Masterman tackles bias from within

At Julia R. Masterman Middle and High School, school administrators say that every year three to five bias incidents are reported, which are usually insults in the classroom, during free time, or on social media.

Elana Solomon, dean of students at Masterman High, admitted that social media incidents are difficult to handle, because they usually happen outside of school and, therefore, outside of the realm of school officials.

Meanwhile, a hot topic among students and staff is the declining black population in Masterman.  One  school of thought is that many black students are faced with bias incidents in middle school and do not report them, instead choosing to simply attend other  high schools.
One way that Masterman has tried to fix these problems is by creating a diversity committee, which is a subcommittee of its School Advisory Council.

The diversity committee is composed of students, teachers, administrators, faculty, and parents. According to Jessica Brown, principal of Masterman, the committee’s purpose is to “[establish] ongoing programming to address issues of social justice, including specific anti-racist initiatives,” and to recruit more students and faculty of color.

“Students should feel welcome and safe to voice their perspectives and to be who they want to be in any school,” Brown said.

Diversity committee members discussed the lack of black students at a recent meeting. To improve conditions, the committee is trying to get the high school involved with the middle school, surveying the younger students on why they do or do not want to stay at Masterman, and making students already in the high school feel comfortable and safe.

School officials define a bias incident as a “verbal, violent, or written incident where a student insults or discriminates against a student based on race, religion, culture, gender, sexuality, or ethnicity,” according to Solomon.

“They hurt the climate of the school by dividing the school,” she said. “It seems like everybody hears about them, everybody gets involved and takes an opinion without knowing the circumstances of what happened. … People get labels that aren’t necessarily true because of the rumors, and rumors lead to a very poor culture.”

She also said that they lead to feelings of anxiety or anger from people who have been wronged.
One possible reason for the angst is that students are not allowed to know how the student who offends them will be disciplined. This is because of FERPA, which is the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act. As Solomon explained, “FERPA is a law that was passed to protect a student’s privacy. It allows me to give a student consequences, but I’m not legally allowed to share them.

“I think that there is this perception that nothing ever happens to students who say or do things that are racially hurtful,” Solomon continued. “There are always consequences, but we can’t say what they are, because a student has privacy. Something always happens; we just can’t say what.”

Some examples of bias incidents that have occurred in the region have been reported on by Philadelphia Media Network’s William Bender, Valerie Russ, and Tricia L. Nadolny. According to their reports,  racial incidents have been impacting schools across the region with more fervor since the election of President Trump.

They reported that racial slurs were flung at Cheltenham cheerleaders at a Quakertown football game in October 2017. Both students and adults were insulting the high schoolers.
Last year at Masterman, there was an incident in which students were thought to have said the N-word while rapping a song in a Snapchat video, but everyone present during the incident contended that it was not said. This incident led to widespread hostility among the student body.

Masterman junior Andrea Gonzalez shares her experiences with bias. (Ebony Graham/Workshop Staff)

Although these are more extreme cases, bias incidents are not a rare occurrence. Masterman junior Andrea Gonzalez knows this all too well. She said people treated her differently because she is a Latina.

“[People insinuated] that I wasn’t capable of being on the same level as other students and this happened in different ways,” she said. “[An example] of this was just getting into Masterman. People assumed first that I didn’t get in at all, and then when they found out I did get in, they assumed that it was because they needed more minority students in the high school.”

When asked how or if she needed justice for the narrow-mindedness that she was a victim of, she said no. “I don’t feel deeply wronged by this, because I know who I am and I know what I am capable of,” she said. She did say that something does need to be done: “I do think people need to be educated so that these preconceived notions are eliminated. Students here can be biased and not even know it.”

To help students look at their differences as a merit rather than a disadvantage, the school is spearheading events that highlight those differences.

For starters, Solomon has created a diversity bulletin board where students have created squares depicting aspects of their cultures.

These events include a diversity day, at which a skit written by students about students of various backgrounds will be performed. Students will attend workshops on race, diversity, and inclusion. Diversity day will also include a presentation by  Daren Graves, a professor from Simmons College, on diversity and issues surrounding the topic. Also, the school’s African-American Cultural Club (AACC) will host a family day in which traditions and cultures of students are explored and discussed.

As for what she hopes for the future, Gonzalez said she wants “trust in the community … where students shouldn’t feel the need to be scared about what would happen [if they report an incident] because they should feel safe in this school.”

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