‘We have to talk about racism,’ Davis County leader urges residents, after scathing report about schools

Solutions will come only by “recognizing that there are problems and by not minimizing” them, a diversity expert says.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Davis County Commissioner Bob Stevenson introduces Hill Air Force Base Commander Col. Jenise M. Carrol of the 75th Air Base Wing, during a Davis School District board meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022.

Farmington • Davis County residents need to talk honestly about racism, County Commissioner Bob Stevenson urged Tuesday, following a federal report that documented and condemned discrimination and harassment in area schools.

“One of the things I think that we’ve been afraid of in the past, is we’re not willing to talk about it. I believe we have to talk about the issue of racism,” Stevenson said. “We have to be very open about it.”

The Department of Justice said in an October report that the Davis School District had ignored “serious and widespread” racial harassment in its schools for years, creating an atmosphere that was so oppressive that students of color feared coming to class. Many stopped reporting acts of discrimination after teachers who witnessed them didn’t step in, the report said.

Superintendent Reid Newey said the district plans to work with outside groups to encourage broader conversations about racism and discrimination and how to stop it. “This isn’t just a school effort,” said John Zurbuchen, assistant superintendent. “We are a community.”

One speaker during a public comment period pushed back, saying a focus on racism is divisive, but more than a dozen others thanked the district for its approach and encouraged it to become a leader in inclusion.

The district announced it has created a partnership with Stevenson, Hill Air Force Base Commander Col. Jenise M. Carrol and Utah first lady Abby Cox. The effort will include annual district meetings with those partners and Salt Lake City and Ogden branches of the NAACP.

District administrators will also work with officials at Hill Air Force Base and interfaith organizations to find strategies to reduce discrimination throughout the county, Zurbuchen said.

“There are members of the installation that have come forth and said they were treated differently,” Carroll said of Hill. “I have not been treated differently myself, but individuals from the installation have, and that’s where the partnership will come into play.”

The district has hired veteran educator and prominent civil rights advocate Jackie Thompson to oversee reform in the predominantly white northern Utah district. In a news conference after the board meeting, Thompson said the district’s new office of equal opportunity will include an equity consultant, a director and 30 cultural liaisons at schools in the county. The district also is planning diversity trainings for faculty and employees.

The experiences of Davis County children will be featured in a new video series that will be shown to students next week, she said.

“Our children are going to help us lead the way. They are already and will continue to be a powerful part of the solution,” Thompson said.

What experts say it will take

The first step toward creating a more inclusive community is to confront past problems head on, said Adrienne Andrews, chief diversity officer at Weber State University, in an interview earlier Tuesday.

“The only way that we can get to a resolution is by recognizing that there are problems and by not minimizing the problems,” Andrews said. “We don’t have to demonize anyone. We can acknowledge and recognize what has been done in the past, whether that’s that recent past or historical past, and then we can work together.”

Andrews noted people often get defensive when they’re accused of discriminatory behaviors, because no one “wants to be called racist or sexist or homophobic.” But instead of trying to prove their innocence, members of an inclusive community should ask what they did to hurt another person in the first place, Andrews said.

Change also requires acknowledging that racism and discrimination occurs not only on an individual basis, but also on an institutional basis, said Daneka Souberbielle, chief diversity officer at Southern Utah University.

“Sometimes, because someone may not see individual discrimination, they assume that there’s no structural or institutional discrimination going on, or vice versa,” Souberbielle said. To “eliminate discrimination across the board,” she said, people need to “really be able to understand that it’s functioning on multiple levels simultaneously.

Andrews agreed. “We can’t pretend that the findings [of the DOJ investigation] are not appalling,” she said. “We have to look at our organization and our structures and ask: At what point did things fall apart? Once we can see that, what changes do we need to institute? Because this is unacceptable.”

An inclusive community needs to intentionally define its shared values, Souberbielle added.

“I would call it a foundational belief,” Andrews explained. “While we might differ on perspectives and opinions, if we can officially come together based on a common shared humanity, then that means anything is possible. If we can see each other as people, then we can actually begin to understand and recognize the harms that people experience.”

The community reacts

During the board’s meeting, elementary students who won the district’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. contest recited excerpts from his speeches. Dexter Hansen, a sixth-grader from Lakewood Elementary, and Eleanor Kinsmire, a second-grader from Orchard Elementary, school drew a standing ovation from the crowd.

Parents and community members asked the board to take the DOJ’s findings seriously and work to provide solutions to keep children safe at Davis schools during the public comment period.

“We know that Davis isn’t the only district that has challenges... But you have the opportunity to be a leader in this work of equity and inclusion,” Betty Sawyer, a member of the Ogden branch of the NAACP, told the school board.

“Empower our kids to understand how to advocate for themselves,” Karece Thompson, a parent of a student at South Clearfield Elementary, said.

“Our kids spend most of their days in schools, and it is imperative that they see themselves reflected and valued in that space,” said Allison Schlichter, a Davis parent.

Davis School District has also commenced an independent investigation of the district’s handling of critical issues including bullying after 10-year-old Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor died by suicide on Nov. 6. Tichenor’s mother, Brittany Tichenor-Cox said she had reached out to the district several times to talk about how her daughter was being treated by her classmates and her teacher.

Andrews said that eliminating discrimination will “take absolutely everything we’ve got as a community.”

“And that’s because these aren’t things that can be subtracted out,” she continued. “We can’t check them off a list to be done. These things are much bigger than that.”