Puyallup schools develop diversity office - Reader questions why ten-year-olds are wearing police-like vests and running interference for the 'implementation' of 'tolerance for all' policies

Jim Szymanski; The News Tribune


At Tacoma's Arlington Elementary School, students trained to referee arguments help stop fights during recess.

At Foss High School, members of the Gay/Straight Alliance gathered signatures in the recent Tacoma campaign to uphold gay rights. They testified in favor of those rights before the City Council.

In both cases, the students said they were encouraged by the Equity and Diversity Affairs office the Tacoma School District established in the late 1960s.

"We foster and encourage these activities at the building level," said Marilyn Walton, who heads the district's office. "When it comes to various cultural issues, we go beyond an open-door policy to a no-door policy. Sometimes, the 'open door' can just be a crack."

Next year, Puyallup schools will open a Diversity Affairs office they agreed to establish as a result of a September settlement in a 2-year-old racial discrimination lawsuit.

As Puyallup schools search for a diversity affairs director, they can draw on more than 30 years' experience from Tacoma's equity and diversity effort.

Puyallup school officials are not clear how much their diversity affairs office will resemble Tacoma's, which evolved from an affirmative action office formed to recruit minority staff members.

"We have a unique set of conditions, and the office is not yet organized," said Tony Apostle, Puyallup's director of administrative services. "In the end, our office may or may not compare with Tacoma's."

Tacoma's office investigates about 200 complaints of racial discrimination, sexual harassment, and gender equity and conducts cultural diversity and sexual harassment seminars for hundreds of students and staff members every year.

The seminars promote an atmosphere of acceptance, and encourage students to express their individual concerns and beliefs, said Pat O'Neal, Foss' Gay/Straight Alliance adviser.

"The office makes it clear it will support students," O'Neal said. "It is very much the cause of an open atmosphere."

If Tacoma is an indication, Puyallup's first diversity affairs director will be busy. Walton said she fields a couple of complaints a day from the district's 32,000 students and nearly 5,000 employees. Puyallup has about 20,000 students.

"People forget that we're bigger than some cities," Walton said.

Since taking over the office in 1989, Walton has found that diversity is broader than race, though race prompted Puyallup to organize its office.

"Race often can be a factor in a dispute, but it isn't always the issue," Walton said.

She recalled one case in which a teacher and an aide of different races did not get along in class. After handling their complaint, Walton found that the aide felt inferior to the teacher because she had less formal education and didn't feel as smart. Ethnic heritage, Walton said, was not the source of their conflict.

"It was not a matter of race, but class- ism," Walton said.

Race accounted for the fewest number of complaints in the Tacoma School District last year. Of 204 cases, 15, or 7 percent, had to do with race. Sexual harassment accounted for 130 cases; gender issues accounted for 59 cases.

Puyallup is conducting a national search this month for its diversity affairs director. Interviews will follow next month with the aim of hiring a director before the end of the year. The district also has hired a Portland agency to review its policies relating to harassment, discrimination and gender equity.

Puyallup's lawsuit grew out of a 1997 complaint to federal civil rights officials. Black families who sued said the school district created a racially hostile environment where students endured racial slurs, jokes and graffiti, racial stereotyping, unfair treatment by teachers and administrators, and threats of violence.

In its settlement with plaintiffs in September, Puyallup agreed to establish a process to respond quickly to harassment and discrimination complaints. The job description for the diversity affairs director calls for keeping records to monitor and analyze complaints by parents, staff and students. The director will track academic achievement of students by gender and cultural background, and serve as the district's consultant in textbook purchasing, recruiting, discipline and professional development opportunities.

Apostle called his district's diversity office "an opportunity to learn and deepen our commitment to diversity. We will come to learn there is no single, easy answer to the complex pressures our children and youth are experiencing."

Walton and her staff of four try to resolve complaints within 30 days.

"The complaints always start hysterically," she said. "Often, we have to ask for an extension to resolve the issue."

As important as the record-keeping and mediation are the student programs that have resulted from the Tacoma office's activities, Walton said.

At Point Defiance Elementary School, student mediators clad in green vests have reduced disciplinary referrals to the office, said Principal Olga Lay. For 10 years, Foss High School psychologist Carol Coar monitored The Breakfast Club, a multiracial group of Foss students who met and talked once a week to learn about their similarities. They named their group after the 1985 movie in which five high school students in Saturday detention discovered they had more in common than they thought.

"They talked about their heritage and did annual assemblies," Coar said of the student club. "It built up an awareness of working together."

Students said they value the support they receive from Walton's office.

Cammy Delaney, 10, is one of Arlington's three dozen "conflict managers," who wear blue mesh vests during recess with "CM" in white letters. They carry report forms attached to clipboards and record who gets into a disagreement, what caused it, and whether the argument was resolved. If the students refuse to cooperate with her, they become subject to discipline by school officials.

"We see arguments on the playground," Delaney said. "We ask students to think about what would happen to them if we didn't try to help. Usually, that changes their minds about fighting."

At Foss, sophomore Adam Flores was active in the campaign to maintain a gay rights law, and helped get signatures from 300 Foss students supporting the law, presenting them to the City Council.

Apostle said Puyallup already has some student programs that reflect diversity, including Gay/Straight alliances and sporadic conflict resolution teams.

Apostle believes the Diversity Affairs office will improve Puyallup schools.

"The office will be responsible for policies designed to eliminate harassment of any kind where it may exist," he said.

"As a school district, we must be respectful to work with people who previously may have been shut out."

Jim Szymanski: 253-597-8653

Letter to the Editor: Why are ten-year-olds wearing police-like vests and running interference for the 'implementation' of 'tolerance for all' policies?

Does Washington State still have laws against child labor? Why are ten-year-olds wearing policelike vests and running interference for the 'implementation' of 'tolerance for all' policies at this 'school?'

'Higher Order Thinking Skills' -- HOTS -- are anything BUT, and the readers
of your paper should also read: What Parents Need to Know About Conflict
Resolution and HOTS [Higher Order Thinking Skills]
http://www.icehouse.net/lmstuter/er008.htm that they might see what's wrong
with the picture painted in the referenced article.

A look at the Education and Consensus buttons at
www.PropertyRightsResearch.org might be helpful, too.

Miss Julie Kay Smithson
213 Thorn Locust Lane
London, OH 43140-8844

Dedicated to property rights, resource providers, generational land stewards,
consumers and freedom.


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