The Burbank Unified School District’s mission and vision in regard to equity, diversity and inclusion began to take shape as staff presented first readings of a proposed anti-racist statement and revision of selected board policies and administrative regulations during a virtual board of education meeting on Thursday.
As the country has grappled with systemic inequalities and injustice, BUSD this past summer formed a committee comprising board members, staff, teachers and parents to address the district’s own issues pertaining to equity and diversity by evaluating policies, curriculum and practices in an effort to provide a safe, inclusive environment for students and staff.
The proposed statement read to board members stated that the district “denounces racism as the product of white default/supremacy culture and recognizes the impact of systemic and generational racism as traumatic to our country, community and school district. … We stand with the truthful and humane statement that all lives cannot matter until Black lives and the lives of indigenous people of color matter. We are taking steps to actively work toward being fully anti-racist, not only in word, but also in policy, practice and accountability.”
Board Vice President Steve Frintner emphasized the importance for the district to take a stand against racism by saying, “You can’t start to make change until you start to recognize where that change needs to happen.”
“I think it’s obvious from reading this statement and looking at it again that a lot of time and care was put into it trying to phrase this correctly and to try and put forth what it means to be anti-racist and try to move our district in such a way as to not just fight racism but to actually be anti-racist,” he added. “I do support the way the statement is written.”
One community member challenged the wording of the statement during the public comment portion of the meeting, saying she felt it was “divisive” and “pits groups against each other solely based on the color of their skin.” She also recounted being “bullied physically and emotionally just because I was white” as a child living in Hawaii.
Superintendent Matt Hill and board members were sympathetic to the commenter’s experience but stood firm on the language of the anti-racist statement.
“I’m terribly moved, and I can only imagine the discrimination that you faced in the story you shared and the harm,” Hill said. “I do want to be precise about why we chose to use the word around white supremacy and racism. The definition that we are using is very clear about having an organized system of race that benefits power and privilege.
“But first we have to acknowledge our history as a country and our history as a city. Burbank was a sundown city. We had racist policies and practices in this city. We all have bias. We still do. We need to acknowledge that. We need to have difficult and honest conversations about that, and that’s really what the heart of this statement is, and that’s what the committee wrestled with.
“But we need to be very clear in the anti-racism statement. White supremacy is not about the [Ku Klux Klan] and neo-Nazis. It’s really about how systems, policies, obstructions were established in this country. So we have to acknowledge what those were and really have critical thought about that.”
Part of the process of moving forward as a more diverse district is the evaluation of curriculum, a topic that was brought up by a resident and BUSD teacher. District officials recently received a complaint about novels with what a stakeholder regarded as offensive, racist language and asked teachers to exclude four books from their lesson plans this semester. The books are “The Cay,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” One of the books is included in the anti-racist resources page on the district’s website.
Hill took responsibility for the decision to exclude the books and said they caused harm to previous students, especially those who are Black. He assured stakeholders that the district is not looking to censor or ban any books, and students can access the novels at the libraries.
“We want to respect the professionalism of our teachers,” Hill said. “We want to respect our students and our families, but we also have to acknowledge — and I had to use the word problematic — even the fiercest supporters of the books have highlighted the problematic nature of the books. So we need to decide as school district, are these the best books for our students? They will always be available. I want to keep stressing that because censorship and banning should not be part of this conversation.”