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Would an ombudsman outside the public school system result in better handling of reports of racism?

‘Something has to change,’ said Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, describing names her son has been called at school such as the ‘N word’

SHARE Would an ombudsman outside the public school system result in better handling of reports of racism?
A Davis School District bus is pictured outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City, on Feb. 7, 2023.

A Davis School District bus is pictured outside of the Capitol in Salt Lake City, on Feb. 7, 2023.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

On the one hand, some members of a legislative oversight committee gave props to the Davis School District for its ongoing work on reforms in the wake of a Department of Justice investigation that revealed “serious and widespread racial harassment.”

But others said the issues that resulted in the five-year investigation made public in 2021 that determined Black students were routinely called the N-word or other racial epithets by non-Black students, or they were told that their skin was dirty or looked like feces — are happening elsewhere in the state.

“This is something that’s really important to me. My son has been called a monkey. He’s consistently hearing the N-word. It’s all over his school in front of teachers, administrators. Nothing happens. Jokes are constantly made. I’ve seen a text saying ‘We need some money We decided to sell you.’ These are deplorable comments and something has to change,” said Rep. Kera Birkeland, R-Morgan, during a meeting of the Utah Legislature’s Administrative Rules Review and General Oversight Committee.

Birkeland floated the idea of an ombudsman outside of Utah’s public education system as a resource for parents and families.

Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Pleasant Grove, said the public school system is built vertically and consequently, enforcing local, state and federal education law and policy is problematic.

“There’s still not a group affiliated with the schools that has any enforcement capability against the schools. Even the AG’s office (Attorney General’s office) has legal duties to the schools as legal counsel for the schools,” he said.

“It’s embarrassing when the Department of Justice has to come in to clean up our messes,” Brammer said. “That should never have to happen in our state. We can be a better run state than that. I’m just looking for structural solutions for outside enforcement because the vertical enforcement is typically going to come too late. It’s going to be too little too late, and it’s only going to be spurred by when things get really, really bad.”

Brammer said he and Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, have been working on legislation to establish an ombudsman position for education matters. Upon learning Brammer had opened a bill file, Birkeland withdrew her motion.

Davis School District Assistant Superintendent Fidel Montero, who is working with the Department of Justice to implement reforms under a settlement agreement, said the school district is working hard to communicate and be transparent with students and parents about policies and possible consequences when students harass others.

“We want to make sure that when we’re making decisions, when we’re doing things to support students that we communicate, that we’re transparent with parents,” Montero said. “We try to remind parents as much as possible that ‘This may feel scary when you first interact when your son or daughter makes a mistake, but we’re not a judicial court. We’re not criminalizing students. We’re trying to educate students. All of our records are administrative and they don’t follow students when they leave us.’ ”

As for students who experience any form of harassment, “we want to make sure we support them because, you know, I don’t know how some children can come to school, day in and day out when they’re hearing things when they’re being told stuff. It’s getting better. We’re making progress. We’re learning from our students. They’re telling us that they’re seeing progress,” Montero said.

Sen. Karen Kwan, D-Taylorsville, said she found the Department of Justice findings “disturbing” and she is certain, from what parents have told her, that such conduct occurs in other school districts.

“I do want to say that I appreciate the level of responsibility that you’ve taken to correct these measures and to help all of our students to thrive,” Kwan said. “But I do see this could be a cautionary tale for other school districts as well as something that the school boards may want to look at. Some of the lessons that you’ve learned are lessons for all of education. I hope that our school boards are looking at ways to improve the ability for our educators to help our students feel welcome and safe.”