Marriage and family therapist, educational psychologist and community activist Dr. Norris DuPree Jr. has been hosting a Facebook livestreaming series of interviews he calls “Courageous Conversations.” On Tuesday, DuPree hosted one featuring Washoe County School District Superintendent Dr. Kristen McNeill. The purpose of the series is to get answers from officials to community members’ questions.
In the days leading up to the interview, WCSD teachers posted about it in the Empower Nevada Teachers Facebook group—telling one another to be prepared to tune in and ask tough questions. Most were unable to do so. The privacy setting on the livestream made it such that only people on DuPree’s friends list had access—a problem he twice tried to rectify without success–at one point ending the livestream and starting a new one after teachers’ difficulties accessing it were brought to his attention.
In the Empower Nevada Teachers group, educators expressed their frustration and disappointment. Some said they’d planned their days around the livestream.
Despite the snafu, DuPree spent the hour-long interview asking McNeill district-related questions ranging from metrics for re-closing schools to policies surrounding teachers’ First Amendment rights and recent directives concerning the wearing of Black Lives Matter movement clothing.
DuPree started off by asking McNeill about her background and how she came to be an educator in Reno. She called it a “circuitous route,” explaining that after graduating from high school in Las Vegas she first went into hotel administration before switching careers to become an educator.
When she moved to Reno, McNeill taught at Smithridge Elementary and then Libby Booth Elementary. She went straight from being a fourth-grade teacher to being the principal of Lois Allen Elementary then Marvin Moss Elementary. From there, she led the district’s State and Federal Grants Program before becoming chief strategies officer, chief of staff, deputy superintendent, interim superintendent and now superintendent.
“I have worked my way up, and this gray hair shows it,” McNeill said.
Asked how the COVID-19 pandemic compares with other challenges the district has faced, McNeill said it doesn’t.
“It doesn’t,” she said. “You know, plain and simple—it just doesn’t. I mean, our district has been through very traumatic events. We’ve dealt with Sparks Middle School and the trauma and the tragedy at Sparks Middle School. We’ve dealt with Hug High School and the trauma and tragedy at Hug High School.
“We’ve dealt with emergency situations—fires, those types of things. We’ve dealt with the norovirus. And at one point in time, we had approximately 34 of our schools that had to be closed down because of norovirus. There’s nothing that compares to a global pandemic and what that means for the State of Nevada,” she added.
McNeill said among the concerns that keep her up at night are those surrounding WCSD families and their lives outside of school, citing worries over job loss and food and housing security. These are factors the school district has repeatedly brought up during discussions surrounding its reopening decisions.
How decisions on possible re-closings would be made was another question. DuPree asked McNeill if the decision lies solely with her. She firmly asserted that it does not. Rather, a set of metrics that were discussed during the last school district board of trustees meeting were planned to be firmed up during the Aug. 25 meeting.
“If you remember at the previous board meeting, they discussed metrics that would allow…our district…to be able to pivot to a full-distance model and then come back to a hybrid or in-person model,” McNeill said.
She noted that a presentation would be given on the metrics and that it was available on the WCSD Board of Trustees website. It’s a 34-page PowerPoint, which was set to be given as one of the last agenda items of the meeting.
“It’s a very important presentation because this discussion and possible action that the board is going to take allows for that, allows for the board to have that metric conversation and also what other organizations and agencies are talking about as far as metrics—the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control,” McNeill said.
McNeill said she believes the safety of students and school district staff was considered in making the reopening plans. She noted that the district is complying with Gov. Steve Sisolak’s directives and that WCSD made what she called the unpopular decision of mandating face masks.
DuPree followed up by asking about retaliation and the fears teachers have expressed concerning speaking up about their perspectives and things with which they disagree.
McNeill, who has spoken about retaliation under the leadership of former superintendent Traci Davis, said that it’s something she won’t tolerate now that she’s at the helm of the district. She said teachers should use the standard chain of command to express their grievances but can bring them directly to her if they go unresolved.
“There very well may be situations where they don’t like the answer that their supervisor is giving them, and that’s just the reality of the situation—which is very different than feeling, ‘They’re not listening to me. They’re not even trying to address the issue,’” McNeill said. “And you know this is very personal to me when I talk about retaliation and those types of things. I will not tolerate it. I will not put up with it. I don’t want people to feel that there is a retaliatory stance or environment. I want people to feel safe.”
Pressed for additional details concerning retaliation, she said, “Let me just put it this way. There better not be any retaliation.”
“Well that’s plainly said,” DuPree responded.
Some teachers recently expressed their outrage when a newsletter from the district addressed the Black Lives Matter movement and clarified that teachers should not wear BLM attire to school. Some questioned the possibility of an infringement on teachers’ First Amendment rights. McNeill addressed this by noting that the district has long had a policy concerning political activities in which teachers may engage.
“So, we know that we have a board policy in place—and we send out that policy every year and especially during election cycles,” McNeill said. “It’s Board Policy 13.10, and it talks about political activities in schools. The issue becomes…education in a K-12 education system, in public education, is compulsory. Students have to attend public school…So, we have to be extremely careful with First Amendment rights for our students versus staff—which are very different.”
McNeill said teachers need to be able to make students of all different backgrounds and from families with varying political views feel safe and comfortable in schools—and not to unduly influence their beliefs.
“They could have influence over any type of political activity that is happening around the country,” she said. “And the concern is that undue influence over the students. Now, are they able to have that dialogue and that conversation about what’s happening within our country? I would sure hope that they’re able to do that—and to listen to students’ perspectives, because there are a lot of student perspectives out there. And to have that courageous conversation in the classroom—but being able to mediate it, being able to make sure it’s a safe space for students and being able to articulate ‘Your beliefs are just as important as my beliefs, and I can have my beliefs as an individual.’”
McNeill acknowledged several times during the interview that there are many unknowns surrounding the new school year, which started just over a week ago. She said she’s fielded numerous emails from teachers questioning how they’ll manage in their new environments.
“Number one, just take a breath—and we’re in this together,” McNeill said. “But it’s that constant reassurance. And if you have questions, I can’t read people’s minds—so if you have a question, please ask me, and I will get you the answer.
“It’s just having that patience with one another. This is my first global pandemic.”
At the conclusion of the interview, DuPree also expressed an appreciation for people’s patience—apologizing once again for teachers being unable to join the livestream. He promised they could send him their unanswered questions and he would do his best to have them addressed. McNeill may return for a second installment of “Courageous Conversations.”
After the livestream, This Is Reno found in the agenda for the Aug. 25 meeting of the WCSD Board of Trustees an item indicating that DuPree may soon have a contract with the district.
Agenda item 2.14 is up for possible action and seeks the approval of an “independent contract agreement with Transformations Services/Dr. Norris DuPree for Turning Point, district-wide mental health supports, and staff training and coaching from Aug. 26, 2020 through June 30, 2021 in the amount of $120,000.”
DuPree is sole proprietor of Transformations Services.
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.