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As State Debates 'Divisive Concepts,' Concord Principal Wants Better Conversations About Race

Stefan Gary

As lawmakers across the country -- including here in New Hampshire -- debate how racism and sexism are taught in schools, schools themselves are grappling with race related conflict among students. Paulette Fitzgerald, the principal of Rundlett Middle School in Concord, recently sent a note to parents about an uptick in such conflicts in her school.

She spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello about what she’s been seeing in her school.

Peter Biello: Racial tensions in schools - that's not a new thing nationwide, or in New Hampshire. But what are you seeing that is new to you?

Paulette Fitzgerald: I think for us, we're seeing kids using language that's pretty powerful towards each other. I think that there's a lot of misunderstanding about what the words mean. So, for example, if a Black student says the N-word to another Black student, that is something that is part of their culture. If a white student uses that word, that is taken as a huge insult. And so with middle schoolers, it’s helping them understand the power of language and the different languages that are used in different cultures

Peter Biello: With respect to the use of the N-word, it involves a lot of context. And there are circumstances under which it doesn't matter who you are, where you come from: that word is offensive.

Paulette Fitzgerald: Exactly. And so we want to present an accurate portrayal of what has happened in our country. And, you know, part of our role is to help kids remain curious.

Peter Biello: To what extent has remote learning contributed to this problem?

Paulette Fitzgerald: For 14 months, our kids have not been on a regular schedule. Kids need structure, routine predictability in their days. And so when there has not been that structure, routine predictability of the school day - I'm sure families have their routines at home, but talking about the school day - we almost have to teach them, you know, how to be students again. And it's not a horrible thing. It's not like our building is, you know, out of control or anything like that. It's, you know, 80 percent of our kids are doing fine. Then we have 15 who need, about 15 percent who might need a little more, and then that five percent who need a lot more support.

Peter Biello: And what role do you think social media is playing in all this?

Paulette Fitzgerald: Oh, my goodness. Social media heightens everything. If you're going to say something hurtful to somebody and it will be via a post on Instagram or Snapchat, it's not like looking at that person and saying something directly to them. It's easier to do, and I think even for adults, sometimes - I call it keyboard courage. They'll just say whatever they're thinking, you know, that goes rampant among the student body.

Peter Biello: As the whole country grapples with racism and how to talk to young people about it, do you see any other causes that may have prompted this recent uptick in race related conflict?

Paulette Fitzgerald: I think that the whole George Floyd situation, again, kids were home with lots of screen time. They saw a lot of things that were happening in the country without anyone to really process with them, like without being in a classroom where teachers could have that discussion with them and help them explore how they're really feeling about things.

Peter Biello: Well, now the kids are back and it's been a year since George Floyd's murder. It's in the news a lot, I imagine kids are seeing it pop up on their social media feeds. What is the school teaching about that in particular or about racism more broadly?

Paulette Fitzgerald: Our district, I am grateful. We, almost a year ago, we started to look at all of this and say, ‘OK, what do we need to do to support our kids?’ And so we have an anti-racism equity group at the district level. And I'm on that. Our superintendent is. We have some people from the community. And so from that, we decided that we needed to really get all of our administrators trained to deepen our understanding of racism in our country. And then, you know, it will go down to our teachers. And so we have, we just had a group of teacher leaders trained to work with administrators within each building to help our teachers be better equipped to handle all of this.

Peter Biello: So when you say they're better equipped, do you mean like they have a handle of the history? So so they're able to put into context what happened to George Floyd? Is that what you mean?

Paulette Fitzgerald: Yeah. Yeah. Part of that, with what happened to George Floyd, with what has happened through our own country's history. And so, for example, as educators, we need to have the tools at our ready to get in and out of difficult conversations with kids, safely, so everyone feels heard and respected.

Peter Biello: How do you think the so-called divisive concepts bill would impact the work you're doing on teaching racism in schools?

Paulette Fitzgerald: We're worried about that. We're worried about that. We feel strongly that our kids need to hear the accurate version of history. You know, I always go back to the version of history that I was taught, where Christopher Columbus was a hero. And now we know, OK, he did some things that were not OK. And so, we owe it to our kids to teach them the reality, so that they can draw their own conclusions.

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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