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Now that Davis School District has been called out for years of neglecting to respond to widespread racism in its schools, Jackie Thompson says it is time — past time, really — to overhaul the culture and attitudes there.
The veteran educator and prominent civil rights activist has been appointed to oversee reform in the northern Utah district after a recent blistering report from federal investigators. The U.S Department of Justice found that Davis administrators were doing little to address hundreds of reports from Black students being called the N-word or slaves and hearing threats that they would be lynched.
Thompson, who previously worked at the district’s director of educational equity for 17 years, acknowledged that she saw some of that while she was there before retiring in 2017; the DOJ report covered a five-year window that began in fall 2015 and ended in spring 2020. But she said many of the reports never reached her office.
She believes they were swept under the rug by teachers or administrators, which the report indicates was happening. Thompson said she is returning to make sure there are better processes in place for students of color so that their concerns are properly addressed.
“We’ve got to get a handle on the complaints and let families know they are serious,” Thompson told The Salt Lake Tribune in an interview Monday. “Each and every one will be taken seriously and they will be acted upon.”
Thompson will now serve as an assistant superintendent for the district, specifically tasked with working on diversity and equity in the predominantly white district and fulfilling the requirements set out by the DOJ. She started late last week and already is busy creating a new office and a form for reporting complaints — so her staff knows the full extent of what is going on. There also will be liaisons in each school to listen for and investigate concerns.
She said she wants to address the issues of racism head-on, with teacher, student and community trainings on sensitivity. Thompson said change will come by teaching “truthful history” about communities of color.
She recently was booted off the stage by white students at Sky View High School in Cache County School District for trying to do just that, after two kids there dressed up in racist costumes for Halloween — one in blackface, and the other in a Ku Klux Klan robe.
During the conversation Monday, Davis School District did not permit questions about that incident. But Thompson did say the new job would be a challenge in addressing similar deep-seated issues with race.
“She is a valuable resource and someone who understands better than anyone where we need to go,” Davis Superintendent Reid Newey said in a prepared statement.
Along with the DOJ report, Davis also came under fire recently for how it handled concerns reported by the mother of 10-year-old Izzy Tichenor. Brittany Tichenor-Cox said her daughter was bullied for being Black and autistic, but the district did not intervene. Izzy died by suicide early last month.
Thompson talked to the Tribune about Izzy, too, and how to prevent similar cases in the future. She has previously taught in public schools in Idaho and California and worked with the Utah State Office of Education. She also is a member of the Utah Ethnic Studies Coalition and the State Multicultural Commission.
Here is a Q&A with Thompson, lightly edited for clarity and length, on her new role and how to uproot racism in Davis County schools.
Question: You previously worked at Davis School District and then retired. Why did you decide to return for this position following the reports of racism there?
Thompson: I retired in 2017. For the first year or two, I was traveling. But after that, COVID hit, and after that, George Floyd’s death. And my husband and I, we just wanted to see what we could do to help make a positive difference.
I continued to work mentoring students and going into the schools doing presentations. I had the opportunity when The Leonardo museum did its exhibit “Sorting out Race.” My husband and I were able to talk to the children after they went through the exhibit and processed the information with them. And then last year, Davis School District asked me to be a part of the FLoC — Future Leaders of Color — where we’re mentoring teachers of color and students, as well.
So when I thought about it, I just kept going really. But I’m officially coming out of retirement now because I love the children. I was happy to come out of retirement to help be a part of the team and serve our students.
Q: Some of the issues with racism highlighted by the DOJ were happening when you were still at the district. Did you see those then and how did you respond?
Thompson: We were seeing some of these issues when I was here. The ones that came to our office, we would go out and address them and meet with the parents, meet with the community, and let them know that we were here. We were working to resolve them and doing what was necessary. And so yes, we were seeing some of that. But being here now, I’m finding out that there were issues that may not have come to our attention or to our office.
That’s why I’m excited to have the support that the DOJ has offered, the guidance and the guidelines. That’s why I believe that with a full-fledged department — our new office is going to be the Office of Equal Opportunity — we can work toward more resolutions. We’ll have a consultant. We’ll have a full-time director to just oversee this area on race. We’ll have three full-time members who are district equal opportunity coordinators. We’ll have a full-time secretary.
But the exciting part, my favorite part, is we’ll also have 35 cultural liaisons. Those will be administrators, and they will help us to investigate the complaints. We have 92 schools. And each cultural liaison will have about three schools each that they have to go into and do investigations.
We also want to be proactive and be in the community, figuring out when these cases aren’t coming to our attention. And so we’re going to be doing both things. We’re going to be receiving complaints, but we’re going to be in the community and also celebrating the good things that are happening.
Q: How will you go about addressing the issues now? How will you work to change the culture of harassment that students of color face?
Thompson: To end racism, we have to start small. We’re going to address it through training — teacher training that we’ve been doing, and training of the students and administrators and the community.
We believe when students know that everyone has culture, everyone has a story, that our ancestors have all contributed something positive, that’s for the better. But there’s also a truthful history that must be told, not to shame or blame. We go forward together, and everyone can be part of the solution and have hope. They may see some injustices. But these students want to know what they can do to help. When they see that they can be part of that, that’s going to be great.
Students have been called the N-word. I know the complaint [from the DOJ] focused on our African American and our Asian students, but we know that the name calling and the bullying has gone on with other races, too — our Latino students, our Native American students, our Pacific Islander students, students of all backgrounds. We want them to know that there’s a reporting system [currently being developed, though reports are welcome to any faculty member]. If a student has been called a name, a racist slur or something to do with gender or being LGBTQ, anything derogatory, it’s to be reported.
We want to have our new office set up as quickly as April, too, or at least by the beginning of the next school year [so students have a physical place to go]. But in the interim, there’s lot of training taking place. And we’re community building. We’re going to be rolling out a media campaign here shortly, in a couple of weeks, as something we can do to empower our students at the school level. They’re going to be a huge part of that.
Ultimately, we want to let the students know we want them to feel safe, valued, loved and respected. And that the contributions of their ancestors are acknowledged in the classrooms.
Q: What is the biggest concern that you feel needs to be addressed first?
Thompson: Right now, the most attention should go to those complaints that are coming in. Any complaints coming in — a student was called the N-word or a girl was treated this way or someone was mistreated — we are addressing immediately.
They will have a response pretty quickly. We’re seeing those and reviewing them on a daily and weekly basis and addressing those.
The bottom line is we want our students to have a great experience while they’re here with us. Then, we want them to be college- and career-ready and be citizens of the global world in which we live. We want them to be well-prepared and know that it’s our diversity that enriches us, but it’s our commonalities that bring us closer together. We want them to be comfortable with people of different backgrounds, to just know that we’re members of the human family.
Q: How many complaints has the district received in recent weeks, since the DOJ report?
Thompson: I’m going to get a briefing on that. I started last week, last Thursday. I’m going to come up to speed.
I believe more reports are coming in because people know there’s going to be a system in place and they will be addressed. More are coming in. How many, I will find out. But on a daily basis, we’re looking at them and it’s being addressed. It’s coming to the attention of the district immediately.
We’re also working to hire a consultant to know what the best practices and trainings are out there — not only locally but nationally and internationally. Then, we want to be proactive. Right now, we’re reactive to the complaints.
We can be proactive so that we can be on the front-end of it, with training and working with our students and our educators and administrators. All of us have a part in erasing racism.
When the complaints come in, we need to address the bigger questions of why and what we need to do. We’re not minimizing the seriousness of the complaints, but eventually we want to see fewer cases come in because they have been resolved and because action has been taken in a positive way where we’re shaping school culture and climate.
Q: How can the district work to prevent another case like Izzy Tichenor’s?
Thompson: I think that we, individually and together, need to circle around our families. We should continue to show love and find out what support is needed. When we hear a concern, we need to make sure that it is addressed.
Izzy was a beautiful young lady. Her light continues to shine so brightly today. We want to remember and go on in Izzy’s beautiful spirit. This should not happen to any other student, any other child in our district. We don’t want to see it happening statewide, nationwide.
Here at the district, there’s the PTA and teachers and administrators. All of us need to mentor and support and be watchful. And if we’re hearing things, we need to step in immediately. I’m not saying that hasn’t been done, but we could heighten our awareness. It’s the responsibility of each and every one of us.
I’ve heard so many positive things from students, saying: “Izzy was my friend” and “I loved playing with her.” We need to continue to teach that community building, too. There’s that saying: “Everything I learned, I learned in kindergarten.” We need to remember that, look out for one another, hold each other’s hands, be with each other. We need to building a supportive and loving environment to where we look out for one another, we respect one another. Everybody is valued. Everybody is important.
Students have powerful voices, too. And they can speak out and say something’s happening with this other student and it is not right. We tell them to say something. See something and say something and report it.
And for students who are the victim, they need to know an adult is there and they’ll be safe. They need to know that once an adult knows, they’re actually going to take care of it.
Q: Moving forward, what do parents need to know?
Thompson: They are partners with us. We want to work with our parents. We’re going to need them to be part of the solution with us. We’re going to have them come to the table. We’re going to do it on behalf of all of our children. Let’s do this together.
We value your ideas. We value your support. We know that parents are the child’s first teacher. We want communication.
Q: Is there anything else that should be noted?
Thompson: It’s about teamwork. I’m excited to work with the team here in the district and the community to make things better.