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The Riverhead Central School District is moving forward with the creation of an equity plan to drive the Board of Education’s future initiatives on diversity, equity and inclusion.

A subcommittee of the district’s Community Diversity and Cross-Cultural Task Force will form in the next few months and take input from the Riverhead community, students and parents to create the equity plan, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Christine Tona said during the task force’s meeting Tuesday. 

The plan, which will be “flexible” and identify goals the district wants to pursue in the near future, will be presented to the community and Board of Education next June, Tona said.

“Diversity, equity and inclusivity is a hot topic right now in all districts across the country,” Tona said. “And it’s important to have those conversations, because we have diversity within our community and we want our students to feel accepted, that they belong, and that they are able to tolerate all other perspectives that come their way, so that when they’re adults, they’re able to speak to people in a way that they’re speaking from facts.”

The New York Board of Regents and Department of Education adopted a policy for diversity, equity and inclusion in May, including a draft framework for districts to build off of and implement their own plans. The decision to adopt a plan is left to individual districts.

The definition of diversity, equity and inclusion and what the initiative means can be complex and broad. The goal of the initiative, as defined by the Board of Regents, is “not only to prevent the exclusion of historically silenced, erased, and disenfranchised groups, but also to assist in the promotion and perpetuation of cultures, languages and ways of knowing that have been devalued, suppressed, and imperiled by years of educational, social, political, economic neglect and other forms of oppression.”

The policy seeks to ensure that students — no matter their background, economic status, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. — are guaranteed fair and equal treatment, access and opportunity to their education. The policy also supports the diversity of teachers and staff throughout a student’s education. 

Part of the framework asks educators to “examine and address the root causes of the persistent disparities that impact student and life outcomes,” the framework reads, referring to the disparity of outcomes experienced by Hispanic and Black people in the United States when compared to the white people in areas such as poverty, education and incarceration. These are consequences of systemic racism, the framework says.

As opposed to individual racism, which operates at a personal level as a bias or negative assumption that an individual holds and exerts onto others, systemic racism, also called institutional racism, is a concept widely studied in academia and supported by research that analyzes how policies and laws within society or institutions have an adverse effect on certain groups of people based on their ethnicity or race. 

“This is not about eliminating or minimizing any of America’s history; it is simply about ensuring that the contributions of all groups are included in the telling of the American story,” the Regents’ policy reads. 

The policy recommends that the district adopt a culturally responsive sustaining framework as a part of the plan, which “helps educators create student-centered learning environments that: affirm racial, linguistic and cultural identities; prepare students for rigor and independent learning; develop students’ abilities to connect across lines of difference; elevate historically marginalized voices; and empower students as agents of social change,” the framework, which is available on the state’s website, reads.

The task force’s next meeting will include a presentation on the culturally responsive sustaining framework by April Francis-Taylor, the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusivity for Eastern Suffolk BOCES. The meeting will take place on Oct. 28 through Zoom.

The Diversity and Cross-Cultural Task Force originally started in summer 2020 as a discussion on how curriculum in the district can be more diverse and equitable. The group was established soon after and four conversations with school staff, community members, alumni and students were conducted last year.

Tona said the district has been pursuing similar efforts for many years. The district is part of the Long Island Consortium for Excellence and Equity, an event with workshops and speakers centered around diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in schools.

The task force’s mission statement says:

  • The DCTF strives to improve students’ appreciation of all cultures and understanding of the struggles and social inequities that exist in our District and in society.
  • The DCTF strives to enhance every child academically and socially by preparing them for the multicultural world that awaits them.
  • The DCTF strives to infuse and foster each child with a diverse education, awareness and understanding of racial and social inequities of the past, present and the charge of moving their generation forward.
  • The DCTF strives to bring the Riverhead CSD into the forefront of inclusivity for all students.

The task force will be informed about the climate and culture of the school district’s buildings through a survey, Tona said. Starting in January, the district will participate in exercises and workshops to examine different perspectives, according to high school Assistant Principal Kellyann Parlato, who is leading that part of the initiative. The district will also form a youth participatory action committee of students. Student participation is recommended in the state’s framework. 

“It’s important for our students to have a major role in this work,” Tona said. “because we’re here for our students, and we want them to tell us what some of the needs are and and reflect upon the information that’s collected from parents and guardians and staff members as well, so that the students have a voice on the direction that the district needs to go in in order to move this work forward.”

The conversation during Tuesday’s task force meeting evolved into a comment and question period of the community’s concerns with the diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. 

Larry Street, the president of the Eastern Long Island branch of the NAACP and substitute teacher in the school district, questioned whether the greater Riverhead community would support the equity plan. He warned the group to prepare for potential backlash and questioned if the administration had the back of after, an incident occured where students were told to take art supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement off the walls of a hallway.

Tona said that the pressure against the ideas Street was speaking of is why the district needs the equity plan. She said the plan would encourage the acceptance of different perspectives.

The district has already been challenged at least once about diversity, equity and inclusion. The Board of Education was asked about the policy during the public comments portion of a school board meeting Aug. 31. Dawn Szot of Jamesport approached the podium and started reading excerpts from the policy which she characterized as “advancing political agenda instead of enhancing our children’s educational experience.”

“The schools need to stop telling our children how or what to think about social issues, which should obviously be taught at home,” Szot said.

“Well all I have to say is that as a parent of kids who graduated 10 and 11 years ago, Riverhead is multicultural, all different races, and I never felt as a white person that we were a racial district, that we had racism here. I know it exists. I’ve never seen it in our schools, in our children,” Szot said.

Tona and Superintendent Augustine Tornatore addressed Szot during the meeting and assured her that the district will not be pushing anything that is political in nature.

“We are looking at what the message is from the state and it’s about teaching kindness and acceptance and belonging so that our students, regardless of where they come from, regardless of what their background is, they feel accepted in this school district,” Tona told Szot during the meeting. “And that is the approach we are going to take with all our curriculum coursework and any future policies that we bring to the board for their consideration.”

The task force meeting was also enthusiastic about a new elective offered in the high school for juniors and seniors called “The Black Experience.” Taught by Jamaal Boyce, the class facilitates discussions for a small group of students on various lesser known topics related to the experiences of Black people. It is graded off of assignments and research, not exams.

“We’re going to be discussing things that are… controversial to people but it’s out there. It’s real world stuff, and I felt it would prepare our students, all students, to have an understanding of what’s really going on in the world and I just want to expose them to something different,” Boyce said.

Tona said the class is “an example of how we want our students to think deeply and think critically, so that they’ll be successful adults. They’ll be able to debate a point, through their own heart and knowledge, and take a stand on something.”

Other community members, like Matt Eager, were concerned that conversations around lesser known important historical topics were not mandatory in curriculum and only relegated to electives. Part of the diversity, equity and inclusion framework is to make sure no singular perspective is taught about history. Tona said the subject would be addressed in the equity plan.

“There’s so many people who have that one perspective locked into their frame of reference that they don’t want to hear that there could be alternative perspectives,” said James Banks, a professor and Coordinator of Multicultural Affairs at Suffolk County Community College.

The task force has five more meetings scheduled through the end of the school year. Meeting details with a Zoom link will be posted on the district’s website. Tona recommends people with diverse perspectives join the discussion. 

“Regardless of what their perspectives are, we want to see more people join us because that’s how we’ll get people across the community to understand the purpose of this work,” she said.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the Diversity and Cross-Cultural Task Force originally started in summer 2021. It started in summer 2020.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: [email protected]