2016-12-15 / Around Town

Educators Join Conversations on Racism

By Olga Enger

After reading about a series of community-led meetings that emerged after local children were victims of racial bullying, five Newport educators joined the conversation this week.

“We take this very seriously,” said Pell Elementary School Principal Traci Westman at the group’s third meeting, held on Monday, Dec. 12, at the teahouse Gather, located at 312 Broadway. “I’ve been teaching in Newport 17 years. I wouldn’t teach in any other district. The best thing about our schools is our diversity.”

Jessica Coulter and Niko Merritt, the founder of Sankofa Community Connection, called the first meeting in November after an 11-yearold was punched and called “nigger” by another child in Middletown (see “There Is an Overall Cloud of Fear,” NTW Nov. 17, 2016).

By the second meeting two weeks later, a Newport third-grader had experienced racist bullying at school when a classmate mocked her black features and touted “white power” (see “Organizers Working to Defuse Racial Tensions,” NTW Dec. 1, 2016). That same week, an impatient customer yelled racial slurs at a black woman at the Stop and Shop on JT Connell Highway.

Westman, along with Assistant Principal Ronilee Mooney and Kathleen McKeon, the school’s curriculum coordinator, participated in “youth and schools,” which is one of three subgroups that formed after the first gathering. While Westman and her team listened to parents, two other groups focused on separate topics: how to protect local immigrants through a sanctuary city resolution, and ideas to develop a reporting system for hate crimes.

The educational leaders attended the meeting after addressing the bullying directly with the affected families.

“We sat down with the parents and the kids immediately after the incident,” said Assistant Superintendent Dr. Kimberly Behan in a conversation with Newport This Week after the meeting. “[Westman] is thorough and thoughtful. That is one reason when she heard about the meeting around the same topic, she thought it was a great idea for her team to go.”

Lisa Olaynack, a teacher at Thompson Middle School, attended the meeting independently.

“We talk the talk, but we don’t walk the walk,” said Olaynack. “These kids won’t talk because they will be called snitches. Let’s not just talk the talk. We need to act,” she said.

The educators were asked to take a message to the superintendent and publicly remind the community of the district’s policies on racism and bullying.

“We are asking for a way to publicly reiterate the policies,” said Christina Fisher, the mother of the boy who was a victim of racism last month. “In the past, you haven’t had these issues, they weren’t on the forefront…. Kids walk past the television and they hear this language. It’s everywhere.”

“As a parent, I’m telling the schools, you have blinders on,” said Coulter.

Although protocols are in place to handle bullying and discrimination in the schools, Fisher said that might not be enough.

“We don’t want to wait for it to happen again. I don’t want another incident. I work 10 hours a day, and I’m here at this meeting to share my concerns with you,” said the mother.

Westman told the group about a new social-emotional curriculum and professional development program, Open Circle, which is being implemented at the elementary school over a two-year period. Open Circle was developed out of Wellesley College and is currently used in over 300 schools in 100 communities across the country, with the most success reported from urban communities. Proponents claim the system reduces problem behaviors by involving teachers, students and parents.

The elementary school also teaches students how to deal with their classmates by analyzing problems by severity (“big problem” versus “little problem”). Children are encouraged to resolve smaller issues among themselves and escalate larger issues, such as bullying, to an adult.

“The primary protocol we have is that children know we don’t tolerate that kind of behavior,” said Behan, who served as the Pell principal before she was named assistant superintendent. “We show children the difference between a little problem or a large problem. That’s a mantra they use at Pell.”

Additionally, the school uses a behavior reinforcement system named STAR (“Stay Safe, Take Responsibility, Act Respectfully and Ready to Learn”). Students receive STAR points for positive behavior, which they may cash in for special incentives such as wearing their slippers or reading with a favorite teacher.

Beyond the recent events prompting the community gatherings, there have been previous racial incidents in Newport. A disturbance last year at the Florence Gray Center resulted in an arrest when police were called to the scene, and the Boys & Girls Club suspended its activities there for a short period of time to allow tensions to subside.

The next community meeting is scheduled for Monday, Jan. 9, at 6:15 p.m. at Gather. Updates may be found at Sankofa Community Connection’s Facebook page.

Return to top