The Olentangy Local School District (OLSD) held a series of five town hall meetings this summer to address diversity and inclusion in the district. During a meeting of the Olentangy Board of Education on July 9, an update was presented on the impact of the meetings and the plan moving forward.
Meetings were held over the span of four weeks, from June 24 to July 8, and stemmed from the emergence of the “DearOLSD” social media movement, which allowed both current and former students to share their experiences with racism and discrimination within the district.
“I was very pleased,” Board President Mindy Patrick said of the success of the town halls. “I thought it was a very open and safe platform for our community members, students, former students, staff, and teachers to share their experiences, thoughts, and ideas, and to work towards a culture of diverse and inclusive excellence.”
Jackie Merkle, the district’s supervisor of equity and inclusion, led the meetings along with OLSD Diversity Coordinator Heather Cole and K-12 District Diversity Chair Shannon Griffin. During the board meeting, Merkle spoke of what was accomplished in the town hall meetings. She said that approximately 500 people participated in the five meetings, with 38 public participants sharing their experiences.
Merkle said she organized the feedback received from the meetings to align with the diversity committee’s five “drivers of change,” which are measurement and accountability, policy, recruitment and retention, training and education, and stakeholder engagement.
Among the suggestions most often voiced in regards to measurement and accountability was the need for an external audit to be conducted to determine the effectiveness of the district’s diversity and inclusion efforts and policies. Other suggestions detailed by Merkle included revisiting the district’s reporting system, processes and practices. She said an anonymous hotline was often brought up, which is something the district already has but clearly needs to be better communicated throughout the district.
Many different ideas were submitted and discussed involving the district’s policy on incidents involving racism or discrimination. Merkle said a tiered system of discipline with increasing punishment for repeat offenders was discussed, as was a zero-tolerance policy, which she said is the more along the lines of what the district enforces now per the student handbook.
The discussion involving recruitment and retention included taking a look at the culture and whether it attracts people of color to want to join the district.
“There were many, many comments that were brought to the floor, ideas around increasing our diverse teaching and administrative staff,” Merkle said. “There were discussions around looking at our culture to ensure that the culture that we have here is inclusive and anti-racist so that teachers and administrators of color feel comfortable teaching and leading in our community.”
In addition to the culture, Merkle said suggestions were made to look at the interview process to ensure candidates are being screened for diversity awareness. A revised “Rooney Rule,” meaning a person of color would be interviewed for any new job opening, was also suggested.
Perhaps the most heavily-discussed topic was training and education, Merkle said, including the suggestion that all staff members receive professional development on diversity equity and inclusion. Diversity liaisons should receive even more training and support to ensure they are set up to be true assets in the school buildings, Merkle said.
As for the curriculum, many ideas included integrating the history BIPOC into existing courses, and ensuring that content is created by communities of color and evidence-based, Merkle said.
Following Merkle’s presentation, Superintendent Mark Raiff thanked her, as well as Cole and Griffin, for their dedication to the meetings and expanded dialogue. He then reflected on his experience with the meetings, saying, “It was really hard for me to sit there and listen to the stories … I am truly sorry that anybody in our district is having this type of experience.”
Raiff went on to say, “We don’t want anybody to have a bad experience in our school district. We understand the importance of the culture of our district and the impact the culture of the district has on the ability for us to facilitate maximum learning for every student. All I can say is, again, we are sorry these things have happened, and we’re going to continue to try to address them and get better at everything we do each and every day.”
Reach Dillon Davis at 740-413-0904. Follow him on Twitter @DillonDavis56.