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Over the last several months, parents witnessed as several Sharon School Committee meetings devolved into screaming matches. But this night was different.
“You asked us to come, so I expect you to listen," Kiana Pierre-Louis, a parent of two Sharon schoolchildren, told the committee Sunday night. “If you can't do that, then don't be here. Don’t waste anybody’s time.”
Before she shared her story, Pierre-Louis laid out some ground rules over Zoom: Don’t look at your phone. Don’t sit there and knit. Be present, because this isn’t easy.
The committee scheduled this listening session after upheaval and allegations of racism. The committee placed the district's first Black superintendent, Victoria Greer, on administrative leave in September. Greer alleges it discriminated against her. Parents have held demonstrations calling to reinstate Greer for the remainder of her contract.
Coming into that Sunday, many parents felt the committee and community had failed repeatedly. The listening session was supposed to be a safe space, but it was clear a lot of parents did not trust the committee.
“I moved specifically to this place because you spout diversity and inclusion," Pierre-Louis said. "You have diversity. You don't have inclusion."
She told the committee that she and her husband have taken off work to sit with their daughter in the cafeteria so she won't be alone at lunch.
"And she's just not dealing with her blackness and her femaleness," Pierre-Louis explained. "[But also] she's dealing with a disability. That's also an issue. Because she's different, they won't talk to her."
Each parent had a story of what it feels like to be Black or Muslim or Chinese in Sharon. Imam Abdur Rahman Ahmad spoke about the alienation his daughter sometimes feels when she wears a hijab.
“In the bus, it happens a lot that when she tries to take a seat ... the kids, they don't want to give up, or if there's a space next to them, they don't want her to sit next to them," Ahmad said. "Or if she asks that she wants to sit, they will ignore or put their bag there.”
At home, he said they’ve talked about how to report this to the school.
“A lot of times perhaps maybe [she] didn't get bullied in a very direct way," Ahmad said. "But a lot of times, it happens in a very subtle way, that it's sometimes very hard to report that or to complain about it or to write something about it.”
Some parents wanted the committee to hear that Greer saw their kids for who they were, and that she cared about their concerns.
“When I saw that we hired Dr. Greer — even though my kids were out of school by that time — I was so thrilled because I thought her success will show other professionals of color and other families of color that this is a safe community for us," said Patti Keenan.
So when the school committee didn't renew Greer's contract and then abruptly decided to place her on administrative leave during the last year of her tenure, dozens of parents demanded an explanation. It still hasn’t come.
"I really hope that ... the school committee can find the wisdom and can find the audacity to recognize the error in letting her go for no reason at all," said Chuck Walker, a board member of METCO, a voluntary school desegregation program. "And really, really, really search your conscience."
Greer's discrimination complaint named two members in particular: Heather Zelevinsky and chair Judy Crosby. Both did not respond to calls for comment for this story. During the meeting, one parent, Prisnel Dominique, presented a letter with 27 signatures calling to reinstate the former superintendent and remove the four committee members who voted to end Greer's contract.
Crosby put on a smile and thanked each speaker. But the actions of Zelevinsky drew criticism from parents.
“Heather Z, you're knitting and it's hurtful," Dru Vernet said. "And I'm not sure if you realize it’s hurtful. You signaled that you probably do hear us, but you need to see us, because that's what the issue is: that we don't feel seen.”
Eventually, Crosby had Zelevinsky’s camera turned off.
“It's too disrespectful with the continued knitting. And we asked for it to stop. And I apologize," Crosby said. "But that's the approach we're going to take right now is we've turned off the video."
The incident was emblematic of a larger problem for several parents, like Teresa Harvey-Jackson, who said she has experienced racism throughout the 29 years she's lived in Sharon.
"I don't see how that changes if we have school committee members that can't even be respectful for a couple of hours to listen to concerns that people of color have in this community. It's outrageous."Teresa Harvey-Jackson
"Our kids have learned how to deal with it, and they shouldn't have to," Harvey-Jackson said. "I don't see how that changes if we have school committee members that can't even be respectful for a couple of hours to listen to concerns that people of color have in this community. It's outrageous.”
A father who identified himself as Chinese said he didn’t feel represented by this meeting at all.
“I thought that color means every color: yellow, Black, white. Every color," he said. "But what I’m listening [to], it looks like it’s only — this meeting [is] becoming a white versus black.”
He said the community of Sharon needs to move on and come together. But Tonysha Taylor, a diversity and inclusion director and consultant, said the community can’t heal without trust.
“You've gotta respond to people and their pain and their emotions and what they're saying," Taylor said. "To me, it's like ... it's just performative. These are people's lives. And I think this has got to change. It has got to stop."
Some of the close to 90 people in attendance seemed to be showing the committee a way to move forward. They asked the committee, which has only one Black member, to put aside white fragility and privilege. To be open to discomfort, said Vernet.
"The fight against racism and equality and equity, it really requires thick skin," Vernet said. "This work requires that you understand that not everyone has the same experience of racism and discrimination. ... Most importantly, it requires that you have flexibility [and] you're open to feel uncomfortable. I'm not going to make you comfortable, and I'm not here to make you comfortable."
“I know this was not an easy evening, but I think it’s an important evening,” Crosby said. “It’s my goal that this will not be performative, and I thank those who spoke for trusting us with that and being willing to share that information.”
The committee did not respond to requests for an interview, but instead emailed a statement to WBUR. It said that it intends to discuss the parents' testimonies next week.
"The School Committee intends to support the administration in crafting a sustainable equity and inclusion plan with clear goals, action items and timetables," the statement read.
Friends told Pierre-Louis not to waste her time because they said the school committee doesn’t care. But she knew she had to try.
“This is about my family. This is about the justice that I have been fighting for over 20 years for," Pierre-Louis said. "And this is about that I, pretty frankly, I'd be damned if my child is going to come home again and tell me he hates his black skin.”
This segment aired on October 30, 2020.
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