The Vigo County School Board meeting was well attended Monday. A dozen people spoke during public comment, primarily about the West Vigo High School matter. Tribune-Star/Sue Loughlin
The Vigo County School Board meeting was well attended Monday. A dozen people spoke during public comment, primarily about the West Vigo High School matter. Tribune-Star/Sue Loughlin
The Vigo County School Corp. has formed a task force in response to racial harassment at West Vigo High School, and among the members is the president of the Greater Terre Haute branch of the NAACP. The task force will “help guide the school corporation with issues revolving around diversity and equity,” VCSC interim Superintendent Tom Balitewicz said at Monday’s school board meeting.

The task force also is to help guide diversity training.

But its emphasis also will be on planning for the future “and keeping the school corporation transparent and open about issues involving harassment, especially racial harassment,” he told the board.

While those who will serve on the task force is still being finalized, the group had a preliminary meeting Friday.

Sylvester Edwards, president of the Greater Terre Haute branch of the NAACP, is serving on the task force and spoke at Monday’s meeting.

He explained that the NAACP has not formally attended recent school board meetings where the West Vigo racial harassment issue has been a major focus because “we do not interfere with an investigation until it is completely over.”

He is now involved with the task force to help heal the community, he said. But he also stated of the racial harassment at West Vigo that “there were people who were complicit and knew what was going on and did nothing.”

Until those adults receive their due punishment, like the students who have been disciplined, “Nothing is going to get changed,” Edwards said.

There will be transparency and the issue will not be swept under the rug, Edwards said. “We will be speaking about it,” he said.

Later, in an interview, Edwards said it will be up to parents of students who have been victimized by racial harassment to determine if punishments meted out were equitable.

And if they are not satisfied, “They will come to us … then we are in place to speak for that group of people.”

During the meeting, a dozen people spoke during public comment, primarily about the West Vigo matter.

Angela Tanner chastised the board and administration because “you have failed to act loudly in your discipline of the adults involved and until you do, no amount of diversity training you conduct in that school will matter.”

Those adults at West Vigo who didn’t act when they knew what had happened involving racist behavior “are accomplices to hate crimes and they need to be held accountable,” Tanner said.

Some of the speakers suggested the district is not looking at all the facts regarding what has happened. Among those speakers was Bill Thomas, who has previously served on the West Terre Haute town council and Vigo County Council.

He said he was not trying to defend some of the incidents that have occurred. “We’re in no way here to defend the indefensible,” he said.

But Thomas said that rumors have been spread that are untrue and he believes that needs to be addressed. He asked the administration and board to look at things “through a different lens” and suggested some of the students may have been penalized “far beyond what it should be.”

Also speaking was Brian Chesshir, who said he coached the West Vigo students involved as children.

“At no time was a child looked upon, judged or discriminated against because of the color of their skin, their ethnicity nor their race,” he said. “These kids were more than just teammates, classmates and friends together. They, and we, were a family.”

He said he believes the consequences for some of the affected students is based on a “fallacy” and he characterized it as a “complete travesty.”

The board has not yet seen the investigation report because it may be involved in staff appeals related to discipline.

When the board does see that report, Chesshir asked members to do due diligence and to be transparent with those findings. Balitewicz made a presentation to talk about the next steps for West Vigo High School and the school corporation.

During Friday’s meeting of the task force, two ideas stood out to him, he said. One involves a review of policies to see which address anti-racist behavior, including school rules.

It was also recommended that the district build a corporation-wide diversity plan. The plan “would chart a course of action for building a culture within the school corporation that promotes an appreciation and respect for diversity and inclusion,” Balitewicz said.

In addressing issues specific to West Vigo high and middle school staff, and ultimately, the greater school community, he proposes two types of training that would begin in February.

One presentation by Matt McClendon, VCSC director of diversity and inclusion, would focus on diversity and equity and “create awareness and a conversation about bias and stereotyping.”

Megan Kirk, Project AWARE coordinator, would conduct a presentation focused on bullying, harassment and hazing and how staff should address these issues. She also will discuss how and when to report such matters to school administration and how school administration needs to investigate and document those concerns.

Kirk also will introduce the staff to “restorative practices” for students and how those practices should become part of the disciplinary process at the high school to help “heal the hurt caused by words or actions” of students toward other students.

In terms of student training, with the help of the task force, the district will search for an organization that specializes in diversity and sensitivity training for young adults.

Once completed at West Vigo high and middle schools, that training will move to other high and middle schools. The district also will search for a facilitator that is appropriate for elementary school.

Also in February, all students will receive training on using the district STOPit App and bully reporting form, which are installed on every Chromebook.

In March, Balitewicz will meet with all high and middle school coaches to stress the importance of reporting incidents of harassment, bullying and hazing, including racial harassment.

McClendon will create a presentation for all athletes to educate them on forms of harassment, emphasizing issues of respecting diversity.
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