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Debate Over Discussing Race In Grade School Leads To New Teaching Policy

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In Springfield, the school board says it wants the district to develop a new policy that would direct teachers on how to introduce controversial issues in the classroom.

The Springfield School Board says it wants the district to develop a new policy that would direct teachers on how to introduce controversial issues in the classroom.The board's decision follows a complaint by the parents of a third grader who said a book about race and police brutality was inappropriately taught to their child.

The complaint goes back to the end of the last school year when the children’s book Something Happened in our Town was read during an online lesson for a third grade class.

More from Vermont Edition: Talking With Kids (And Parents) About Systemic Racism

The lesson happened soon after police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis. The book tells the story of two families; one Black and one white, and how they deal with the police killing of a black man in their community.

Jeremy Desjardins is a police officer who lives in Springfield. He objected to the way cops are portrayed in the book and filed the formal complaint.

"I think that this conversation is very important and should be had. However, the way it was done in this classroom, and the committee that was formed, said that this probably wasn't a good first book to start those conversations." - Jeremy Desjardins, parent and police officer

At a public meeting last week, Desjardins told the school board that the book should not have been read in his son’s virtual class without checking in first with parents.

“I think that this conversation is very important and should be had," Desjardins told the board. "However, the way it was done in this classroom, and the committee that was formed, said that this probably wasn’t a good first book to start those conversations. And it wasn’t probably the best book to start in an online learning forum."

Desjardins said the lesson could develop negative bias in the young students against police officers, and that he filed the formal complaint, which was discussed at a Springfield School Board meeting last week.

More from Vermont Edition: Racism - And Anti-Racism - In Vermont

The board spent more than an hour hearing from teachers, parents and community members who largely pushed back on Desjardin’s claim that the subject was inappropriate for third graders.

At the meeting, Riccardo Dorcely said his three kids, all of whom are bi-racial, have experienced racism in the Springfield school system in every grade.

"I really do think that it's important to meet this need for our youth to understand what should be acceptable and what shouldn't when it comes to race and racism." -Riccardo Dorcely, parent

And he said it was hard to understand why a formal complaint would be filed against a kids' book, when Black students are forced to deal with racism on a regular basis.

"I really do think that it’s important to meet this need for our youth to understand what should be acceptable and what shouldn’t when it comes to race and racism," Dorcely said. "I actually think that we need more books like this at every level."

School board member Michael Griffin agreed that schools have an important role to play in addressing racism in America.

But he sided with Desjardins and said teachers should include parents and guardians in sensitive discussions.

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“We’re teaching morality here," he said. "And we can’t do this as a school district saying, 'It’s coming whether you like it or not,' with no opportunity to let parents add to the conversation and be joining in on the conversation."

Maresa Nielson is a second grade teacher and a member of the district's equity committee, a group comprised of teachers and educators that promotes racial equity in the curriculum and supports students of color in the schools.

"Most of things that we're evaluating are the things that are racist, that have bias. And that book would not be one of them, that I would take off my shelf in a second grade classroom." - Maresa Nielson, second grade teacher

Nielson said the equity group is reviewing all books in the libraries and classrooms in the Springfield School District, to weed out books that show implicit or explicit bias.

But this book, she said, belongs in the classroom.

“Most of things that we’re evaluating are the things that are racist, that have bias," said Nielson. "And that book would not be one of them, that I would take off my shelf in a second grade classroom."

More from VPR: The Future's In Flux. An Opportunity For More Equity In Vermont's Schools?

A committee that was formed to look into the complaint found that the teacher could have done a better job preparing the class, but that the book should not be removed.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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