pledge” before being elected.
Strombo said in the past, West Wind has been asked to do narrow audits on specific areas, such as absenteeism or school discipline policies, and to take broader approaches by auditing data and conducting focus groups with parents, students, and school staff to dig deeper into problems and people’s experiences.
Board member Deb Davis asked how discipline could be an equity issue when looking at examples of West Wind’s work from a different, anonymous district that had its discipline policies examined.
“I’m having a hard time viewing discipline through an equity lens,” Davis said. “We should have policies and rules and regulations that should be followed. And how do you propose equity in this if you have, I mean, you can’t control what racial group is going to do that more or less.”
Strombo said looking at the demographics of students who were disciplined, what discipline they received, and how often those demographics were disciplined was an effective way to identify what judgments might be present in the school.
Strombo said race is not the only factor they look at when doing audits, either, because equity concerns often go beyond race.
She said West Wind was initially invited by Johnston School District to approach itsequity questions through the lens of race, with the understanding the audit would go deeper.
“We would be exploring, in particular, the populations and the identities that we know are significant in schooling: race and ethnicity, special education status, English proficiency, and poverty,” Strombo said. “We also know, today and historically, that LGBTQ students have a particular set of experiences in schools as well so we always add that to the list too.”
Board member Derek Tidball brought up the sources West Wind has used in the past. He cited presentations from 2008 and questioned whether West Wind used critical race theory.
“I would say that we recognize that race and ethnicity have a deep impact on schooling, outcomes, and experiences,” Strombo said. “The way we approach it in schools is to work on how do we understand race, what’s happening in our schools, where do we see different experiences and outcomes, and what’s underlying them?”
She said West Wind updated some of the terms it used years ago because they’ve become controversial.
“While there’s a way of understanding systemic racism that helps you to understand what’s going on, it’s not a helpful term,” Strombo said. “It doesn’t help the work. It doesn’t pull people in because it brings these connotations that aren’t what we mean.”
Tidball kept pressing the systemic racism issue, and said he disagreed with it as a lens for looking at issues in school. He continued until Board President Katie Fiala interrupted to say the point of the meeting was to ask Strombo questions and to hear from her, not to debate how the audit worked.
Davis and Clint Evans also said they needed to know what kind of results to expect and if there’s data showing the audits worked to improve schools.
“I’m just trying to get this understanding of that data. I’d like to see it correlated with success in school by measurable standards. And you’re saying that does not exist?” Evans asked Strombo.
He said the school already had a lot of the data and he wanted to see some proof of results before approving the money to be spent on the audit.
“I’ve heard you say you want folks to have equitable experiences but I have not heard what you’re proposing addresses outcomes,” Evans said.
Strombo said the audit’s purpose is to find problem areas and identify some of the reasons for those problems so West Wind might propose solutions.
“This is an audit. It’s not a set of interventions,” Strombo said. “I can talk about some of the things we do that are interventions, but that’s not what we’re being asked to provide at the moment.”
Evans returned to this question after asking how studying specific groups helps understand problems in the district. He said he’d need the data to feel good about moving forward.
“An equity audit is not supposed to give us measurable outcomes, an equity audit is supposed to give us tangible things that we can do different as a district that we can then take and implement,” Board Member Soneeta Mangra-Dutcher told Evans. “Each and every district that would do an equity audit has different things that they then take from that and then do.”
Every district would have different outcomes that they measure differently, she said.
Mangra-Dutcher also addressed Davis’s question about equity concerns when it came to discipline by talking about how her children were treated differently in school. Policies against hats were more often enforced when students of color broke them than when white students did, she said.
“They were treated differently because of the color of their skin,” she said. “You don’t see it because you were not treated that way. That’s one of the things that an equity audit will point out is how people are treated in our district based on the color of the skin. The groups that they belong to.”
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