The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, June 10, 2020 1:00 am

School leaders muse on 'justice for all'

Districts embrace their roles in being part of the solution

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

Those gathered for Fort Wayne Community Schools board meetings routinely start each session by turning to the American flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.

Board President Julie Hollingsworth ended the meeting Monday with a reflection on the pledge's final line in light of the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee to Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes.

“With liberty and justice for all,” Hollingsworth said. “We say those words even though we know they aren't true.”

Her voice thick with emotion, Hollingsworth urged people with privilege to call on leaders to take action on police reform and call out racism where they see it.

“I believe black lives matter,” she said. “I also believe that we have a great partnership between Fort Wayne Community Schools and the Fort Wayne Police Department. But we have to be honest with ourselves in this country. We have a policing problem. And I know that I have privilege. I can go where I want. I can do what I want, and no one's going to stop me, or question me or harass me. And I was born with that privilege, and I don't have all the answers, but I do know those of us with privilege need to be part of the solution.”

Hollingsworth isn't the only local education leader to speak out. 

Chris Himsel, superintendent of Northwest Allen County Schools, also addressed the topic Monday at his district's board meeting.

“Diversity makes us stronger. It creates opportunities for us to prepare our kids for a world that is interconnected globally. Our kids must develop a greater understanding of race, ethnicity, religion and language,” Himsel said.

“Therefore, our focus continues to be on meeting the needs of each individual child,” he continued. “This includes making sure we see each child we are blessed to serve as the marvelous human beings that they are. To that end, we will continue implementing professional learning opportunities that help us better meet the individual needs of each child.”

“Additionally, we have begun engaging in conversations to help us gain a more accurate understanding of what we do well and what we can do better. We will use this increased understanding to take a renewed look at our policies, procedures and curriculum to identify areas in need of updating and eliminate any barriers that prevent children from becoming all that they are capable of becoming,” Himsel said.

Phil Downs, superintendent of Southwest Allen County Schools, said his district is committed to welcome, value, keep safe and academically challenge students. 

“To do this for all students, we must continue educating ourselves and each other about the impacts of our nation's history of racism,” Downs said in a statement Tuesday. “We must value and hear from students of color because their voices matter: they matter.”

Marilyn Hissong, superintendent of East Allen County Schools, said her district will work to eradicate all forms of discrimination, including racism. 

"East Allen County Schools is committed to work with our students, staff, organizations, and community members both local and statewide to help gain a greater understanding and respect of ethnicity, race, and religion," Hissong said in a statement. "East Allen County Schools is blessed to serve a diverse population of students, families, and employees and we embrace qualities and experiences that are different from our own."

Indiana Tech responded to the protests in a lengthy Facebook post on June 1, which the university designated as a Day of Solidarity.

“Let us be patient and reflective as we try to understand each other's hurts and fears. Let us be mindful that as unique individuals we will respond to situations differently. Let us also try and understand the source of other's responses. Let us also respond peacefully and safely,” the university posted.

Ron Elsenbaumer, Purdue University Fort Wayne chancellor, reaffirmed the university's unwavering support to those who are hurting and expressing their anger and frustration through peaceful demonstrations, thoughtful dialogue and meaningful solutions.

The coronavirus pandemic brought out the best in the campus community, he said, noting the teamwork used.

“Let's continue to work in that same spirit and with that same sense of urgency and compassion to ensure, without exception and without excuses, that no member of our community should ever have a reason to feel excluded, persecuted, or less than,” Elsenbaumer said in a June 1 statement.

“While we have numerous federal, state, and university laws and policies that provide protections for all of us – and make no mistake, we will fervently enforce them – let's look to our hearts to know what's right and what's just,” he added.

Sister M. Elise Kriss, president of the University of Saint Francis, said racism and violence run counter to the university's mission.

“I know that many of you are disturbed and offended by the deaths suffered by people of color at the hands of some,” Kriss said in a statement June 2. “Many of you, like me, have never experienced the sting of racism. But that should not invalidate the feelings of those who have; and while it may be convenient to distance ourselves from the problem, we must do more. Now is the time to act.”

Hollingsworth, the FWCS board president, said nationwide demonstrations protesting the use of excessive force by police are encouraging.

“I've been heartened by the protests across our country, the peaceful protests in places in our state that you would never imagine,” Hollingsworth said. “And that makes me feel that maybe, maybe this time is different.”

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