BUSD Bolsters Policy Against Racial Slurs in School Materials

After two readings and hours of discussion, the Board of Education approved on Thursday the revision to selected board policies that bans the N-word from any instructional materials that are mandated for all Burbank Unified School District students to read. 

The five-member board unanimously approved the new policy with an amendment that states supplemental material given by teachers that includes offensive language or racial slurs must be approved by Superintendent Matt Hill.

The amendment was prompted by concerns that a student might read supplemental material that includes offensive language and bring that discussion back to a teacher who may not be well-equipped to handle such a sensitive topic.

Sharon Cuseo, assistant superintendent of instructional services, clarified that supplemental materials are not part of daily instruction and would not be implemented into any classroom discussion, but board member Emily Weisberg said that allowing supplemental material that is racially oriented and potentially offensive can still be a “slippery slope.”

“If we give students the option of [reading] this thing that has the N-word and this thing that doesn’t, aren’t we still faced with the same issue we’re being faced with, which is students feeling less than, etc. etc.?” Weisberg asked her colleagues. “If you’re talking about supplementing a mandated text and there will be a discussion in class about it, there will be a similar issue.

“The problem isn’t the word. The problem is everything around the word. It’s students’ response to the word; it’s lack of training; it’s lack of tools. That’s the thing. So the inclusion of it, in that sense, we still have the same problem.”

Board member Steve Ferguson agreed with Weisberg and was initially hesitant to agree on the policy change if the language did not include something about professional development.

“If we are utilizing these materials, we need to do it in appropriate context, and [all educators] who I have interacted with so far who have said they are passionate about these materials have also said how critical it was when they received training on it,” Ferguson said.

A few board members felt that a third reading would likely be needed but Hill reminded them that acceptance of the changes to policy shouldn’t be further delayed because many teachers are already working on their lesson plans for the fall. 

Another concern brought up by the superintendent was having too many restrictions on teachers by adding more to the policy.

Ferguson then suggested that there be a process that would have teachers submit a request to use supplemental material that includes offensive language such as the N-word. District staff would then evaluate the material and decide whether to allow it.

The other board members agreed with the amendment and asked that Hill provide an update down the road regarding the number of requests made by teachers because they don’t want to overburden staff with added responsibilities.

“We don’t know that there is going to be this waterfall of people,” Weisberg said. “It is a pain in the butt for everybody, but, I think for the foreseeable future … the end result [will be that] we all come out on the other end more informed, more supported and more ready to engage with this in a way that doesn’t require sitting down with [district staff]. … We have faith in your decision-making and your expertise. And that feels like what should happen in order to bring that to the kids in a safe way.”

Armond Aghakhanian reminded stakeholders that this policy and the board’s efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion are a work in progress.

“Again, this is a lengthy process. We’re in uncharted territory and waters,” Aghakhanian said. “That’s why a lot of districts don’t even bother doing what we’re doing. … This is not about restriction. This is about creating an environment where no student feels like who they are and who they identify as puts them in an uncomfortable situation.”