After last fall’s ugly racial incident where black students were called the n-word, you would think that the Quakertown Community School District would do all it could to underscore the importance of Martin Luther King Day.
But instead of being closed on Monday so students can participate in meaningful public service activities to commemorate the slain civil rights leader’s legacy, regular classes will be held. Yes, you read that correctly. Schools will be open as usual.
Quakertown officials said they need to make up for time lost last week when the school was closed for two days due to inclement weather.
Bad move, Quakertown. Monday’s holiday is sacred. It’s a time to reflect. Maybe listen to some of King’s famous speeches and volunteer for a cause bigger than yourself. It’s a federally recognized American tradition that celebrates how far we’ve come as a nation in combating racial prejudice and injustice. Arbitrarily dumping it smacks of cultural insensitivity and white privilege.
What the district has done insults King’s legacy and the entire civil rights movement. It also sends the wrong message to impressionable young people – some of whom really could benefit from seeing firsthand the gravitas that this nation has attached to the holiday.
Quakertown isn’t the first. Every so often you hear of some district that thinks it’s OK to order kids to class on MLK Day.
Need an extra day in the school year? Why not cancel Presidents Day? Or add a day onto the end of the academic calendar?
“It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to decide which one sends a more culturally sensitive message,” said Todd Bernstein, founder and director of the Philadelphia King Day of Service. “It seems to me, if you are a smart and sensitive person and you have that dichotomy, that decision should not be a difficult one.”
The Quakertown district,which is predominantly white, made headlines after fans called Cheltenham High School cheerleaders whores, bitches and the n-word during a football game at Quakertown High in Bucks County. Cheltenham students, who are mostly black, also said opposing fans jeered at them, saying “Black lives don’t matter” and “Don’t shoot me.” As they left, Cheltenham’s buses were pelted with rocks.
To Quakertown’s credit, school officials didn’t shrug off the ugliness. Superintendent William E. Harner apologized profusely and acknowledged publicly that what had happened hadn’t been a one-time incident. In October, the school board also authorized district-wide cultural sensitivity training administered by the Pearl S. Buck Foundation.
Earlier this week, Harner told me the board had decided a year ago to use the King holiday as an emergency snow make-up day.
“This was a board-approved make-up day,” he said.
But the only federal holiday on the district’s 2017-18 academic calendar that was listed as a possible emergency snow make-up day is the King holiday. Presidents Day on Feb. 19 is a guaranteed day off. But Feb. 16 was designated as a possible snow emergency day.
In an email to the Quakertown community, Harner wrote that social studies teachers would incorporate information about King and his legacy into their lessons on Monday.
“Dr. King’s importance and legacy for basic human rights, respect and tolerance should not be lost on anyone,” he said in the email. “It is not on me, nor the school board.”
“Usually schools take back in-service days, shorten Easter break, [tack] days onto the end [of the] school year,” complained a Quakertown mother who asked that her name be withheld because she said she fears backlash. “I am seriously hoping that the district has wonderful plans for a day spent teaching our children about MLK, who this man was and his vision but [I] am not hopeful.”
I remember being a student and standing out in the cold year after year on Capitol Hill demonstrating to get the King holiday approved. It meant that much. Seeing it disrespected like this takes me back to how mean-spirited critics questioned whether King – who committed his life to social justice – was even worthy of such an honor.
“We fought to get this as a national holiday,” said Rodney Muhammad, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the NAACP. “They shouldn’t be allowed to do this.”
Harner invited me out to the district on Monday to observe how the King day will be observed. I just may take him up on the offer.