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Alpine School District looking to improve racial equity in schools

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The Alpine School District plans to implement additional training to review whether or not students of color are punished more harshly than white students for the same infractions. The district will also launch a new online tool to make reporting potential acts of discrimination easier.

The plans and discussions come in the wake of the United States Department of Justice issuing a notice to the Davis School District after the department concluded that there had been “serious and widespread racial harassment of Black and Asian-American students” within the Utah district.

That decision, announced last month, sparked a discussion between Alpine School District administrators and its governing board on Nov. 9 regarding what measures the district already takes to prevent racial discrimination and harassment and the district’s steps to prevent future incidents. 

ASD’s leaders and the board reviewed the Department of Justice’s materials sent to Davis School District, which came after a multi-year investigation concluding that the district repeatedly failed to respond to race-based harassment reports by both students and staff. The report revealed hundreds of documented uses of racial slurs and that students had been physically attacked because of their race.

“The department concluded that for years, Davis’s ineffective response left students vulnerable to continued harassment and that students believed the district condoned the behavior,” according to the announcement.

It also found that Black students were punished more harshly than white students for similar behavior and that Black students were unable to form groups, while other groups proposed by students were. 

While Alpine School District Superintendent Shane Farnsworth said he doesn’t believe administrators have caused intentional harm toward the district’s students of color, he thinks the district should create training to help create a mindset that will make all its students feel safe.

“My summary was, we feel like we’re doing several things very well, but there are other things we feel we can improve on,” he said.

Under an agreement with the Department of Justice, Davis School District must hire a consultant to review and revise policies and procedures. They must also take other steps, including conducting training and analyzing data to assure that students of color aren’t being penalized more harshly than white students for the same infractions.

Farnsworth encouraged ASD leaders to read the DOJ materials to understand some changes the district will be making.

One of those includes creating a standardized way and definitions regarding student behavior. 

Farnsworth said that a principal at one school might classify an incident as bullying, and another might refer to it as harassment or discrimination. District leaders said that creating a standardized system will make it easier to see if there are inequalities in punishment. 

Analis Ruiz, the district’s executive director of equity, inclusion and student support, said that discipline data could be reviewed at a district level quarterly and the school level monthly. She hopes that those definitions for misconduct begin this summer.

She said every district website, including ones for individual schools, has an electronic form 

to report harassment and discrimination. 

Currently, the district is required to report disciplinary information to the state. However, categorizing incidents will help give a clearer picture to ensure students are treated equally, according to Kimberly Bird, ASD’s executive director of internal relations and operations.

“This is really going to help us because all we do currently is what is expected to turn into the state, and if you compare us to another district, how they define it is different, as well,” Bird said. 

An upcoming tool, called Inform Alpine, will be used to report complaints and gather feedback. Ruiz said committees have also been formed to create spaces for students and parents to ask questions and pitch ideas.

Ruiz said the district currently doesn’t have a process to review which student clubs aren’t approved and proposed a smaller committee at the district level that would review which clubs are denied. The district would then be able to see why those decisions are made.

Ruiz also pointed to the importance of documenting if a complaint has been investigated.

“If it is never documented, it is as if it never happened, so we need to get better at documenting our efforts,” she told the board.

Julie King, a member of the board, said she was shocked to read that there were often additional incidents of harassment reported to DSD but that administrators weren’t keeping a record of how many. She said she wants to see ASD keep track of its cases.

John Patten, ASD’s executive director of results and school performance, wants equity to become a culture within the district — not simply a box to check off — that’ll influence everything from discipline to how materials are made available to how calendaring is done.

“It really is a lens on how you approach all of the functions of your work,” Patten said.

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