Luciano Martinez: Can the Davis School District effectively investigate itself?

Panel to investigate suicide and racism must include some outside experts on race.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Davis School District Superintendent, Reid Newey admits that there is racism in the Davis School District, as he discusses the situation with Izzy Tichenor, during a news conference in Farmington, on Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021.

With the tragic death of 10-year old Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor, a Black student in the Davis School District, requests are being amplified for some type of reform which should take place to address the needs of students of color in district schools.

The Tichenor family believes that Izzy’s death came about as a result of bullying she endured in her school at the hands of her fellow students because of her skin color, and the fact that she was also autistic. They believe that school administrators and her classroom teacher did not heed her cries for help. Instead, school officials made things worse through their inaction and lack of empathy for a Black child.

This situation, coupled with a recent report by the U.S. Department of Justice which addresses racist practices within the district, demonstrates why immediate action needs to be taken by district administrators and the board of education to improve relations with the ethnic minority community.

Davis School District Superintendent Reid Newey tells us that he is setting up an investigative team consisting of “an expert in child trauma, an expert in education practices and an expert in law,” to investigate matters regarding race within his district.

This team will then make recommendations for positive change. This sounds like a good idea except for a few negative factors.

First of all, Newey seems to have neglected to mention whether he has an expert on racial relations on his team. As the problems outlined in the Justice Department report were about race, and the issue of harassment of a Black elementary school student was definitely about race, it seems only logical that a professional expert on race should be a part of the investigative team. Is there such a person on the team?

Second, what will the racial make-up of the team be? If everyone on the team is white, and they are investigating matters concerned with students of color, it will be very difficult for most people not to label the final report as so much “whitewash.” Especially, if the report finds only minor problems with the way the district administration handles complaints concerned with racial discrimination. For this reason, it would be beneficial if more than one person represented ethnic minorities, most importantly Blacks, to avoid charges of “tokenism.”

Over the years I have learned that members of ethnic minority groups speak more freely with someone who might also be from a racial minority.

Third, will team members be Davis School District employees? Hopefully not. As a school administrator I had the privilege of being selected several times to represent the Utah State Office of Education (USOE) on accreditation teams. The state office made a practice of choosing educators from districts other than the one where a school was to be evaluated. They knew that evaluators would be less prone to show favoritism to a school in a district which did not employ them and would not have to fear for their professional well-being if they gave the school to be accredited any negative ratings. Perhaps the USOE would be willing to help the superintendent set up his investigation to ensure that it will be comprehensive, fair and unbiased.

Gov. Spencer Cox tells us that he has full confidence in Newey, and that he thinks the district is doing a good job in improving racial relations.

He said he talked to Izzy’s family members. This is a good thing, but it would improve his understanding of the racial situation in the district if he talked to ethnic minority students and their parents, as well. One would hope that he will take this advice to heart, and that the Davis School District will be successful in its racism investigation, and subsequent plan of action to address the needs of all students in its schools.

Luciano S. Martinez

Luciano S. Martinez, Murray, is a retired Utah educator. He enjoyed working at every level of education from pre-school to medical school over a 31-year career, which once included serving as a school counselor in the Davis School District.