In an unexpected, unanimous vote on Jan. 28, the Orange County Board of Education approved the county’s first racial equity policy that acknowledges racial intolerance and inequity in the school district.
The policy states that the school system will take an active stance in providing each student with equal access to education through measures such as recruiting a more diverse workforce, addressing opportunity gaps and finding resources to accomplish these goals.
“(Community members) have been fighting for stuff like this for years,” said Namron Chapman, an Orange High School senior. “We’ve made progress. That’s all that matters.”
The policy was written by the school district’s Equity Task Force, a group of community and school system staff members that have been working on the draft for the past several months.
“It conveys a message that student achievement is more than just the student,” said Heather Redding, an Orange County community member. “It’s a reflection of the school system, the community, and that we are committed as an institution and a community to filling in that hole.”
After a series of testimonies during the public comment session, board member Stephen Halkiotis said he came into the meeting opposing the policy. He critiqued the word “district” in the draft and said the blame for racial inequity should be acknowledged by all of society, not just the school system.
“I don’t agree with the word district because I think it puts us on shaky legal ground,” he said.
But because of the speeches delivered by multiple community members, especially students like Chapman, Halkiotis said he was switching his vote to yes.
“I’m letting it go because it’s the right thing to do because all seven of us have to march together on this,” Halkiotis said.
The 7-0 vote from the board drew a series of cheers from the packed media center at New Hope Elementary School. Community members held up double-sided signs that said “Thank you.” The other side of the signs read, “We’re not happy.”
“Up until 4 o’clock, we were calling school board members, asking them what their vote was, and I can tell you there were four members of the school board that we were unclear about how they were going to vote,” said Latarndra Strong, a member of the Equity Task Force and founder of Hate-Free Schools Coalition.
Along with other board members, Halkiotis called on the crowd to maintain momentum as the board requests funding for an equity office and an equity director from the Orange County Board of Commissioners.
“We will come out in droves because that’s the only way for this policy to have any teeth, is for it to have the funding behind it,” Redding said. “I am very certain that the county commissioners will support efforts here.”
This policy comes just a year and a half after the school district banned the Confederate flag. Strong said this is another step forward, and the community will continue to organize with hopes to be the first district without an achievement gap for students of color.
“I can tell you that it’s normal at our school boards to have no audience. You can see that the room was almost full tonight,” Strong said. “We are good at organizing, and we will get people out to our board of county commissioners meeting.”
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