In Arlington, Black voices challenge a white suburban school district to do better – Boston Globe

By Jenna Russell Globe Staff
He had never shared the story outside his family, holding his frustration close. But after Minneapolis police pressed the life out of George Floyd, J. Mike Remy felt compelled to end his silence.

Arlington High School (MA)

By Jenna Russell Globe Staff, Updated July 11, 2020, 2:56 p.m.

https://www.bostonglobe.com/2020/07/11/metro/amid-national-reckoning-black-voices-challenge-white-suburban-school-district-do-better/

He had never shared the story outside his family, holding his frustration close. But after Minneapolis police pressed the life out of George Floyd, J. Mike Remy felt compelled to end his silence.

J. Mike Remy, a former data analyst for Arlington Public Schools.

J. Mike Remy, a former data analyst for Arlington Public Schools.ERIN CLARK/GLOBE STAFF

So one night in late May as protests filled the streets, Remy turned his cellphone camera on himself. Calmly, the 36-year-old data specialist explained what had driven him to leave his job with Arlington Public Schools in 2017: He had voiced concerns to the superintendent about racial disparities in student discipline — Black and Hispanic students, and those with disabilities, were punished much more often than whites — and believed he had been instructed, in response, to play down his findings.

“It’s always eaten at me,” he said, “that I had to swallow that and live with it.”


To his surprise, the six-minute video caught fire online, racking up more than 25,000 views and hundreds of comments, and eliciting a forceful rebuttal from Arlington’s schools superintendent, Kathleen Bodie. “We did delve into the data,” she said, “and have done so for many years,” spending thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars to address disparities.View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Remy 🇭🇹 (@_mr1derful) on May 29, 2020 at 5:17pm PDT

The controversy was just one of the sparks igniting conversations about race in Arlington, one of countless places where such dialogue has surged.

A national uprising against racism has reinvigorated criticism of persistent racial inequalities in education, in mostly white suburbs as well as more diverse cities. With more vocal support from white allies — and diminishing concern about the costs of speaking boldly — Black and Latino students, parents, educators, and community leaders are increasingly willing to call out inequality and demand change, risking the discomfort that such conversations bring.


RELATED: The Great Divide: Neighboring schools, worlds apart

In Arlington, 6 miles northwest of Boston, Black students spurred by Floyd’s death as well as their own encounters with racism have stepped up their activism, protesting injustice in their school system last month outside town hall. Parents, too, have raised their voices, writing publicly this spring of their misgivings about sending their Black and brown children to local schools.

“A town that says it values education could do more, and it should,” said Jon’s Allison-Cardoso, who recently published a letter, co-written with two other mothers, about their children’s experience as students of color in Arlington. “It’s hopeful that so many people are raising their voices and saying, ‘This is our experience — hear us; don’t ignore us.’”

***

In well-off Arlington, where the median home price tops $700,000, race has been relatively easy to ignore — at least for the majority. The town was 95 percent white 30 years ago, and is 80 percent white today, according to the US Census Bureau. Among the 6,000 students in public schools, 400 are Hispanic or Latino; 200 are Black.

But as the flood of response to Remy’s video made clear, many students of color have felt isolated and alone there — and, sometimes, targeted for punishment. To Elizabeth Kamya, a 2015 graduate of Arlington High School who is Black, the video felt like delayed validation of her own troubling experience.


Kamya grew up in Arlington, the daughter of involved, well-educated parents. Her first experience with bias came in elementary school, when, she says, her teacher insisted she was a less skilled reader than her classmates and discouraged her from choosing more challenging books.

Elizabeth Kamya, a 2015 graduate of Arlington High School, witnessed and experienced racial disparities in discipline practices at the school.
Elizabeth Kamya, a 2015 graduate of Arlington High School, witnessed and experienced racial disparities in discipline practices at the school.JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF

“She kept giving me little kid books, when I was reading big chapter books at home, and I found it very hurtful,” said the 23-year-old, who works as a union organizer in California.

As she grew older, she began to see more clearly the assumptions teachers made about her abilities, and her character. In eighth grade, Kamya said, a teacher refused to believe that she had accidentally deleted a finished essay the night before it was due, assuming instead that she had failed to write it. A high school teacher chastised her for not taking notes — even as she was taking notes, she says — then kicked her out of class when she protested. Her dean assumed she got bad grades. (She didn’t.)

“I was shocked to be treated so differently,” she said. “The disparities were always very clear — everyone in detention was Black and brown — and we knew it wasn’t right.”

The concerning discipline patterns Kamya saw in high school also caught Remy’s attention a year or two later. Compiling data for a federally mandated report on discipline in late 2016 and early 2017 — and then looking beyond the report requirements, to include other types of discipline, like detention — he says he found that Black, Hispanic, and disabled students made up 13 percent of Arlington High School’s enrollment, but received 80 percent of the punishment. He doesn’t have documents to corroborate his memory of the numbers, but says he vividly recalls his shock at the scale of the disparity.


Remy says he raised the issue with the superintendent in early 2017, in a scheduled meeting on another subject, and that she rebuffed his urgent appeal. “She resisted including things that weren’t required for the report,” Remy said in an interview. “The message I got was to keep it surface level.” He felt Bodie had discouraged him from digging deeper, to analyze numbers of detentions and other forms of discipline, like the classroom removal Kamya had experienced.

In an interview, Arlington’s superintendent said Remy clearly misunderstood her response. She cited years of public discussion about the disparities in discipline, dating back before Remy’s employment, and years of investment in better data systems and antibias training for teachers and administrators, a history she said shows “a multiyear, multifaceted, ongoing effort to address disproportionality.

“The video was shocking to me, and stinging, because it creates an impression of a system that hasn’t done anything,” she said. “I’ve racked my brain to try and understand how he possibly could have thought that.”

A revamped approach to discipline, including a new program in collaborative problem solving, has driven down total numbers of suspensions in recent years, Bodie said. But she acknowledged that variations in discipline rates have been harder to stamp out.


The most recent available state data show continuing disparities in Arlington, as well as in neighboring suburbs. About 1.3 percent of Arlington’s white students were disciplined during the 2018-19 school year, compared to 3 percent of Hispanic/Latino students and 5 percent of Black students. Five years earlier, in 2013-14, 1.8 percent of white students and 8 percent of Black students were disciplined; in both years, the rate for Black students was roughly four times higher than for whites.RELATED: The Great Divide: A tale of two schools and the way they teach — or fail to teach — about racism

The work continues, Bodie said, not just to move the numbers, but to find ways of making Black and brown students feel more at home in school, “to know that they belong, and are appreciated for who they are.”

Kamya, the Arlington High School graduate, said she has worked to overcome feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt that began with her time in Arlington schools.

“If you’re told that you’re … not good enough, and if you’re constantly treated differently, it affects how you see yourself,” she said. “I internalized it, and wished all the time that I wasn’t Black. … I didn’t want my color anymore.”

***

The uneven rates of discipline seen in Arlington mirror those in other affluent, mostly white suburbs. Data show minority students in neighboring Belmont, Lexington, and Concord are just as overrepresented in disciplinary actions — or even more so. (In Belmont, the discipline rate for Black students was 10 times higher than the rate for whites last year.) Statewide, data show Black students are three times more likely to be disciplined.

The problem has been linked to a “school to prison pipeline” for Black and Latino children, including many with learning disabilities and histories of trauma. Labeled early on as troublemakers, and punished frequently in school, these students face educational disruption and may be at higher risk of later entanglement with police and prisons.RELATED: Amid nationwide movement to reform policing, some call on Boston to remove officers from schools

“It can be perceived as an urban problem, stemming from a lack of counselors and supports, but you see the same disparities in the suburbs,” said Leon Smith, director of the Boston-based nonprofit Citizens for Juvenile Justice. “In suburban schools, the resources are there — but the inclination toward punishment for students of color is too.”

For Remy, the numbers brought back painful memories of the discipline that once dogged him. As a Black eighth-grader in Boston Public Schools, he says, he was suspended from school for three days for ducking into an empty girls’ restroom to wash his hands while the boys’ restroom was closed.

Soon afterward, he says, he chose to leave Boston Latin School to enroll at another high school in the city, partly because there were more Black students there, and less microscopic scrutiny.

“I learned early on that in any situation, if something went wrong, eyes would be on me,” said Remy. “So you prepare yourself, and make adjustments, to make yourself seem less threatening.”

His meeting with the Arlington superintendent troubled him deeply. He says he decided the next day to leave his job, and resigned within a few weeks. Afraid that speaking out about the reason might hurt his work prospects, he took a position outside education, and kept his lingering discomfort to himself.

Until Floyd was killed, and the truth felt essential.

“I knew it was still happening,” he said. “I knew other students were still walking in my shoes.”

***

Remy’s video, and the renewed scrutiny it triggered, was one thread in a complex conversation about race, approached — at least for the moment — with new boldness. It went beyond discipline for students of color, to concerns about their social-emotional well-being and mental health, and their unequal academic achievement.

And in Arlington, as in any other place in America, the conversation happened against a backdrop of specific history: past disputes and controversies that left behind unresolved tensions and unanswered questions.

Three years ago, residents clashed over a proposal to eliminate an elementary school tradition known as “Colonial Day,” after complaints that dressing students in Colonial-era costumes disrespected the history of students of color. More furor followed a year later, in 2018, after an Arlington police lieutenant wrote several inflammatory columns for a statewide law enforcement newsletter, advocating police violence and railing against the Black Lives Matter movement.

The town’s decision not to fire the officer — and to instead require him to attend a restorative justice program — drew sharp criticism. Angry residents organized a new group, Arlington Fights Racism, in 2019, and began working to elect a more diverse, progressive town government.

This spring, after a longtime School Committee member wrote about racial disparities in a way that struck some parents as dismissive — he argued that the small variations in local graduation rates for Blacks and whites, and the town’s relatively small number of discipline cases, weaken claims of significant inequality — three mothers wrote a blunt response.

“As parents and caregivers of children of color,” they wrote, “it is not uncommon for us to pause and wonder whether it is a good idea to keep our children in [Arlington Public Schools].”

Allison-Cardoso, one of the letter’s authors, said she spent years asking teachers to push her three Black children harder, but rarely felt expectations were set high enough, or that her boys were fulfilling their potential. Eventually she concluded they would be better off elsewhere. Her eldest son left Arlington schools last year to attend a regional vocational school, and she expects her two younger boys to follow.

“I don’t think they’ve been educated in a way that matches the ideals of the town, or the way their white classmates are educated,” said Allison-Cardoso, herself a longtime teacher in another district.

Students, too, have felt new vigor flood their old frustrations.

Doralee Heurtelou, a 2020 graduate of Arlington High School, struggled to feel at home in classes where she was the lone Black student. For years she was afraid to raise her hand. Then, as a junior, she helped organize a Black Student Union at the high school. She says her activism empowered her, and allowed her to find her voice again.

In June, a week after graduating, she and other Black students organized a protest against systemic racism in Arlington schools. Heurtelou says the high school principal reached out to them with concerns about the event, describing it as an “ambush” and questioning if they, as graduates, could still act in the name of the Black Student Union.

Undeterred, they created a new group for Black alumni and held the protest as planned, drawing several hundred people to the steps outside town hall.

Doralee Heurtelou, a 2020 graduate of Arlington High School, spoke during the protest against racism at Arlington Town Hall.
Doralee Heurtelou, a 2020 graduate of Arlington High School, spoke during the protest against racism at Arlington Town Hall. KRISTIN CHALMERS

“This is not a personal attack or an ambush on Arlington Public Schools,” Heurtelou told the crowd, to loud cheers. “This is an attack on systemic racism.”

The students sent a list of 20 demands to school officials, beginning with “Learn the names of Black students and how to pronounce them” and ending with “Replace Arlington’s racially derogatory Native American mascot.” (The high school’s logo, which includes a kneeling figure known as the Menotomy Hunter, is under review.)

The high school principal, Matthew Janger, said he could not comment on the protest or demands. A new antiracism working group at the high school, created after Floyd’s death and made up of students and staff, is discussing the students’ demands.

Mia Maxwell (center), who is on the Black Student Union counsel for Arlington High School, and her sister Camille Maxwell (right) marched during the protest in Arlington on June 20.
Mia Maxwell (center), who is on the Black Student Union counsel for Arlington High School, and her sister Camille Maxwell (right) marched during the protest in Arlington on June 20.KRISTIN CHALMERS

“You hope that, in time, the students understand that we are listening, and we want things to improve,” said Bodie, the superintendent. “This is some of the most important work we can do, to change where we’ve been as a country.”

At the rally, hearing students speak, J. Mike Remy let himself imagine how the world might be reshaped by their forceful insistence.

“I’m still seeing myself in the numbers,” he said when it was his turn at the microphone. “But if any of this can be made into action, it just might look better for my kids.”


Jenna Russell can be reached at jenna.russell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.