Parent cites frustration on Juneteenth comment by teacher

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A district parent and local small business owner, Sarita Ruiz, rose to address the Board during the Public Comments portion of the meeting to shine a light on what she called “frankly disgusting” remarks made about the district’s recent recognition of the Juneteenth holiday by designating an unused snow day as a day off on Friday, June 18, to observe “Juneteenth,” which is celebrated on June 19 as a district day off, creating a three-day weekend.

Ruiz’s said her daughter’s history teacher at RFA made comments to her class – that he believed that Juneteenth was “stupid” … that they would have that coming Friday off for this “stupid holiday.”

For the second time in as many Board meetings, a parent drew the members’ attention to the district’s mission statement, embossed within a mural celebrating diversity, that takes up a wall in the room where the Board meetings are held in the district’s offices. “...through both words and actions, that all students can learn and be successful,” Ms. Ruiz read from the wall.

Ruiz said she was glad to see Rome observe Juneteenth in a formal way for the first time, but was then “appalled and disturbed,” when her daughter disclosed to her the teacher’s remarks to her class.

“My child, as well as other children of color, heard this claim. Many students who had returned to in-school (learning) for the first time heard this,” said Ruiz. “This was their welcome back.”

Ruiz shared that the remembrance of June 19, 1865 — a date recognized for which many enslaved persons were first made aware that the end of the war and the Emancipation Proclamation equated to their freedom from slavery – was a “pivotal moment in history” for African Americans and their journey to freedom and equality.

She reported to the board that – in a phone conversation with the teacher – she asked him if he could summarize his understanding of the Juneteenth holiday and that he struggled to fashion a substantial response.

She dubbed him a “history teacher who does not know history.”

Ruiz shared that she formally reported the incident to RFA Assistant Principal Kelly Bowles, who – according to Ruiz – had assured her that she would look into and update her … but then never did. Ruiz then contacted RFA Principal Brian LeBaron, who, she said, confirmed that he was aware of the incident via Bowles, but had not spoken to the teacher in question.

Ruiz reported that LeBaron told her that, if she wished to pursue the issue further, she would need to file a formal request or pursue it with the press. 

Ruiz said within “a few minutes” after hanging up with LeBaron, she received a phone call from the teacher, during which – while he reportedly said he was sorry she felt the way she did about the comments he made to his class – he did not make any apologies for the comments themselves or students who may have been hurt by them. Instead, according to Ruiz, he excused them as reflecting his frustration over losing an instruction day.

Ruiz warned the Board against giving “teachers the freedom to make these statements without consequences.”

“Those kids didn’t need to hear that,” said Ruiz. “Those kids deserve an apology.”

When asked for comment regarding the status of the issue, Superintendent Peter C. Blake effectively confirmed the issue was being looked into but that he could not discuss details regarding the matter because it is “a personnel issue that is currently under investigation.” 

Blake went on to reiterate the district’s priority on diversity, equity and inclusion, evidenced by the work of the Equity Task Force, co-chaired by him and district consultant, Dr. Shanelle Benson-Reid, who has been working with the Rome City School District around issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion for over two years.

“We did encourage staff to explore the purpose and meaning behind Juneteenth this year,” said Blake, who went on to say he believed the work was mostly teacher-driven and encouraged by the faculty. 

Blake also confirmed that the day off was a contingency day. Where many districts designate unused contingency days to make the Memorial holiday weekend longer, the Rome district decided to use its one remaining contingency day this past school year to create a long weekend around Juneteenth. Blake said in that with the end of the instructional year rapidly approaching, the teacher’s frustration to the loss of an instruction day could be fairly construed in that context.

“This reported incident is an unfortunate reminder that our work needs to continue, and it will,” said Blake, who reiterated the district’s commitment “to growing and improving for all kids and adults.”

Ruiz also used said she hoped the board and committee meetings were better promoted to residents, including better use of social media; and she shared concern around anxiety being suffered by students working to recover credits lost during the Covid remote and hybrid schooling model.

“My child has four weeks, one day per week, to get 40+ assignments done. It is frustrating,” said Ruiz. “The kids are anxious about it. They are scared that they’re not going to pass.”

Ruiz thanked board Vice President Tanya Davis for raising that issue in her earlier comments, where both raised the apparent contradiction that the students who find themselves needing to recover credits did not respond well to remote, computer-based learning during the pandemic are now being tasked with recovering the credits, primarily, via remote, computer-based learning.

Davis requested an update on enrollment in the district’s credit recovery program for students emerging from grades 7 through 12. Administration officials said that information on that issue is being gathered and a presentation would be planned for a regular meeting in August, prior to the first day of school.

Davis requested specific information be included in such an update on how many kids were unsuccessful during the COVID-19 challenges facing the district, how many of those students were currently enrolled in the credit recovery program and how many have been or are expected to be successful in recovering academic credits.

“We know there are kids we lost; kids who did not participate because they didn’t engage with the on-line platform,” said Davis, “and then the only credit recovery we offered was an on-line platform.”

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