Educators in Bloomington-Normal public schools say they support the goals of racial justice and equality that embody the Black Lives Matter movement, but they are not on board with all of the group's demands.
Peaceful protests took place over and over following the killing of George Floyd and other injustices against people of color.
Many of the protestors that filled Bloomington-Normal streets to demand change were young. Brigette Beasley is president of the District 87 school board. She speaks with pride about how youth have been at the front of the racial justice movement.
“That actually just gives me so much joy to see the young people (marching), because I think it’s going to take all of us working together, calling things out when we see them to really make a change in our schools and in our communities,” Beasley said.
At that time, Black Lives Matter of Bloomington-Normal presented demands it says are necessary for the survival and success of Black people. Much of the list is about education. The group calls for schools to be anti-racist and free of police.
District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly has led two faculty forums to talk about ways the district can be responsive to minority students, teachers and staff. He said they are working on ways to improve minority hiring and retention and curriculum changes.
But Reilly said he has no interest in one of Black Lives Matter’s demands: removing school resource officers.
“My staff would tell you they are invaluable, and it’s not so much police work as it is the relationship-building and how they bridge the relationships with the students and police officers,” Reilly said.
The pandemic and online school have made the discussion about those officers less immediate.
Amy Roser, president of the Unit 5 school board, said she doesn't see resource officers as law enforcement first, but as part of a school counseling team that tries to prevent student problems. She said having a cop in the school makes that possible.
“Whereas an outside officer who was brought into the school who didn’t know the student wouldn’t have that context, that there’s something going on in the student's personal life that could be causing them to react differently to a particular situation,” Roser said.
Roser said she's not aware of students feeling uncomfortable with police officers in the school, but she wants to know. She said the district is exploring ways to make it easier for students to air concerns, maybe to someone other than a school administrator, someone the student could see as a neutral party.
“It’s very, very important to me that our students have avenues to express those concerns in a trusted manner,” she said.
Educators say resource officers build relationships with students to build a sense of safety and security.
Beasley said that lifts a burden from teachers.
“I don’t think we want our staff or our teachers to serve in those capacities,” she said. “I think they have focus on educating our students.”
But Beasley said she supports Black Lives Matters' recommendation for expanding Black history instruction.
“We absolutely should be doing a much better job when it comes to teaching our students about Black history and not just when they sign up for African-American history, but when they are taking their basic history classes, because Black history is a part of all of our history,” Beasley said.
Roser does not offer an assessment of how well schools teach Black history, but noted the district reviews curriculum every year.
“What may be enough today may not be enough tomorrow,” Roser said. “This is a very, very important topic and we need to continue to monitor that and see how it plays out.”
Black Lives Matter says all school employees should be trained in cultural sensitivity, diversity and equity.
Leaders in Unit 5 and District 87 say this must be an ongoing conversation to make schools equitable. Beasley said District 87 has sought input from several African-American groups, including the NAACP, 100 Black Men of Central Illinois and several Black ministers in the community.
Roser at Unit 5 said she sat in on a few Black Lives Matter meetings to hear their concerns, but there hasn't been direct dialogue yet.
“We are more than happy to have conversations with the Black Lives Matters groups to participate in any efforts. I think it’s important that we continue these conversations,” she said.
The pandemic temporarily muted dialogue as educators spent the summer exploring ways to safely teach students. Beasley said she has no intention of letting the discussion fade away. As a mother to two Black sons, Beasley said it is an issue dear to her.
In District 87, whites make up less than half of the student population. In Unit 5 nearly two-thirds of the students are white. But in both districts, whites make up about 90% of faculty.
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