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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

Unequal access to power

Updated: Oct 24, 2018

There's a phrase that people use now, sometimes jokingly: "all the feels," that describes Shorewood right now. All of us watching or participating in the controversy over the SHS production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" are feeling sad, angry, victimized, shamed, defiant or confused. I think many of us cycled through all of those feelings at different times, and felt all these things in reaction to each other over the last week.

Following the emotional and sometimes fraught event Tuesday night, billed as "A Community Conversation on Race," hosted by our school district, it was hard to walk out and just go home. So many feelings were flying, so many things left unsaid when the moderator closed discussion. Many people stayed behind to talk to friends, including me.

It turns out that our school board members did as well, and the lingering district leadership, including the SHS principal, the drama teacher/play director and superintendent, along with all five school board members, all ended up in the studio theater at SHS. They were joined by many students who were part of the production, those students' parents, and other community members.

I understand this meeting lasted for a few hours, and that despite support for the play proceeding from the principal, strong support from at least one board member, and tears and sympathy from other board members, the play's director, Joe King, decided to cancel the production entirely.

I was not there. I heard these details from multiple sources who independently corroborated them.

I understand that this meeting happened organically, and that drama students' voices were front and center, and that those students needed to be heard. Our school board and other leaders likely would have felt terrible saying, "We are so sorry, but we can't have this conversation with all of us in the room right now. We will schedule an open meeting with all of us. In the meantime, you should talk with our Board President and Superintendent, which is allowed under open meetings laws." That would have been awkward. They would have probably felt like heels. But they should have done exactly that, because if it happened the way it was described to me by multiple sources, this meeting was a violation of state open meetings law. It doesn't matter if they board didn't take any votes, or if they didn't even talk to each other. The schools are their purview, and this was a school issue. They don't have to be taking a vote in order to be doing government business.

Besides being illegal, it was a terrible injustice to everyone else who felt traumatized, desperate and full of sorrow, but not because they were part of the play's production. The students in the play definitely should have had a chance to tell leadership how they felt and to hear support or questions from board members and administrators. They deserved that. Of course they deserve to be upset, angry, hurt and to tell leadership how they feel and what they want to have happen next. But this was the wrong time and place for that audience with the board, and should have been interrupted by a board member brave enough to call time out on the gathering. It should have been interrupted not only because it put the board at odds with state law, but did something worse: disenfranchised the people who were hurting for other reasons.

Just a few hours earlier, the board members and administrators had heard from students who said it's not uncommon for white students to use the n-word casually, or even (and this makes me wince) asking African-American friends for a "pass" to say it. African-American students and alumni told everyone gathered how much pain they have been in -- not just over the last week over the play -- but for decades because of having to deal with systemic racism on a daily basis in our schools. Their words were not entirely surprising to me, but they were painful. I am struggling to understand how our school leaders were able to walk away from that and straight into an impromptu session of sympathy and heartache that wasn't available to everyone. That session obviously could have happened with out the board present, of course, and might still have been helpful. Why they all felt the need to stay when technically, only the Superintendent had the power to cancel the play, is another good question.

Whether or not they could have even reached a decision, bottom line, our school board and administration failed to offer equal access to power, right after a community session that ended up being in no small part about the ways in which some African-American students and families feel powerless and disenfranchised. These students presented a master class in why access to the ears of those in power matters. I am dismayed that our school board would act in such a way to reinforce one of the root causes of the trouble we are in as a community.

This is why open meetings laws exist. It isn't just about the public witnessing decision-making. It isn't just about creating a record of elected officials' work. It isn't just about an opportunity for media to be present. Open meetings laws exist to give the public access to power, and again, instead of offering that, the board -- however unintentionally -- only reinforced the structural inequities that have made some students and families feel shut out.

I realize that every board member has probably been in smaller meetings, or on the phone or on email with administrators and parents and students nonstop since at least Thursday when the play's performance was first cancelled. I know it's not a matter of them only hearing from friendly voices -- I give them credit for hosting the community conversation, and I feel confident they'e had many uncomfortable conversations and heard from some of the students who wanted to play cancelled due to the hate language in the script. I don't think the board is ignoring those voices. But a private one-on-one conversation, a phone call or an email is a very different level of access than an audience with the full board and top administrators.

In order to offer equal access to their time and attention and in order to follow state law, they would have to have posted notice ahead of time with at least a basic agenda. They would have had to hold the meeting so that it was not overly burdensome for anyone to attend (i.e. not at 10 p.m.). They would have had to post minutes from that meeting and vote to enter them into public record. (You can read more about open records law and compliance here). None of that happened, of course.

Shorewood as a community has a lot of work to do to heal, and in addition to work in our homes, in public places and even online, it will involve decisions by the board about how to proceed. It's difficult to see how this board can proceed with the trust of the community if they are willing to have a closed door session late into the night without offering every member of our community the chance to enter the room.

UPDATE, Wednesday Oct. 24: Posting Dr. Shah's response to my email:

Dear Ms. Berry:

Thank you for very much for your email.  Based on conversations with our legal counsel, the Board does not believe it violated the Open Meetings Law with regard to the event you referenced below.  Nonetheless, the Board and District take open governance and transparency very seriously and, as a result, we are continuing to review and assess the facts and circumstances surrounding last Tuesday’s event in an effort to ensure compliance with the Open Meetings Law.


Paru Shah

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