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'The Roof is Caving In;' Mount Greylock School Committee Hears Details of Bias Incidents

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Several parents in the Mount Greylock Regional School District on Thursday detailed disturbing racist incidents in the schools at a meeting of the School Committee.
And they had clear demands for how the body can take steps to address the problem.
"My ask is that an emergency task force be assembled," Williamstown Elementary School parent Bonney Hartley told the body. "I'm stating my willingness to serve on such a task force. The task force can guide the second ask, relating to staffing a qualified DEIB consultant not affiliated with the district to review existing policies and make implementation recommendations, including evaluation metrics consistent across all schools.
"The issue needs to be tackled with the same urgency as if the roof were caving in because that is the severity of the situation."
Thursday was far from the first time that incidents of discrimination have been brought up in School Committee meetings. But it was some of the most detailed and gut-wrenching testimony the governing body has heard since the national conversation about racial equity came to the fore in the summer of 2020.
And the meeting also featured some of the most frank commentary to date from district administrators about the shortcomings of the preK-12 district's efforts to address the problem.
"Pretty often, my young, Black daughter, she's in kindergarten, comes home asking me why her white counterparts don't want to play with her or telling me that folks are specifically pointing her out — her peers and also some teachers and what have you — because of the color of her skin," Williamstown's Andre Lynch told the School Committee. "My 5-year-old comes home telling me these things.
"I've kind of been speaking to her and chalking it up to her perspective and what have you, until shockingly a couple of weeks ago ... I was called by an administrator at WES telling me something had happened in art class. Children were asked to partner with one another, and this child who was asked to partner with my child said, 'I do not want to partner with you because of the color of your skin.'"
Lynch told the committee he was appalled not just that the kindergartner heard that insult from a classmate but also by the way the incident was handled by the adults at WES.
"Shocked, hurt, frustrated and upset, my child informed the teacher in the classroom that this happened," Lynch said. "The child that said this to my child was sent to speak to the principal for a few moments and then sent back to the classroom.
"With that, at that one moment there where the in-building response was to send this child that had traumatized my child back into the classroom with my child without any safety net or parameters around what that looked like."
Twink Williams Burns, who has two children at Williamstown Elementary, joined other parents in the virtual meeting in reminding the School Committee that it previously approved the creation of a director of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging position for the district and funded the position in the FY23 budget — only to see the position removed from the FY24 budget and proposed FY25 spending plan after the administration reported difficulty finding a qualified applicant and detailed an in-house plan to ramp up the district's DEIB initiative.
Burns shared two recent classroom incidents that point to a lack of understanding of and insensitivity to racial issues among the WES faculty.
"Three months ago, my child walked into an art classroom, my Black child walked into an art classroom at 7 years old where the teacher had decided to teach first-graders about the concept of slavery by showing a book that specifically depicted Black folks working in a field, subjected to violence and oppression, with no notice to parents that this would be happening, with no follow up balancing curriculum about Black excellence, Black strength, Black love and all of the other things that humanize Black people, just like any other human," Burns said. "My child came home crying because, out of context, well-meaning and completely undeveloped because of a lack of professional development that never came in the wake of losing the DEI position, my child was subjected to this as the only Black person in the room.
"Three weeks ago, friends of my child in third grade at WES came home having been taught that day by their teacher — who does not teach Black history but decided to talk about slavery — that slavery was actually a positive thing for Black people because it took Black people from sleeping on dirt to sleeping in cabins, because it taught Black people job skills. I can't tell you the level of grieving that that has caused in that family and my family and the rest of the Black community that is under the care of the Mount Greylock Regional School District, particularly because there is no specific way for us to ensure that will not happen again."
Matt Smith, who has a child at WES, told the School Committee that his family's oldest child chose to leave Mount Greylock Regional School, "in part because of the anti-Black racism she experienced directly and she regularly witnessed as a student [at the middle-high school] for two years."
Smith pointed a finger directly at the School Committee for allowing the DEIB director position to be cut from the budget in the spring of 2023.
"How we spend our time and money defines our values as a district," Smith said. "So we're continuing to talk the talk of restorative practices, diversity, equity and inclusion but we are not putting our time and our money in that work.
"Inconsistent response to bias incidents across the district is regularly causing more harm to students and families."
Members of the School Committee and the administration thanked the parents for sharing both their families' stories and their outrage.
Later in the meeting, during a previously planned presentation on the district's professional development plan for the 2024-25 school year, District Director of Curriculum & Instruction Joelle Brookner talked about the DEIB work embedded in that plan. And she told the School Committee the district was making a concerted effort to address curricular issues.
"Another thing we've been working a lot on is developing a tool our teachers can use to explicitly go through curricula and look for appropriateness, look for bias, make decisions about what we have been teaching, what we need to be teaching," Brookner said. "For the first time, we are really setting aside in the PD calendar for that to happen."
But Brookner acknowledged that some of the things the district has done to promote inclusivity have not had the intended result.
"The past four years, we've had Dr. [Khyati] Joshi and Dr. [Simran Jeet] Singh come to the district, and we have spent considerable time and money on those programs [for faculty and staff]," Brookner said. "And we're not seeing the kinds of outcomes we had hoped for."
Superintendent Jason McCandless echoed that sentiment.
"Last year, two years ago, going back three years, we offered Khyati Joshi's intensive three-day institute," he said. "About 50 to 75 percent of our staff went through that intensive three-day institute.
"We are really just trying to find mechanisms that actually work. We have invested a great deal of money into this work, and as was evidenced tonight by the things people that didn't want to be saying because they're living the pain at home — the things we're doing aren't working."
Later, McCandless told the School Committee that for every incident the district is aware of, "we assume there are 100 things we're not aware of," and he said the administrative team has been struggling to find out-of-the-box solutions.
"Can we, should we, legally is it doable, to force a set of parents to come in and have a mediation with another set of parents?" McCandless said. "Is it appropriate to suspend or in-school suspend a 5-year-old who is saying stuff they picked up from somewhere, which is devastating? I don't know."
McCandless could confirm the problem is real.
"I will say that Mount Greylock has presented challenges unlike any place I have ever been in terms of being flummoxed at times over, 'What do we need to do?' sometimes with the adults and sometimes with the students, to get people to not engage in blatantly racist language and practices," said McCandless, who served as superintendent in Lee and Pittsfield before arriving in the Lanesborough-Williamstown district in 2020. "And I would add to racist, antisemitic, misogynistic, treating people who are perceived as poor as less than human, treating people with disabilities as less than human.
"I have convictions that come from a much deeper place than simply being an educator about the value of every human being. Listening to the six speakers tonight was as hard for me to hear as it was for you to hear."

Tags: racism,   WES,   

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Mount Greylock Super Taking Principal Job in Great Barrington

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — After years of leading school districts, Jason "Jake" McCandless is taking a step back to focus on a single school.
Mount Greylock Regional's superintendent will take over as principal at W.E.B. Du Bois Regional Middle School in Great Barrington on July 1, according to a report in the Berkshire Edge.
McCandless tendered his resignation last month from Mount Greylock after four years at the helm and just one year into his current contract. He had previously been superintendent of the Pittsfield Public Schools and in Lee. 
The Berkshire Edge reports the Berkshire Hills Regional School District announced the hiring via press release on Friday morning. 
Du Bois Principal Miles Wheat has taken a job in the Chatham, N.Y., school district less than a year after being appointed. Du Bois Middle School has an enrollment of about 350. 
McCandless was lauded by the outgoing class of 2024 at Mount Greylock's graduation ceremonies on Saturday. 
On Thursday, McCandless again declined the opportunity to explain why he suddenly resigned mid-contract from the Lanesbourgh-Williamstown school district.

Instead, he reiterated previous statements about how grateful he was for the opportunity to work in the Mount Greylock school system.

"Right now, I believe someone else is better suited, skilled and equipped to do that work here," McCandless wrote on the last day of school for students in the Mount Greylock district.

He did not answer a follow-up email asking why someone else is "better suited."

In his initial Thursday email, McCandless said he was comfortable with the idea that people in Lanesborough and Williamstown will fabricate their own reasons for his abrupt departure absent an explanation from him.

"Folks will create the narrative that works for them, with or without my version being on the record," McCandless wrote.

He also concluded his Thursday, June 13, email with the following statement.

"I am not sure what or where is next – but I leave the MGRSD Community nothing but gratitude," McCandless wrote.

By Friday morning, the Berkshire Hills Regional School District was announcing McCandless' hiring.
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