Traverse City News and Events

TCAPS Continues Diversity, Antiracism Efforts In Wake Of Snapchat Incident

By Beth Milligan | May 25, 2021

Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) board members received an update Monday on district efforts to increase diversity and inclusivity initiatives in the wake of a racist student incident on Snapchat in April. Efforts including a curriculum audit, staff training, and a proposed antiracist TCAPS board resolution drew criticism from some parents who said the work amounted to indoctrination and an attempt to force critical race theory into the classroom, while several TCAPS staff members defended the process as crucial to providing a school environment where all students feel welcome and safe.

The Social Equity Task Force – an internal TCAPS group including students, teachers, administrators, parents, and other stakeholders formed in November to address equity, diversity, and inclusivity issues – provided an update to board members. According to committee members, current focus areas include auditing the district’s K-12 curriculum “through an equity lens,” diversifying TCAPS libraries, expanding learning opportunities for staff, providing support “to lift student voices” in the district’s inclusivity work, and passing a board resolution detailing TCAPS’ commitment to being an antiracist, anti-discriminatory school district.

The resolution was originally slated to be reviewed by board members later this summer. However, that timeline was accelerated following an incident last month in which six students started a Snapchat group called “Slave Trade” and posted racist, homophobic, antisemitic, anti-disability, and other hateful comments about fellow students. No charges were pressed in the case, and any district disciplinary action was not disclosed publicly due to student privacy laws. Still, public backlash over the incident prompted TCAPS to immediately update its website to make sure all harassment and anti-bullying policies and forms were current and accessible. The district is working on training teachers on “where the line is between free speech and hate speech” and when they should intervene, and moving more quickly on Social Equity Task Force initiatives like the board resolution, according to TCAPS Associate Superintendent of Curriculum & Instruction Shaina Biller.

“Our goal is to be proactive to prevent such actions (like the Snapchat incident) from happening,” Biller said. An initial draft of the board resolution states that TCAPS is committed to being a “safe and inclusive learning environment that promotes equity and affirms the humanity” of all staff and students, and outlines the district’s responsibility to nurture an “antiracist, anti-discriminatory, and anti-hate learning environment where every child is respected and valued for who they are.”

During nearly an hour of public comment on the resolution Monday – which was only on the agenda for discussion, not adoption – several parents criticized the document and the overall work of the Social Equity Task Force, saying it amounted to indoctrination and was pushing an agenda that would divide and not unite students. “I find this resolution also to be offensive, degrading, inappropriate, condescending, and detrimental to all TCAPS students, parents, and community members,” said Darcie Pickren, adding that the “negative rhetoric” of the resolution “imposes toxic assumptions on our children.” Multiple parents worried the curriculum review would force “critical race theory” onto the classroom and said TCAPS should teach students to be proud of their history and focus on what they have in common, rather than their differences.

Public comment was occasionally heated, including a woman threatening to withdraw her students from TCAPS if the resolution passed and another woman using the N-word in its entirety twice, prompting Board Trustee Erica Moon Mohr to interrupt and demand the woman stop repeating the word. Non-white audience members who spoke in favor of the resolution shared concerns over the comments and said they illustrated the need for district improvements.

“Looking around this room, this is something that definitely needs to be put in place,” said Courtney Wiggins, a TCAPS parent. “It isn’t this policy that should be frightening to you. Quite honestly, the lack of care for people of color in this community, in the country at large, it’s quite frightening.” Marshall Collins, a member of the Social Equity Task Force, said the committee’s aim wasn’t to be divisive but rather to provide an educational environment that provided “a sense of belonging” for every student. Change "always causes pushback” from those who are comfortable with the status quo, he said.

The anti-discriminatory resolution is expected to come back to board members in the future for further discussion and revisions, followed by potential adoption. Moon Mohr, who chairs the district's curriculum committee, said that characterizations of the curriculum audit as an attempt to introduce critical race theory to the classroom were inaccurate. “I can tell you as the chair this is not happening,” she said. “We are evaluating exactly what we want to incorporate and we are using (the guidance of) our leaders…on what is the best for our students.” District curriculum changes must go through a review and approval process, staff noted, adding that any potential changes would likely be select updates to aspects of the curriculum and not a wholesale overhaul of classroom materials.

In the meantime, TCAPS librarians are working to provide resources to both staff and students on diversity and inclusivity issues – an effort that has ramped up since the Snapchat incident, but was already underway. TC Central High School Librarian Larissa VanderZee says an ongoing virtual book fair partnership with Brilliant Books, in which customers can use a special link to order any books and 25 percent of proceeds will go to schools to buy diverse titles for their libraries, has already generated 52 orders and more than $600 in credit since starting in September. TCAPS libraries typically add an average of 225-250 new titles each year, VanderZee says; this past year, an estimated three-quarters of titles added have been “representative books” addressing topics like race, LGBTQ+, the chronically ill or disabled, different faiths, and other diverse issues.

Libraries aim to be resources not just for students, but for staff, VanderZee says. In addition to stocking both YA and adult titles that both students and staff can check out, librarians assist teachers with curriculum options – such as creating optional book clubs for students and a diverse variety of “free choice” reading materials – and email academic and news articles to staff for educational reading when incidents like the Snapchat case occur. Twenty TCAPS staff members recently voluntarily signed up to read “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo together, and library employees plan to do a “culturally responsive library walk” this summer in which “we do a full-on evaluation of our materials, our space, our collection, and messaging to see how inclusive we are,” VanderZee says.

When racist or other hurtful incidents happen to students, according to VanderZee, it’s the job of libraries “to be responsive.” She adds: “We have the ability to provide a ton of resources for students and staff to learn more about the difference experiences that students have. It’s our role and responsibility to provide those, and to have as many different viewpoints as we can.”

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