EDWARDSVILLE - Superintendent Dr. Patrick Shelton and Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Dr. Cornelia Smith presented new inclusivity initiatives for the upcoming school year to the Edwardsville Community Unit School District 7 (ECUSD7) Board during their meeting on Monday, July 24.

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“We want all kids to feel included,” Smith said. “They come to us as they are, and we want them to feel included in our schools.”

These initiatives come after several reports of racial discrimination and harassment at Edwardsville High School. Multiple parents spoke at the June 26 board meeting and outlined the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives they wanted to see, including more consequences for racial discrimination. The school board could not respond to specific comments at that time, but the district released the following statement on June 27:

“Any instance of racism undermines the inclusive and welcoming environment District #7 strives to create for all students, teachers and staff. The District does not condone racism, intolerance, or discrimination in any form. We want every member of District #7 to feel safe, valued and supported within our school community.”

Shelton and Smith addressed the board with a presentation that was split into two parts. First, Shelton talked through current data about diversity in the school district; the student population is over 70 percent white. He explained that the district’s primary goals are to boost students’ sense of belonging, increase employee representation in all demographic groups to match student representation, and complete internal surveying of employees to determine more steps going forward.

Shelton said that students in grades 3-12 took a survey on diversity and their experiences, which indicated that a portion of students do not feel a sense of belonging in the district. Statistics noted that there are also discrepancies between the demographics of students and their teachers.

“We want every student to feel like they belong in the school district,” Shelton said. “As we look at our students, one of the things that we want to focus on, that we want to make sure is happening, is we’re closing the gap of our adults who teach our students and the demographics that represent. As we look at our teacher demographics, we know…it’s not what we want it to be. It’s not representative of our student population, and we know that increasing the representation of all races in our teaching population is helpful for students.”

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In the past few years, the district has introduced implicit bias training for staff and administrators, the Equity Advisory Council, gender support plans for grades K-12, and targeted recruitment of non-white candidates in the hiring process. They have also completed teacher book studies and created secondary groups to address inclusive language “as situations have come up,” Shelton said, adding that the relatively new “Black Experience” course offered at EHS is popular with students of all races.

The second half of the presentation was devoted to the initiatives that Shelton and Smith hope to implement. Smith explained that each building in the district will name a “DEI champion” who will regularly meet with Smith, analyze building data and engage with their respective Building Leadership Team. On the district level, Smith said the district will facilitate the creation of student groups at the middle school and high school to increase students’ sense of belonging and connection, as well as employee affinity groups.

“This will ensure that these groups will feel current and supported and that they are a priority,” Smith said. “Student input and voice is important for the growth and development of our schools, for the improvement of our schools.”

Many parents have asked the board to implement a zero-tolerance policy for racial discrimination and harassment. The 2023-2024 ECUSD7 Student Handbook notes that the district does not have zero-tolerance policies except as required by federal law or the Illinois School Code. Going forward, Smith explained that the district will use a new framework to address student behavior, including bullying and racial discrimination.

The Multi-Tiered System of Supports Behavior Matrix will be introduced to assess behavior and administrative response. The matrix considers the developmental age of a child, their intentions, the severity of behavior and more to decide what level of response is needed, from teacher-managed solutions to out-of-school suspension, expulsion or alternative placement.

“It’s not easy to apply a cookie-cutter solution to all the problems, so that’s why we have these different levels,” Smith said. “We can still suspend students. However, we just have to make sure we have done the work and that we have investigated thoroughly.”

As per Illinois Public Act 103-0047, the district must report bullying, harassment and intimidation to parents within 24 hours. Incidents involving hate speech or harassment due to sexism, genderism or racism will require the district to meet separately with the parents of both students to develop a plan for the students to move forward, resolve the conflict and manage the consequences outlined in the Student Handbook and Code of Conduct. Smith also talked through the avenues for reporting incidents of bullying and harassment, which will be explained to students in the upcoming school year.

The board asked a few questions about the reporting process and how the student groups will be created but did not otherwise comment on the presentation at that time. Before the meeting continued, Smith added that parents and board members can contact her with questions or suggestions.

“We want our students to feel inclusive and comfortable in our environment. We also want the same for our staff,” Smith said. “I’m always open to have productive discussions that will lead to some good solutions.”

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