Del Mar district committed to creating inclusive school environments

Del Mar Union School District administration office.
(Staff photo)

The Del Mar Union School District is taking steps toward building a more inclusive and racially-sensitive environment at its schools, through training that equips children and adults to confront prejudice and discrimination.

“As educators, we recognize our role in helping your children develop cultural competencies and develop as individuals who will work to eradicate racism and promote social justice,” said Shelley Peterson, assistant superintendent of instructional services at the board’s July 23 meeting.

This fall, the district will partner with the local Anti-Defamation League to participate in its No Place for Hate curriculum and anti-bias training for teachers and every adult in their district. According to Petersen, the training promotes effective anti-bias teaching methods, strategies to recognize and respect diversity, and assists with developing intergroup communication skills. “We won’t stop at just one training,” Petersen said, adding that this is just the starting point for the district.

Moving forward, Petersen said community involvement will be the key piece. Site-based No Place for Hate committees made up of staff and parents will participate in anti-bias training and help create student-centered and community-based activities that promote diversity and inclusion.

“We know that for something to really take root and become part of the culture of the district, we have to bring in our community members,” Petersen said. “We have to bring in our parents and have conversations—and sometimes difficult conversations—as a community about what we can do to address the issues of hatred and bullying and bias.”

Those difficult discussions sometimes stem from “teachable moments” that are happening at school. Marissa and Ari Matusiak’s daughter had one such experience this year as a kindergartner at Del Mar Heights School.

Around the time of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the class was taught a poem where one of the lines read: “I may not be a Washington, a Lincoln or a Lee but I can be the very best there is to be of me.”

The Matusiaks were surprised that the children memorized a poem that would name General Robert E. Lee as a hero, equating him with presidents like Lincoln and Washington when he fought to preserve enslavement.

After flagging the poem to the principal, the language was replaced. But the Matusiaks learned that the poem had been taught for more than a decade at the school and they wondered how many students like their young daughter had been affected. Their daughter had asked each of her classmates: “Do you want me to be a slave like Lee did?”

Ari Matusiak said the unfortunate story was just one instance and not their daughter’s overall experience, which has been positive: The school was responsive and empathetic. But Ari said the incident reflected “an active omission,” a lack of recognition that there was a problem with a poem referencing Lee and a lack of awareness with respect to how the curriculum was being designed.

“We hope the district will make diversity and inclusion a priority. We hope the district will root out systemic inequities and biases in the lessons and in the curriculum and hire diversity to ensure students don’t go their entire time at a school without benefiting from the perspectives and experience of a teacher of color,” Marissa Matusiak said. “Our schools must provide a safe space for all children no matter their creed, skin color and their race.”

Petersen said that there was no ill intent in the teacher using the poem but that is where the anti-bias training could help to increase awareness, as the district and staff examines and is more reflective about their practices.

Trustee Katherine Fitzpatrick appreciated Matusiak’s comments about staffing, suggesting that the district is mindful when they are hiring, thinking about all students and whether they can see themselves in their teachers.

Del Mar Heights parent Juliana Abraham also spoke out during public comment, thanking the district for the conversation they are now having. Earlier in the summer, she had written a letter to the superintendent, board member and school principal asking what is being done to address racial awareness in the district.

“Our family is an interracial family. All three of our children have shared stories with us of racial affronts that they have been on the receiving end of and have witnessed directed toward other Black children and children of color from classmates,” said Abraham, noting she has also seen incomplete and sometimes inaccurate accounts of history presented in the curriculum.

Abraham said she strongly believes all children can benefit from racial awareness and inclusion being taught in schools.

“There is a gap for care for children of color and Black children in our public schools across this country and the Del Mar Union School District is not an exception,” Abraham said. “As a parent, I would like to help bridge this gap in care in any way that I can.”

The Matusiaks also said that they are committed to getting involved and supporting the district’s efforts.

“Del Mar is a wonderful place. It is a privileged place. And there are very few students of color in the district,” Ari Matusiak said. “It becomes incredibly important not just for those students but for all students that there be a consistent and rigorous commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.”