Racism starts at home. It’s something parents teach their kids.
So schools really face an uphill battle in teaching youngsters how to get past all of that. That’s why I’ve got to give a thumbs-up to the Quakertown Community School District. It is taking concrete steps to improve how administrators address racial incidents when they pop up.
On Thursday, the Quakertown school board unanimously agreed to fund district-wide cultural sensitivity training through the Pearl S. Buck International foundation for its administrators. The decision follows an Oct. 6 football game, after which black students from Cheltenham High School complained that they had been harassed by opposing fans who called them the n-word, among other slurs. Cheltenham is predominantly black; Quakertown’s mainly white.
As I pointed out earlier this month, it was a lesson in good old-fashioned American racism that the students won’t soon forget. Nor will the residents of Quakertown after the beatdown the area’s reputation suffered following extensive media coverage of the incident.
“It’s unfortunate that it took this incident for them to realize that they had cultural competency work that they needed to do,” Joel Fishbein, a Cheltenham school board member, told me on Friday. “It’s great that people are coming around to the conclusion that this is important work. People resist that, and I’m glad that they aren’t anymore.”
Some Quakertown students have gone out of their way to try to make amends, even going so far as to make an apology video that they emailed to Cheltenham High’s principal. Quakertown declined to release it, citing privacy concerns, but a school spokesman said it is three minutes long and contains apologies from various school groups. It was put together by leaders of the student government.
“The kids said, ‘We own this.’ They said they weren’t going to make excuses,” said Gary Weckselblatt, a school district spokesman.
Derek Peiffer, principal of Quakertown’s Strayer Middle School, said the students “did a fabulous job.”
At first, they worried about how the project would be received, but they were reassured after being told, “You have to do the right thing.”
“They felt bad that that’s how people viewed our school,” Peiffer told me. “That’s not who we are.”
Meanwhile, Peiffer has been collaborating with the Peace Center, a social justice nonprofit in Langhorne, to develop a plan to educate students on topics such as cultural awareness, reducing prejudice, and exploring assumptions and stereotyping. The school has instituted a new “see something, say something, do something” initiative to encourage students to report bullying and other acts. Boxes have been placed around the school for students to drop notes in alerting officials of situations to investigate.
In a letter sent home to middle school parents, Peiffer wrote, “As you can see, we are not taking this situation lightly. We are not ignoring it or chalking it up to ‘kids will be kids.’ We are using this unfortunate event to teach and learn how to avoid these negative choices in the future.”
Laura Lomax, vice president of programs for Pearl S. Buck International, said, “It’s not just about black and white. It’s not just about race. It’s about teaching people to navigate differences.
“It’s getting so polarized that people are trying to address the problem,” she added. “This is nationwide, with increased incidents of bullying and hate crimes.”
You’d think we’d be past this. But I digress.
Cheltenham Superintendent Wagner Marseille said through a spokesperson the training for administrators is “a positive step in the right direction.” It will set Quakertown back $31,212.
No, it won’t cure the district of racism. But hopefully, with new training, administrators will be better prepared to deal with racial incidents when they come up.