Paonia alumni engage school district over racism, plan to speak at Thursday meeting

Two former Paonia High School students post ‘Open Letter to DCSD’ on the Decolonizing Delta County School District Facebook page and plan to address the board Thursday meeting.

Two former Paonia High School students are bringing the issue of racism to the attention of their former school district following the police murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, this May in Minneapolis.

Marisa Edmondson and Jordan Evans say they and other students of color have experienced both overt and covert racism including microaggressions, racial jokes and not feeling welcomed at Delta County School District schools.

“We’re looking at ways that we can improve the conditions here that students of color are facing, which is the reason we wrote the letter,” said Edmondson who returned home after COVID-19 concerns shut down the college she was attending in Vermont.

She said racism exists at all levels of education in the district and was recently highlighted by a disturbing video posted on social media mocking the arrest and death of George Floyd by three Paonia students. One student has since apologized for his actions.

Edmondson said even though the incident happened off-campus and outside of school hours she has contacted Principal Randal Palmer. She said racist behaviors at the county schools are dismissed, excused or not dealt with.

“I think the only reason I was able to do as well as I did in Paonia was because I was just naturally athletic and that’s valued at Paonia High School,” said Edmondson, who despite being popular and outgoing had to constantly work to fit in at the predominantly white school.

The socially relevant letter, “Open Letter to DCSD” is available on the Decolonizing Delta County School District Facebook page. The page boldly calls for the district to take steps to make anti-racism education “a normal thing” instead of pushing the topic aside.

Among the steps outlined in the letter is a call for the school district to issue a statement condemning violence and hate crimes committed against BIPOCs (Black, Indigenous and other People of Color) in America; to offer support and counseling in light of recent events and to include racial equity, diversity and inclusion as part of the district’s vision and core values.

Edmondson and Evans are also calling for the school district to update its dress code to prohibit clothing that incites violence including t-shirts, jackets and hoodies displaying the swastika or Confederate flag.

“Flags like that can make people of color feel pretty unsafe. The fact that it’s not addressed in the dress code can be problematic as they do address gang related clothing,” said Edmondson who wants specific language concerning the symbols to be placed in the dress code.

“I think a lot of language that the district has used, not just in their dress code, but in their mission statement and their vision statement is very vague and weak for a purpose that leads up to interpretation,” she said.

Delta County School Superintendent Caryn Gibson, at the request of the Delta County Independent, issued the following statement in response to the former students’ letter:

“There are many important issues facing our society today. Top priorities for all of us are the physical safety, emotional well-being, and continued respect for each of our students, teachers, staff, and members of our community. This spring has been difficult for all of our communities, as our daily life has changed so dramatically from what we could have imagined just a few months ago. The pandemic has only further highlighted the importance of the work necessary to achieve equity in our schools. We will continue to work diligently so all students, staff, and families will be treated with the utmost respect and support. As we navigate these uncertain times, we acknowledge that social injustices may occur. As a School District, we condemn all types of discrimination and injustice. We promote equitable opportunities and fair treatment of all students while keeping our schools safe. We do this in an effort to embody the District’s motto of Caring, Challenging, Learning . . . Every Student, Every Day!”

The letter to district officials on Facebook paints a different picture while aiming to bring positive change for all DCSD students.

“As former students of color we are writing to bring attention to challenges DCSD has faced in providing a safe space for students of color. As alumni of color, we have both experienced the lack of an inclusive and supportive culture at Delta County Schools. And through this letter we hope to provide a voice to the marginalized members of our community and ensure that future students will find that DCSD is an inclusive and safe space for all,” the letter states.

In addition to the letter, Edmondson is asking current students, alumni, parents, and faculty, to share their experiences with racism at the schools in the form of testimonials on their newly-established Facebook page and Instagram. The stories can include incidents that affected them personally or were something they witnessed during their time with the school district.

“It’s not a ‘call out page’, we remove any names unless a student wants to self-identify. We don’t include dates, we don’t include if it’s a faculty or a student,” Edmondson said, “Again, this is not a ‘call out page’ this is just addressing larger systemic issues in the community. We need to fix the culture.”

The two former Paonia High School students, along with others, plan to attend and make public comments at the July 16 school board meeting at 6 p.m. They said a presentation on anti-racism has been scheduled for August with the board of directors at Vision Charter Academy.

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