Washoe County School District (WCSD) facilitated riveting, if sometimes difficult, conversations on discrimination last year in which many of its 62,000 students took active part in educating the community and each other about the need for anti-discrimination, empathy, sincerity and care.
On Tuesday, Feb. 9, about nine months after these discussions began and nearly four months after the district’s board of trustees approved the adoption of an anti-racism resolution, board resolution 20-011, WCSD staff presented and the trustees approved the next step in giving direction to the district on how to make its curriculum and instruction more culturally competent.
The school district vows to promote a climate of belonging and self-worth by creating brave and safe spaces, said WCSD Director of Diversity and Inclusion Tiffany Young.
District General Counsel Neil Rombardo added that the board policy 1310 –which the district has described as separate from the resolution and specifically addresses “political activity” in schools–has been reviewed to provide safe space for discussion between students and teachers in which students can talk about their struggles related to race, identity, sexual orientation and also bullying, depression and suicide, or any other struggles they are experiencing.
Our students needed a “brave space,” said Rombardo.
This is a marked difference from Rombardo’s previous stance on board policy 1310, which last year drew criticism from students and members of the community. With Rombardo’s counsel, the district had interpreted the policy as a rule to control discussion around issues related to Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ identities and the rainbow Pride flag. Many students, teachers and parents viewed this as heavy-handed censorship and argued that such issues are social movements, rather than political discourse.
Rombardo further informed that the schools will, from now on, have visual cues for students to know a brave space where they can go and find guidance to express themselves. The staff will get competency training to respond to such situations. “The message is, ‘All are welcome,’” he added.
How will the plan work?
The plan to implement anti-discrimination is by removing barriers, like prerequisite courses or certain “out-of-balance” fees, for students to excel, said Chief Strategies Officer Paul LaMarca.
“There are no silver bullets, there are no quick fixes,” he said, adding that it will take a lot of time and effort. This will require reviewing the existing regulations, policies, procedure, guidance and practice, said LaMarca.
LaMarca also gave some history concerning making equity an ongoing process in the district. The efforts, “got kicked off in 2010 and 2015,” he said.
Per the presentation by the school district, parts of implementation will start this year; however, the full implementation plan stretches through 2025. This is “a very ambitious plan,” said LaMarca. This will include equity and diversity as well as socio-emotional learning lessons.
The State of Nevada and Department of Education also provides guidance to the WCSD in its work to include diversity education, said an official tasked with informing the district about implementing the plan.
According to Young, the strategies to implement anti-discrmination are closely linked with how teachers will teach and support students. There will be an emphasis on closing opportunity gaps through culturally competent practices.
There will be hiring of competent staff with a focus on diversity in race, veteran status, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender and language, she added. The equity and diversity plan envisions mandatory inclusion, diversity and equity training among all district staff, including teachers.
“Equity-101,” a cultural competency course, will be provided throughout the year to staff and act toward license renewal, said officials.
“When you say ‘inclusion,’ when you say ‘all,’ when you say ‘everyone,’ it absolutely means everyone.”
The school took inspiration for some of its cultural competency and socio-emotional learning from Minneapolis public schools. The models are informed by what is happening in districts around the country.
The goal is to make sure the cultural competency and socio-emotional learning are a continuous process happening around the year and not a one-off course or event.
The school district recognized that they may need to review their curriculum for grades K-12, to make it culturally competent and in sync with local realities of Nevada.
“Civil Rights and Me” lessons will be taught to ninth graders this year and to other students in other grades in upcoming school years.
The motion was accepted unanimously on board resolution 20-011. The final resolution states discrimination and harassment will not be tolerated and resolves to create a system-wide commitment to an unbiased, inclusive and anti-racist society through education.
Washoe County Students for Change, or “WCSD4Change,” a student body that actively engaged with the school and fellow students to demand an anti-discriminatory and inclusive curriculum and environment was elated by the decision. Hannah Branch, a founding member of the group, told This Is Reno that the students are grateful for the support from the district.
But there were murmurs of protest from members of the community who felt that diversity and inclusivity will mean students will no longer learn morality and traditional family values.
Newly elected trustee Jeff Church questioned the school district’s intent and observation of racism. He presented an argument that acknowledgement of the inherent racial, ethnic, skin color or gender identity differences could position the district as being racist or biased.
He also suggested that an effort to specifically hire more teachers and administrators of color could mean exclusion of white people and others from employment opportunities within the district.
“I support diversity 100%, but what I am hearing here is that the school district is going to discriminate against others on the basis … that they are not part of that class. And that would seem to be a violation of their civil rights,” he said.
He also worried about the lack of funds to carry out these efforts.
Young responded to Church and explained, “The word diversity is not relegated to a shade of brown. There was no intention to leave anyone out.”
It’s not a case of one versus the other, added board president Angela Taylor. Taylor, who is Black, said that an acknowledgement of her racial identity and her work toward racial equity do not have a conflict. To deny her ethnic background would mean diminishing her whole persona, she said.
“There was nothing in the presentation that said ‘exclude anybody,’” she said. “That’s an old way of looking at it. When you say ‘inclusion,’ when you say ‘all,’ when you say ‘everyone,’ it absolutely means everyone.
“So what you may hear is we are leaving somebody out, is not what’s said in writing, is not what has been said in presentation, and the reason this is such a conversation throughout the country is because more and more and more this is brought to the forefront.”
Taylor said she would challenge Church to look beyond what his perception might be on the matter. “And, if you had a conversation with someone with a lived experience and some of the research, you might be able to see this differently, but to deny a part of me is to deny me.”
After a detailed discussion from both sides, Church, too, accepted the board resolution 20-011 aimed at achieving system-wide commitment to facilitate empathy and equity in schools of Washoe County.
Update: Language was updated to indicate that trustees accepted the board resolution 20-011, not approved or passed it, per verbiage in the meeting’s minutes.
Sudhiti (Shu) Naskar is a multimedia journalist and researcher who has years of experience covering international issues. In the role of a journalist, she has covered gender, culture, society, environment, and economy. Her works have appeared on BBC, The National, The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Reno Gazette-Journal, Caravan and more. Her interests lie in the intersection of art, politics, social justice, education, tech, and culture. She took a sabbatical from media to attend graduate school at the University of Nevada Reno in 2017. In this period, she has won awards, represented her school at an international conference and successfully defended her thesis on political disinformation at the Reynolds School of Journalism where she earned her Master’s in Media Innovation.