In an ideal world, public schools should inspire a love of learning in all young people, regardless of what they look like, where they are from, or what their family or cultural beliefs are.
Educational staff should be inclusive, sensitive, and warm in order to promote a healthy learning environment. That is not what I witnessed at the Benicia schools...
Employed in Benicia for 4 years
As a member of the working community of Benicia, I had the opportunity to do business with with the Benicia School District. Over the last five years, I observed and got to know many of staff members from several of the schools. My first impression of the Benicia Schools was they are comfortable, communal environments. However, within a short time I noticed a pervasive undercurrent of racism. I witnessed several staff members, particularly among the support staff, make casual comments to each other and sometimes to parents about students and families of color that were both derogatory and clearly based in biased beliefs. Although I am not white, my ethnic background was not visually obvious, so I was considered part of the “privileged” group and overheard their conversations without any filters being applied. After noticing the first few comments, I began to listen for it, and was shocked at how frequently demeaning things were said or done.
Although I have been witness to occasional racist comments or acts being said or done at other venues, what I saw and heard at the schools was far more offensive. It was blatant. And there was an assumption that this behavior is appropriate and normal. The engaged staff did not mask or hide their comments. They did not lower their voices. The principal’s offices, which are typically right in the midst of the main office where much of this was taking place, were sometimes wide open and the administration easily within earshot. Staff and people of the community were regularly walking in and out of the area, all within hearing range of the comments being said. And yet it continued uninterrupted. I found myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable and afraid for the students and families of color.
These are some of the things I witnessed:
The Benicia School District accepts and encourages the attendance of transfer students (students who live outside of the District) in order to keep the schools open and maintain attendance numbers to increase State funding, yet they are not readily accepted at the school sites. Some of the administrative staff handling these transfers assume that non-white transfers, particularly Black or Brown ones, come from Vallejo. In fact, “Vallejo” seemed to be used as a code word for non-white or poor. On the other hand, white transfer students are never presumed to be from Vallejo, even when that is their hometown. Regardless of where the families live, rather than being welcomed, transfer students are seen as "sucking up resources" and getting an education at the "expense of Benicia tax payers. There seems to be a firm belief that transfer families should be grateful, rather than we should be grateful that the transfer students are bringing additional revenues to our district, or more importantly, these are individual children with individual circumstances, all of whom should be welcomed and embraced.
Non-white students and their families are frequently referred to as "ghetto."
White parents seemed to disproportionately report the behavior of non-white parents at student drop off. Sometimes I saw them threaten to call the police for common traffic grievances such as driving too fast, arriving late, or blocking traffic, all of which are experienced and/or committed by nearly everyone sometime during the school year. I rarely, if ever, witnessed a parent of color complaining about the same things.
Christian-based holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, are often celebrated in the classrooms, alieninating non-Christian students. When the principal at one school made an effort to be culturally sensitive and teachers were asked not to put up Christmas trees and similar decorations in classrooms, the mandate was largely disregarded.
Similarly, traditional curriculum that includes stereotyped versions of certain ethnic groups are still widely used. A few years ago, the District made an effort to remove books, references and curriculum that are inaccurate or offensive, much of which was ignored in favor of the historical curriculum, such as the 4th grade Mission Project or assigning “tribe” names to desk groups.
Black students (particularly boys) are frequently singled out by teachers and are far more likely to be sent out of class to work alone than their white counterparts. Also, African American boys were more likely to be treated as older than their peers. I even heard that a white female teacher in her 50s told many coworkers that she was being sexually harassed by a ten year old boy because he commented that he liked her outfits. She said he must have learned it from his father, an African American man she also perceived to be "aggressive."
These are just a few of the many examples of prejudiced and intolerant behavior I noted. It saddens me to know that there is a dark underbelly of racism that runs through the schools in this beautiful community. This is where our youth are learning lifelong lessons - both academically and socially. I only hope that the school district wakes up from its complacency and implements some serious equity training and consequences for the staff members who continue to cultivate an imaginary and dangerous hierarchy amongst the staff, families and students.