Hart District Introduces New Collaborative to Promote Inclusivity

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Photo Courtesy of Hart District

When students returned to school, Hart District introduced a new collaborative.

Linsey Towles, The Scroll, Co-Editor and Chief

The William S. Hart School District has introduced a new Equity and Diversity Collaborative as a student and staff resource for representation, discussion, and action on campus. The collaborative comes as a response to online social media tensions regarding reports of racial, sexual and other forms of discrimination on Hart District campuses. 

The collaborative provides a new platform for students, staff and administrators to have discussions and take action about issues regarding diversity and discrimination on Hart District campuses. The collaborative is made up of various students, staff members, parents and district representatives from each school site. Selection for the collaborative varies at different school sites, with principals taking different approaches at applications and recruitment.

“Sometimes when we talk about difficult subjects like race and discrimination, what ends up happening is that every year or so we have one special presentation on it and it’s almost like you’re just checking off a box like ‘okay we talked about that.’ I think it’s more important than that, and we want to make sure we’re talking about it all the time.” said Hart District Superintendent Mike Kuhlman.

Programs focused on the diversity of the student body and inclusivity within the Hart District prior to the creation of the collaborative include the Equity Steering Committee and the Council on School Culture at Saugus High School. The Equity Steering Committee, made up of principals, plays a large part in laying the groundwork for the Equity and Diversity Collaborative, providing guidance and perspective on it’s purpose and what actions it can take. 

The Council on School Culture was established by Saugus Principal Vince Ferry three years ago  and works with the organization Teen Truth. “There was about a month my first year here at Saugus where I noticed some inflammatory language, some examples being toward the LGBTQ community or students reporting the n-word being used on campus. It concerned me, so we got this group together to meet twice a semester,” said Ferry. According to Ferry, he hopes to blend the council and collaborative together over time. 

The Equity and Diversity Collaborative at Saugus is made up of 15-20 students pulled from the over 40 students who applied, according to Ferry. Applications were sent to student’s email accounts in August. “We definitely made sure that we had representation that was reflective of our student body,” Ferry commented. The first meeting is scheduled for September 22 and Ferry hopes these meetings will take place monthly, at a minimum. 

A renewed focus on diversity and inclusion comes as result of recent accusations, particularly on social media, of discrimination in Hart District schools and around the Santa Clarita Valley. Several students, teachers and staff members from nearly all schools in the district have been accused via anonymous social media accounts, particularly on Instagram, for inappropriate behavior consisting of racial, sexual, and religious prejudice. 

According to Kuhlman, the district immediately responded to the flow of online concerns and accusations by putting together a committee with two objectives: to read the posts and have a discussion on the diversity of the school curriculum. 

“It was largely because of the conversations about race and inclusion happening in larger society,” said Kuhlman, when asked about what prompted the creation of the collaboration. “Having read some of those things [online] across the district, it occurred to me that if we’re going to ask students not to do those things online, we need to provide a safe place where students trust adults to be able to say ‘this is going on.’”

Sebastian Cazares, local SCV activist, Saugus alum and candidate for College of the Canyon’s school board elections, commented on the creation of these accounts: “I think a big reason that it happened is because there have been feelings of discrimination for so many years here and it’s just been building up. People felt like social media was their only outlet.” 

The emergence of these social media accounts and forms of online activism are a result of racial and political tensions across the country sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer on May 25. Fueled by national outrage over police brutality, thousands have taken action in the form of protest and demonstrations consistently in the last three months in all 50 states in the U.S. and in other countries around the world.

Awareness of racial discrimination and inequality has touched nearly all parts of the U.S., including SCV, and efforts to expose discriminatory behavior have occurred largely online. “As someone who is from a minority community and has been close with other minority communities, this city’s history and what people have experienced here has felt like it has been swept under the rug. And now because of the movement, everything is coming to light,” said Cazares. “Even in this middle class city, these experiences still connect to the national conversation.” 

“The number one thing to come out of this for me and for adults was awareness. A lot of us did not realize the extent of how these issues affected students. I hope that is what the collaborative will do too,” commented Ferry. 

Dr. Mariane Doyle, Director of Equity Services for the Hart District said, “We [Hart District] started having these conversations around February, March. We started talking about amplifying student voices and started to really focus on equity in particular. It’s been something we’ve been building towards.” Dr. Doyle is expected to attend the first meeting at Saugus on September 22 to provide an overview of what the Hart District’s expectations are for the collaborative. 

Already the collaborative has had discussions on the topics of diversity, specifically school curriculum, and have taken action. The collaborative has placed a hold on the reading of the novels Hunk Fin, To Kill A Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men within the Hart District for the 2020-2021 school year after complaints from students and parents regarding the nature of these works.

“We have people asking questions about the books that we have students read and reflect on. They’re asking, are they reflective of a wide range of human experiences? Are they written by authors that look like our students and have the same experiences? This does not mean I want to exclude certain authors, but I want to bring more to the table,” said Kuhlman. 

“You want to make sure that whatever action is being done by the school is actually going to be uplifting the communities that have been impacted. Giving a platform to marginalized people,” commented Cazares.

According to Kuhlman, the collaborative will again meet to discuss how the district will proceed with the teaching of these books in future school years. Other discussions regarding campus climate and improvements in inclusivity and district transparency on discipline have taken place as well within the district.

“As we move in this work of equity, we anticipate that we’ll improve in some ways and discover ways in which we can improve even more and be able to push further. If we ever get into a space where we feel like we’re finished and we’re done, we’re not doing our jobs anymore.” said Dr. Doyle.

Kuhlman emphasizes the collaborative as a path to action: “I want this to be more than just words. If we identify that there is a real issue that needs to be dealt with, it is our responsibility to fix it. The best way to do that is together.”