Three days after a Utah family laid to rest their 10-year-old daughter and sister who they say took her own life after she was bullied at school over her race and autism spectrum disorder, the president of the Davis School District again offered condolences to the child’s loved ones Tuesday.
School board President John Robison opened the board work session with a statement expressing “sincere and heartfelt condolences” to the girl’s family.
It also noted that the district’s leaders, educators and mental health professionals have been meeting daily since Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor’s death on Nov. 6. She attended Foxboro Elementary School in North Salt Lake.
“We take this tragedy very seriously,” Robison said.
Citing privacy concerns, Robison said there were many things he could not share regarding the district’s interactions with the girl’s family.
“Generally speaking, extensive resources were provided to the family since enrolling their children. In fact, the family chose to continue having their children attend our schools after moving outside the district. That was because of the relationship they had with our schools and teachers,” he said.
The school district is establishing “an independent team to review the processes we have in place and the allegations that Izzy was racially harassed and discriminated against. Members of that independent team will include an expert in interviewing children about trauma, someone who is an expert in educational practices and someone who is an expert in the law,” Robison said.
He added, “Every incident of harassment and bullying is investigated. There is a process that is followed at the school level and the district level depending on the seriousness of any reported event.”
Izzy Tichenor’s family, in a statement issued by their attorney, Tyler Ayres, said, “While appreciative of the district’s interest and concern for Izzy now, simply wish the statement they issued today, reflected their attitude and actions three weeks ago.”
It continues, “As we fight for children who feel silenced and disregarded, like Izzy, we hope we will be fighting alongside the district and not with them. This will only be possible when the district acknowledges the responsibility they have to educate all children regarding racial, religious, economic and cognitive differences. Recognition of a problem is the first step to finding a solution.”
The Department of Justice recently announced findings of a two-year investigation that revealed “serious and widespread racial harassment” in Davis schools by students but also some staff.
As the investigation was underway, every school administrator began extensive training in investigating, assessing and responding to all racial harassment allegations, Robison said.
“With the release of the Department of Justice’s findings, every school administrator continues to be trained,” he said.
Superintendent Reid Newey, answering reporters’ questions, said the school district accepts “the findings of the DOJ, own that and take responsibility for that. We feel it our responsibility to change that.”
Asked if he had any plans to step down, as a recent Tweet from Izzy’s mother Brittany Tichenor intimated should happen, Newey said, “No.”
Newey acknowledged that cultural change is akin to turning a big ship but he expressed confidence in his employees and the communities the district serves.
“It’s a big ship. It is tough. We have great pride in our educators, in our families and have great faith in them. We have no doubt that they can do that,” he said.
Meanwhile, the school district is actively working to diversify its workforce.
“We want to continue to build diversity and have our children see reflected in their teachers and administrators, their faces or faces they see at home,” Newey said.
The school district has pushed beyond its traditional recruiting efforts such as at college or university job fairs. The district has worked with its advisory groups, equity committee, the Utah Black Roundtable and Latinos in Action to develop more aggressive recruiting plans, he said.
According to the Utah State Board of Education’s latest enrollment figures, just over 80% of Davis School District students are white and about 18% identify as members of minority groups.
Developing a teaching force that better reflects the diversity of the school district will build a culture “that will be so much richer for all our students, particularly those impacted populations,” Newey said.
The school district’s stepped up recruiting efforts have already yielded dividends. Last year, the district hired seven new secondary school administrators and six were people of color, Newey said.
“That has only built the culture of our schools so we’re very happy and proud about that,” he said.
The Department of Justice probe revealed that Black students attending Davis schools had been 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 DOJ 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.
The DOJ investigation noted Davis District’s “ineffective response” to incidents of racial harassment “for years.”