When findings of a federal investigation revealed the Davis School District persistently failed to respond to reports of race-based harassment by students and staff, Allison Schlichter thought about the hours she spent driving her daughter, who is Black, to and from a Salt Lake elementary school.
“Why did my kid have to leave? Do you know how much gas and time it took to drive from Kaysville to Rose Park every day for three years? I’m mad about that. I’m mad my kid couldn’t go to school with the neighborhood kids. I’m mad that I couldn’t trust them when I dropped my little 5-year-old off. Why did I have to wait all this time for this judgment?”
Schlichter enrolled her daughter in an elementary school in a diverse Salt Lake City neighborhood after she was told by a 6-year-old classmate at her local school in Davis County that “her skin is stupid.”
When Schlichter raised her concerns with school administrators “the principal told me ‘That’s like saying ‘Your clothes aren’t fashionable,’” she said.
“She was trying to keep there from being a recorded incident of racial bullying at her school. That was more important than the well-being and self-confidence of this little 6-year-old girl that spent 30 hours a week at her school,” said Schlichter, who is white.
Schlicther’s daughter, now in junior high, is attending Davis County schools again.
Last week, the Department of Justice announced results of a two-year investigation into incidents of racial discrimination and harassment in Davis District schools, determining such harassment was “serious and widespread.”
Black students told investigators that they were routinely called the N-word or other racial epithets by non-Black students, and they were told that their skin was dirty or looked like feces, according to a news release.
“Many Black students said the harassment was so pervasive and happened so often in front of adults that they concluded school employees condoned the behavior and believed reporting it further would be futile,” the DOJ said.
Schlichter said she was glad for the decision and has discussed it with Superintendent Reid Newey, noting, “He’s saying the right things.”
She questions why Davis school leaders, when presented with multiple and widespread reports of youth experiencing racial harassment and discrimination four years ago, didn’t put a plan of action in place themselves.
“Davis County School District could have been the leader in this,” Schlichter said. “They could have taken this on without it being legally enforced.”
Davis School District spokesman Christopher Williams said DOJ staff spent hundreds of hours interviewing students, parents and administrators. The probe revealed incidents the district was aware of and had responded to but also incidents that district officials were previously unaware.
“So as we read the findings, the reaction initially is, ‘This is not us.’ But the follow-up reaction is, ‘It is us and we have to do something about it.’ We’re not taking a defensive posture in any of this. We have to move forward for the benefit of every student and parent. We have to,” Williams said.
The DOJ and the school district jointly announced a settlement agreement that includes training of staff how to identify, investigate and respond to complaints of racial harassment and discriminatory discipline practices; creating a centralized electronic reporting system; analyzing and reviewing discipline data and amending policies to ensure non-discriminatory enforcement of discipline policies, among several other requirements.
The first milestone of the plan is the school district hiring one or more consultants by Dec. 20 to assess the district’s harassment policies and procedures; analyze and address discriminatory discipline; and create trainings to help staff identify, investigate, report and respond to student-on-student and staff-on-student racial harassment or other discrimination. The consultant will also monitor and assess the district’s progress in implementing the agreement.
The DOJ will review candidates for the position and either accept or reject them from further consideration by the school district.
Asked how the district will respond to federal oversight, Williams said the school district understands that “this is the direction we need to take and we will take it. We have to take it. Just a thought of a student who has walked in our schools, with the idea that ‘This is not where I want to be because of the way I’m treated’ is not something that we as educators can allow to continue.
“Our responsibility is to educate every student and provide them the best education possible so that when they leave, they can be a successful adult. That’s our mission. That’s why we’re here. We cannot fail in that mission. So we apologize for any student who has felt like, ‘I don’t want to be at school.’ That’s not conducive to learning, bottom line.”
Betty Sawyer, founder of Utah Black Roundtable, an Ogden NAACP leader and retired university program administrator, assisted families who reached out for help advocating for their children of color.
In June 2019, parents, children, members of Utah Black Roundtable, Northern Utah Black Lives Matter and other community supporters demonstrated during a Davis District school board meeting.
The group told board members that it was concerned about injustices that had been committed against Black students and implored them to do something about it.
Sawyer said she hopes the agreement between the school district and the DOJ brings about needed change.
“I’m always optimistic. I think the district has learned a lot since this process started. So I’m hoping that they would be proactive in addressing these issues,” she said.
Sawyer said in addition to federal oversight, “our community’s staying on top of it and looking to work with them as they implement that. I think that’s what makes the difference, like anything else, if there’s no accountability and transparency it’s just another piece of paper, another document. I think that’s what we’re gonna push for to maintain dialogue with the district as they work through these things.”
Shauntel Black, a white mom of Black and white children, was interviewed by Department of Justice officials. She declined to share the specifics regarding incidents that affected her son but said the documents made public last week “are very clear about the level of harassment and racism within the district that occurred to kids of color. That’s what they were responding to. We had gone to the district to talk about experiences that our kids were having and we didn’t get any response,” she said.
Black credited Sawyer and Black Lives Matter Utah chapter founder Lex Scott, who in August stepped down from the position and moved out of state citing safety concerns following a controversial social media post, for their guidance and teaching them to be better advocates for their children of color.
“The thing is, is we live in a predominantly white community. Because we as white people don’t experience racism, we never take the time to learn about it,” she said.
For that matter, the history students are taught lacks perspective of people of color and their lived experiences, she said.
“So we really fail to understand the bigger systemic problem. When you don’t understand the bigger systemic problem, you can’t overcome the problem,” she said.
Black, who grew up in Utah and graduated from Weber High School, said she didn’t confront her own lack of experience, knowledge or preconceived notions until she went to college at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
Years later, she had another “ah-ha moment” when her son told her, “You have no idea what it’s like to be Black with white parents in a white neighborhood at a white school.”
“I knew he was right and I knew I was gonna get busy understanding what his lived experience was, because even as his mom, I feel like I failed.”
Like Sawyer, Black said she is optimistic that the settlement agreement will result in meaningful change — not just in Davis School District, but statewide.
“Any time you have federal oversight, it gives you hope. But what I really hope is that school districts throughout Utah use this as a guide for what they should be doing in their districts because Davis School District is not unique. This is happening all throughout the Wasatch Front,” Black said.
Williams said the school district is working to put the settlement into action.
“The first thing we need to do is get organized. We have this commitment with the Department of Justice for the next five years. That doesn’t mean at the end of five years ‘So much for that,’” Williams said. “This is going to be something that’s part of the culture of the Davis School District and we’re committed to that expectation.”