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Papillion-La Vista school board hears comments on controversial book

Published: Apr. 12, 2021 at 5:55 PM CDT
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PAPILLION, Neb. (WOWT) - The Papillion-La Vista school board heard comments Monday on the controversy caused by a children’s book on racial injustice, which many parents found offensive.

The book is called “Something Happened In Our Town” by Marianne Celano, Marieta Collins, and Ann Hazzard. It seeks to educate young children on identifying and confronting racial injustice in their lives. The story follows two families and shows young kids asking their parents questions about an incident that happened in their town: a white police officer shooting a Black man.

Papillion-La Vista Community Schools board heard from Jared Wagenknecht, vice president of the Papillion La Vista Education Association as well as other staff members before hearing a response from Superintendent Andrew Rikli, who last week sent an apology letter to parents as well as police chiefs at La Vista Police, Papillion Police, and the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office.

“Teachers did not mistakenly use offensive material,” Wagenknecht said. “The problem is not the material in question. The problem is continuing to ignore the very real issues of racism and injustice. It is also concerning that teachers were immediately blamed.”

He said it was not a mistake made by a teacher, that the materials were selected by a group of “instructional coaches and administrators” after they were asked to “engage students in conversations about race equity and injustices.” The group then shared them with teachers according to district policy.

“The district has moved forward to correct this error in the press story, and we are glad to see them do that,” he said.

He also said that the district didn’t follow its policies for dealing with challenged materials, approved or not, as teachers were not consulted, no alternatives to the material were given, and no request was made for a review board.

“Instead, the district gave unilateral veto power to one particular community group. This sets a dangerous precedent,” he said.

The action also didn’t allow for conversation and questions “that our young people deserve as they process the clear and disturbing racial injustices occurring in today’s society” — questions that educators field every day, he said.

The board also heard from a school librarian, who spoke about the book’s authors, accolades, and other merits; and a resident who said he was speaking as “a concerned citizen,” who called the book “race propaganda being fed to our students.”

Following comments, the superintendent made a response, which he said was not a typical process for the board meetings.

Rickli apologized for the book and clarified its availability of the book, saying it was never removed as the district did not have a physical copy, and because the video of the book, which contained photos of the book pages and a voice-over recording of the story, was never officially reviewed or approved as part of the district’s curriculum.

“The book is not found in any of our school libraries, and therefore, it is impossible to be pulled from our library because it simply did not exist there,” he said. “Furthermore, the video was not pulled from our district curriculum because it was never officially part of the district’s official curriculum to begin with.”

He said the district’s policies regarding controversial material were followed.

“The video was pulled because police are portrayed in an extremely negative way,” Dr. Rikli said. “...We are not a school district that believes that it is our role to share negative perceptions with our students about law enforcement. ... We believe we can have difficult discussions about delicate topics, such as racism, without making negative blanket statements about others,” he said.

Rickli said the district communicated with students and parents from the two schools where the video was shown, and met with leaders of law enforcement and the teachers union to offer explanations and apologies “and asked for their help moving forward.”

He concluded with apologies to any teachers who may have felt blamed saying they “did exactly what was asked of them,” saying “if there’s any blame here tonight, it rests solely on my shoulders.” Dr. Rikli also apologized to the community for the controversy it created during an already difficult school year.

Full PLEA statement read at the meeting

The Papillion La Vista Education Association stands in strong support of educators who engage their students in courageous conversations about racism and social injustice. In addition to our strong support, it is important to clarify what did and did not happen to those engaged in this important work over the past few weeks.

Teachers did not “mistakenly use offensive material”. The problem is not the material in question. The problem is continuing to ignore the very real issues of racism and injustice. It is also concerning that teachers were immediately blamed. The press reported that “it was an ‘honest mistake,’ on the part of the teacher and the district as a whole.” To be clear this was not a mistake on the part of any teacher. After being asked to engage students in conversations about race equity and injustices, these materials were selected by a group of instructional coaches and administrators who shared them with teachers as is clearly delineated in district policy.

Furthermore, the district did not follow board policies 6401 and 6405 for dealing with challenged instructional materials. These policies do not differentiate between materials that are or are not district approved. When removing the material, teachers were not consulted, alternate activities were not suggested, and a request for a review board was not submitted. Instead, the district gave unilateral veto power to one particular community group. This sets a dangerous precedent that cedes professional discretion and pedagogical expertise to the censorship of the loudest complainers. We should acknowledge here that, regardless of intent, preferential treatment for the largest and most powerful groups is a key component of systems that perpetuate racial inequality.

The worst consequences of the district’s response are the missed opportunities for discussion and questions that our young people deserve as they process the clear and disturbing racial injustices occurring in today’s society. Some have suggested that the best strategy is to ignore the problems and pretend that these inequalities do not exist. Yet, educators do not have that luxury. Instead, we field these difficult questions every day. Our students deserve to be engaged. It is our job to help students process and make sense of the world that they have inherited.

In this spirit, our district has rightfully made diversity and equity part of its strategic goals. Yet these goals cannot be achieved through cultural blindness or sweeping long standing problems under the rug. If we are really serious about increasing racial and cultural understanding, we must be willing to engage our young people in difficult conversations about race and diversity.

The district must be willing to stand by our educators with guidance, training and support as they do this difficult work. Unfortunately, this is not what happened this past week. This cannot be the way we move forward.

Papillion La Vista Education Association

Watch Monday’s school board conversation on the book

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