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School board addresses inclusivity, racial issues and oppression

By Katelyn Waltemyer, contributor

Hours after a jury in Minnesota found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty on three charges in the killing of George Floyd, the Harrisonburg City School Board acknowledged the verdict at its meeting. 

“It is not enough,” said Kristen Loflin, the school board chair. “But it is a moment to be able to breathe.”

The board on Tuesday also made progress with key initiatives — including further discussing an inclusivity statement for the city school district, getting an update on the progress on proposed revisions to the School Resource Officer program and hearing about changes in Harrisonburg High School’s athletics. 

School board discusses race, equity and resources 

The School Resource Officer task force gave an update on the roles of police in schools. Craig Mackail, chief operating officer for Harrisonburg City Public Schools, said city schools will extend its contract with the Harrisonburg Police Department until Aug. 1, when new teachers come back for the next academic year. 

City Councilman Sal Romero said the task force has met four times, as of Tuesday, to discuss the role of police officers in the schools and how the partnership between the city school system and the Harrisonburg Police Department may change to better serve the school community. 

Romero, along with board members Kaylene Seigle and Obie Hill, are members of the task force. Seigle said being a part of the group has allowed her to participate in engaging conversations with community members on their personal experiences with police officers. 

“It has been a safe environment to speak from the heart,” Seigle said.

The school board’s equity advisory council also proposed an updated version of its inclusivity statement, which will serve as a pillar for city schools’ equity standards. The board discussed the proposal but didn’t vote on it. 

Hill, a counselor, expressed concern over the language of the statement Tuesday night, specifically with the use of institutional and systemic racism. 

“It’s not just a term to me,” Hill said. “We must be careful of the terminology we use toward certain groups of people.”

With the book “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation” in hand, Hill said that while there are different forms of oppression, it’s his duty as a Black man to challenge the way people think about racism. Hill said he draws from personal experiences of racism when addressing issues, such as the inclusivity statement, when discussing oppression and how it should be addressed. Despite some people feeling “uncomfortable” when discussing different forms of oppression, Hill said it’s important to have those conversations. 

“I think it’s a great time to talk about these things,” Hill said. 

Expanding athletes horizons with new initiative 

Harrisonburg High School Principal Melissa Hensley updated the school board with the implementation of a national initiative called InSideOut and how it has the potential to change the way student-athletes view their academics.

InSideOut started in 2015 with funding from the NFL Foundation and focuses on empowering “school communities to implement purpose-based athletics” opportunities for high school student-athletes. Essentially, the organization encourages more emotional and character development of student-athletes and emphasizes their health and wellness. 

“We want to be intentional with this,” Hensley said. “We all have to work together to make our athletes better.”

The InSideOut initiative has four main components: creating a sense of belonging, empowering environment, fun and freedom. Hensley said a handful of coaches are in the process of trying out the InSideOut method on the varsity level. 

In addition to the initiative, Harrisonburg High School made major changes with athletics this year, including:

  • All teams have new uniforms;
  • The weight room was redone: it has all new equipment;
  • The High School no longer charges fans to watch games, except for regional and state competitions

Also in the meeting:

  • Superintendent Michael Richards gave the public an update on restarting construction of the new Harrisonburg high school. Richards said that he, and other city school members, are in the process of talking with Neilson Builders Inc. — the contractor  — on the best way to resume construction and keep the previous contract. Five members of the board voted to move forward with resuming construction with federal funds as soon as possible, while Seigle abstained. 
  • Outdoor learning spaces are in the process of being conceptualized at several Harrisonburg City schools. Mackail showed renderings of the different outdoor areas for Tuesday and said the projects should be done “fairly quickly” once contractors are selected. 
  • The solar project at Bluestone Elementary School is still underway. Richards said solar panels going on the roof of the school will mark the completion of the project. At the next school board meeting, Richards will propose a resolution for the panels to be installed.

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