A petition demanding changes to end systemic racism and related injustices, signed by more than 1,000 Lawrence Township residents and Lawrence Township public schools graduates, has been delivered to the Lawrence Township Public Schools Board of Education.
The petition, which was read to the school board at its July 8 virtual meeting, listed a series of demands that ranged from instituting Black and African American courses to hiring more minority educators, reviewing the district’s hiring practices and ensuring that one seat on the school board is reserved for a Black alumnus of the school district.
In response, Superintendent of Schools Ross Kasun has reached out to the petition organizers to set up a meeting. The group had asked the school board to set up a special school board meeting to address the petition.
Lawrence Township resident Nyya Toussaint told the school board that the deaths of five Blacks – Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade and Maurice Gordon – during the first six months of this year has resulted in a resurgent demand for racial justice.
“The current protests and social revolution known as Black Lives Matter is rooted in the historical struggle for Black liberation in the United States. While the Black Lives Matter (movement) reveals the need for change, true transformation requires deconstructing 401 years of institutional, structural and personal racism that pervades every aspect of this nation,” according to the open letter and petition presented to the board.
“Due to the top-down and bottom-up tactics practiced in the United States, white supremacy and anti-Blackness have found their place in Lawrence Township and made their bed in the Lawrence Township Public Schools,” the petition said.
Pointing to the need for “revolutionary change” in Lawrence, the petition states that “we look first to our educational system to acquire the radical change Lawrence needs. We will no longer be silent or silenced.”
“As students, parents, faculty, staff, alumni and residents of Lawrence Township, we make the following demands on our public school district to end systematic racism and all related injustices,” the petition said.
Those demands include removing police from the schools – including the school resource officer and school security guards – and to abolish detention, in-school suspensions and involuntary expulsion.
The petitioners want a diversity/inclusion/equity coach in each school, and also urged officials to take steps to encourage family involvement in the schools, such as back-to-school night, parent-teacher conferences, concerts and graduations, and to support a Black student organization and a minority teacher organization.
Several speakers urged the school board to pay heed to the petition.
“I ask the board to acknowledge the impact on people’s lives resulting from systemic racism and ask the board to meet with the community to address the points taken in the petition,” Lawrence resident Atiya Harley said. “The time is now for the school board to commit to becoming an anti-racist district.”
To reinforce the message, six more speakers repeated – almost word for word – the same remarks that Harley made.
Kate Schumacher, who lives in Lawrence, said the fact that the petition was signed by more than 1,000 people who are concerned about the systemic racism they have endured “is beyond concerning to me. The silence is concerning to me.”
“You asked me to fill out a survey about returning to school and I don’t know how I can fill that out with the information you provided me and the climate that is happening in our town. The silence is concerning to me from the board members who have not made a commitment against their anti-racism,” Schumacher said.
Nyya Toussaint stressed the importance of moving quickly and the importance of not taking the summer off to confront the issues.
“(The delay) is putting us at risk. (The district) is rushing to open the schools to COVID-19 and more racism. What is the rush? If we decide we are not going to plan, we are planning to fail,” Toussaint said.
School board vice President Dana Drake thanked the attendees for their comments and said the school board “fully supports” efforts to eradicate racism from the schools.
The school board adopted a resolution last month advocating racial equity and justice, Drake said.
“We want to give the petition a thorough review, at which point we will be able to respond,” Drake said.