After racist incidents at two schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District in 2021, officials have hired a race and equity liaison to oversee the ongoing investigations.
Long-time civil rights attorney Mark Harris was chosen last week to look into racist incidents at Kit Carson Academy and West Campus High School. Harris will seek to increase accountability in the process and serve as an investigator for any new incidents that have previously gone unreported.
“What my goal is now is to bring about a certain level of transparency,” Harris said. “Our community is calling for accountability. It has not had a very clear vision as to the fact and factors associated with these incidents.”
In May of 2021, a seventh grade teacher at Kit Carson Academy was recorded using a racial slur during a lesson about language. Then, this past November, a group of West Campus High School students vandalized the school gym with racist graffiti and threatened the school’s vice principal, Elysse Versher.
The two incidents prompted SCUSD superintendent Jorge Aguilar to open investigations, and also prompted the hiring of Harris to oversee their progress.
“I think that there are ways in which a role like the one that Mark Harris is going to be playing for us is also part of a larger strategy to demonstrate to our community that we are going to continue to lean in,” Aguilar said. “And we are going to continue to address these issues with the degree of seriousness that I think our students and our faculty, staff and community deserve.”
Harris said he will also be using his role to communicate with concerned parents.
“It’s really important to identify various acts of racism. Our community has among ourselves talked about certain things, some of which came to the attention of the superintendent and district, some of which have not,” Harris said. “I’m going to really make sure I’m going to do everything I can to identify racist acts that need to be eradicated going forward.”
SCUSD isn’t alone in appointing an equity officer or someone to oversee race and equity issues within a district. Across the country, other school districts have added this role, including in Oceanside, California, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C..
Mary Rice Boothe is the Access and Equity Officer at The Leadership Academy, a national organization that trains educators.
“Especially since the murder of George Floyd, this is definitely a position that has expanded greatly since then. What you can see is about 100% of the largest 25 school districts in the country have a race and equity officer,” Boothe said.
She added that many districts have established the role for the same reason — because acts of racism have happened recently.
“I think that's unfortunately usually the impetus for creating the role — something has happened and you need to respond to it as a community,” Booth said. “I think what's the challenge for that officer is, number one, this role cannot be done alone. The position is just a part of the equation of actually moving a community to see things differently.”
Many within SCUSD remain skeptical that the new Race and Equity Liaison will change the current climate. Carl Pinkston, president of the Black Parallel School Board, has said, despite assurances from the superintendent that more will be done, the district is battling a long history of racism.
“I do want to make this perfectly clear: Hiring a liaison is not a solution. It is just a piece in it as part of the process,” Pinkston said. “What the concerns that parents and community have about the incident that took place at Carson and West Campus is both the nature of the educational system. But more importantly, we, the community, would like to see some accountability, some justice.”
Pinkston said he hopes to create a whole department dedicated to addressing race and racism, in addition to the liaison. Superintendent Aguilar has said he will also be investing in teacher training to address these recent incidents, and has promised the liaison will not be the district’s only actions to address the situation.
District officials have said they expect to issue an update on the investigation of the West Campus High School incident in the coming weeks.
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