OPS board: We are listening

The main entrance to Owosso High School is shown.

OWOSSO — Members of the Owosso Public Schools Board of Education Monday delivered a mostly uniform message to area residents and community stakeholders regarding racism and discrimination in the district: We are here to listen and we want what’s best for all students.

The conversation — sparked by the recent resignation of board president Tim Jenc over a “racially insensitive” social media post and a subsequent online petition from a community group demanding the district make changes to address racism and discrimination — dominated the public comment portion of Monday’s virtual board meeting, with more than 20 speakers sharing their thoughts on what the district should do moving forward.

“There are those that may argue that to demand was wrong. I choose to look at the entire message and interpret what is being asked,” Board Trustee Olga Quick said in her closing remarks Monday. “I believe that the (Owosso for Change) group and the other community members that I heard from have a common goal, and that is to work together for the betterment of our district. I am confident that this board, with the efforts of our administrative team, Owosso Public Schools staff and community will accomplish that goal.”

Owosso for Change, a group primarily comprised of Owosso High School graduates and parents, among other community members, began circulating an online petition calling upon the district to make several changes to address racism, white supremacy, white privilege and the “myriad ways they intersect to create power imbalances, both in Owosso and beyond” July 20.

To date, the online petition has gained more than 490 signatures from Owosso alumni, community members and former staff, according to the group, which launched the effort following the resignation Jenc after he shared a what was deemed a racially insensitive social media post on his personal Facebook account.

The post, created by Facebook user Dewayne Adam Davis and shared June 20 by Jenc, questioned why it’s acceptable in society to celebrate minority lives, history and culture when whites are deemed racist for celebrating their own culture and accomplishments.

In its online petition, Owosso for Change demands that Owosso Public Schools take several steps to address racism and discrimination even further; among the proposals is requiring all district faculty and staff participate in racial justice and anti-bias professional development training prior to the 2020-21 school year.

The group also demands the district teach a more inclusive history curriculum that highlights “racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and the ways they intersect to create oppression, as well as the history of Owosso’s problematic past, at all grade levels.”

Furthermore, Owosso for Change would like the district’s board of education to “commit to making these changes long term by creating a subcommittee in conjunction with parents dedicated to working toward anti-racism in the district.”

In an emailed statement to The Argus-Press Thursday, Owosso Public Schools Superintendent Andrea Tuttle acknowledged that while the use of the word “demand” can be off-putting to many, she understands what Owosso for Change is working to accomplish.

“Even prior to their ‘demands,’ our administrative team has been keenly aware and supportive of the need for educational opportunities that promote social justice for all,” Tuttle said via email.

“The Owosso administrative team is currently working on securing professional development opportunities for students and staff to first understand and acknowledge the issues and then take appropriate action. Additionally, the district is researching and reviewing social justice curricular options. This is a process.”

Tuttle reiterated her comments regarding the petition during Monday’s meeting, though she was far from the only person to weigh in on the topic.

Owosso resident Ronald Davis opposed the effort, calling upon the district to put a halt to the movement while referring to the community group as a “coalition of unknowns.”

“The coalition needs to be purged from its own bias, hatred, ignorance of history and arrogance,” Davis said. “This is indoctrination and not education. None of us are ignorant to what is happening in our own beloved nation in these more than challenging times. My question to the so-called coalition is: What is your plan if your demands are not met? Should we look forward in this small community — this is tough — to riots, looting, burning, destruction and even death? Your demands are only the tip of the iceberg of what could be next … There’s only evil behind your intent. I will not apologize for calling you out on it.”

Don Galardi, a retired minister who has resided in Owosso for nearly 45 years, also took issue with the petition, particularly the use of the word “demand.”

“I find no moral or civil authority to make such demands of the board. I can see making suggestions and encouraging the board, but to put it in the language of demands I find highly offensive,” Galardi said.

“We have to all agree that all students and all staff should be treated with dignity and respect. There’s no place for bullying or slurs of any kind, and I would assume that you already have policies in effect that deal with these things,” Galardi continued. “Perhaps there’s a question on how well they’re being enforced.”

Lindsey Bacigal, a 2013 graduate of Owosso High School and member of Owosso for Change, said the group had several discussions as to whether or not to use the word “demand” in the online petition, but ultimately felt it was appropriate to do so given the current state of affairs.

“For us, we’re not just asking the school district to care about students of all backgrounds and ways of being, we’re not asking it to have school board members that are not racist, we are demanding it, and the fact that the word demand ruffles so many feathers is sad,” Bacigal said. “Honestly, we shouldn’t have to be demanding these things in the first place.”

Multiple area residents against the petition noted the bulk of the organizers of the Facebook group, former OHS graduates, currently reside outside of the community, to which Bacigal responded: “Why would I want to stay in a place where I experienced discrimination during school? Why would I want to raise children in a place like that?

“To me, that is exactly why so many of us have left in recent years,” she said.

Owosso resident and former district curriculum director Kari Selleck spoke in support of Owosso for Change, commending group members for their professionalism in relaying the group’s message.

“My heart is sad for the mention of evil, the mention of riots because I believe that the people who have been coming forth, in all honesty, have been very professional and using the appropriate protocols,” Selleck said. “I am proud of the students who are on the change committee, and having looked at many curricular content items and textbooks over the course of my entire life, 30-plus years in public education, I can tell you that I commend this administration for saying the most important words I think we can ever say which is, ‘We want to do better and we want to learn.’

“I have, in the last two years, grown immensely in what I now would look for in social studies textbooks, English textbooks and literature that I would bring to the table as quality literature that’s representing far more voices than we have had in the past,” she continued. “I hope that we all embrace the notion that we can all change and learn and grow with the times and the new information that we have.”

During board comments, Secretary Marlene Webster thanked the wide variety of speakers for articulating their concerns, noting no amount of change will happen simply overnight, but an open dialogue across the entire community is a good place to start.

“Owosso is not racist because we’re white, Owosso is racist because until into the 1970s and maybe even into the 1980s we had signs posted at our borders saying that people of color were not allowed to stay here overnight,” Webster said. “There are people who live in this community who were alive in that time and they have raised their children to believe that people of color are to be mistrusted. We have a problem because when we see people of color walking in our community we’re more likely to call the police and say ‘This person doesn’t belong in this neighborhood.’ We didn’t get to this place, where we are, overnight, and we will not be able to solve this problem overnight.

“Let’s be patient, let’s listen, let’s care about each other and be kind to everybody,” Webster continued, “and move forward to try to find a solution to what we all — I think — would agree is a problem here.”

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