It has been widely reported that Davis School District’s new assistant superintendent Jacqueline Thompson is resuming her career with the district after retiring in 2017.
While she may have stepped away from her daily responsibilities as the Davis District’s director of educational equity a few years ago, “I never stopped doing the work of wanting to be involved with our schools and with our students across our state,” she said in an interview Monday.
For instance, she served as chairwoman of the Utah High School Activities Association’s diversity and inclusion committee, led presentations in schools, mentored students and trained teachers.
When The Leonardo hosted the “Sorting Out Race” exhibit that examined how mundane, everyday objects can perpetuate ugly racial stereotypes, she and her husband volunteered to answer visiting students’ questions and talk about what they had seen and learned about in the exhibit.
So when a Davis District administrator called Thompson to ask her if she would lead the school district’s response to findings of a Department of Justice investigation that found “serious and widespread racial harassment” of Black and Asian American students,” she said she was “excited to come in and see what I could do to be a part of the team and to help our children.”
The settlement agreement between the DOJ and the school district comes with a lengthy to-do list that will span several years, starting with hiring a consultant to review and revise antidiscrimination policies and procedures and support the district as it undertakes significant institutional reforms.
Other requirements include creating a new department to handle complaints of race discrimination; training staff on how to identify, investigate and respond to complaints of racial harassment and discriminatory discipline practices, and informing students and parents of how to report harassment and discrimination.
Thompson said she sees “a lot of potential” as she starts the new position. She previously worked with some of the colleagues she’ll be working with in her new position “so I have great confidence in them. Knowing that we’re working together gave me some comfort as well.”
The district is committing an unprecedented level of resources at the administrative and student level, including cultural liaisons to address complaints.
Students will play a key role, Thompson said.
A student multicultural advisory group is meeting monthly with the district’s superintendency.
“They are going to be a part of the solution, but we want to hear their concerns. What’s going on in the schools?” she said. “We will be in the schools as well working with our students. But hearing directly from the students, they being empowered to share their concerns and being a partner with us at the table with us, is going to make a huge difference.”
As the school district addresses the settlement agreement with the DOJ, it has also pledged that there will be an independent review of events at Foxboro Elementary School preceding the suicide death of 10-year-old student Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor.
The girl took her life on Nov. 6 at her home after she was bullied at the North Salt Lake school because she was Black and had an autism spectrum disorder, according to her family.
As Thompson launches her new role, other school districts are watching how Davis School District is responding to the DOJ review, as well as events that preceded Izzy Tichenor’s death, for guidance on how they can improve their practices and policies.
The events uncovered in the DOJ’s two-year investigation of Davis School District are not unique to the school district or to Utah.
The DOJ found that Black students in Davis District were routinely called the N-word or other racial epithets by other non-Black students, and they were told that their skin was dirty or looked like feces.
“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,” according to a Department of Justice press release.
Utah is well known as a welcoming state internationally, evidenced by its ability to host the 2002 Winter Games, she said. It is also a state that leads the country in its rate of volunteerism.
But, like the rest of the country, racism exists in Utah.
“We are seeing examples of racism here as well, and those are the things that we’re trying to address. What gives me hope is a number of people that are speaking out against racism are actively doing something positive to break down those barriers, to help us build up and go forward together. Racism exists throughout our whole nation and in our state as well. But again, you’re going to see a large number of people offering support, to help ... erase racism,” Thompson said.
Education is the key to a better future, starting with an understanding that all people are members of the human family, she said.
As people of diverse backgrounds have the opportunity to learn about one another and hear one another’s concerns, “we’re going to find that we have more in common than we have differences. ... It’s our diversity that enriches us and it’s commonalities that bring us closer together,” she said.
Training of students and staff will occur in schools but will also be offered to the community at large, Thompson said. The district wants to share its successful strategies with other educators, she said.
Mostly, it’s about the children and imparting lessons in a manner that there is “no shame, guilt or blame,” she said.
Children need to be taught an accurate view of history “because once we honor the past, we can ensure the future and the children can be a part of the solution as we go forward.”
Children have a great sense of fairness and justice, Thompson said. “It was the children that were at the forefront of the civil rights movement with Dr. King when the world took notice,” she said.
Educators, parents and communities want children to be productive citizens in a global world, Thompson said.
“The world is coming here, and we’re going out into the world. We want to prepare our children, but we don’t want to prepare them in a way that’s going to harm or hurt them. We want to show them out of love,” she said.
Mostly, the job at hand is about making an investment in a collective future.
“What legacy do we want to leave? Did we help our children? And did we empower them and make them part of the solution so that they can go forward and have a better life for their children’s children? So when we all focus in on the children, that’s what it’s all about.”