The 150-plus people who attended Superintendent Dede Galdston’s forum on racial harassment and bullying last week heard from the girl who brought the issue to the forefront, and other attendees called for action to make sure such incidents do not occur in the future.
Galdston scheduled the Dec. 3 forum after a Watertown Middle School student named Lialah spoke to Fox 25 News about her experience of being called the N-word at school and being harassed by classmates on social media and on the phone.
The 13-year-old spoke during the forum, and said that she does not trust the teachers and administrators at the middle school after she reported her experiences and said no action was taken, and people at the school denied her reports.
“Why are people spreading misinformation. I came to school several months ago and asked for help and they denied me for help, and chose not to help. Now people say we are helping,” Lialah said. “I was called the N-word, with a hard R, by a student and I was put in the same class as that student and the school didn’t think why maybe not remove the student from that class.”
Lialah added that she warned the school that she would be harassed further after she began speaking out in support of Black Lives Matter over the summer.
“I have been harassed. I have been harassed online. I have bene getting anonymous calls, people telling me to go kill myself, you’re ugly, you’re fat,” Lialah It has been on social media text messages, Instagram, TikTok, all that,” she said. “I came to the school and they chose not to help, to the point where people came to my house and egged my house.”
She added that she spoke out because does not want the same thing to happen to her younger brother.
At the end of the forum, Galdston apologized to Lialah and others who had been harassed and bullied, and thanked those who participated in the forum. She said their input will be used to help guide the district as it works on improving its response to these types of incidents.
“I am really sorry for the hurt that has happened within our schools,” Galdston said. “I am very appreciative of the people here who have been brave and spoke up and shared their concerns. And I know there is a lot of work to do and, as I said, I am very committed to Watertown and believe in this community. I know that we can do better and we will.”
Others shared their stories during the meeting. Parent Maria Hinkson said the issue has been going on in the Watertown Schools for years, including for her daughter who is now in college. In January, she told the School Committee and the Superintendent she thought that not enough was being done to address racial harassment and bullying, and was told the District is working on updating its handbook, but has heard little since.
She said she spoke with numerous parents whose children have been the victims of harassment and bullying but who did not speak at the forum because they are “afraid of backlash, not just from students. From teachers. From administration.”
Hinkson shared one of the stories she heard from a student.
“In the middle school, the N-word is used in the hallways constantly. A student was called a Dirty N. It was reported repeatedly, she got to speak in one of the social justice circles and nothing was solved. No one supported her and the person who said it didn’t admit it,” Hinkson said. “She was also called back to speak with an administrator, with the person who called that name. Why she had to be repeatedly exposed to this, I do not understand.”
Parent Elise Loukas said the school handbook talks about zero tolerance for harassment and bullying, but she said it is not clear to her what that means. She said that while she got an alert when an swatstika was found in a bathroom at WMS — which she said is a very bad thing — she never got one when someone used the N-word.
“When the person denied it, or even if they admitted it, how come we are not told every time the N-word is used and reported to administration, just like an anonymous swatstika on a bathroom wall,” Loukas said. “It makes no sense and I think the kids at the middle school don’t feel protected. If they not feel protected they are not going to (the administration) as much because once you learn that you can’t get help you suck it up, you learn to live with it and try to grow a thick skin.
“I do not want my children going through life with those kinds of scars because they could not reach out to the people we pay to protect them when they are not in our home. There should be zero tolerance for this stuff and there isn’t. The students do not feel heard.”
Along with wanting to hear about the incidents in Watertown Schools, people in the forum wanted to hear how the District handles situations when they occur — specifically the communication and consequences.
Galdston said she could not go into specifics about individual cases, but said that when an incident is reported there is internal communication between the administration, teachers and staff who work with the student, and, on occasion, the whole staff if the circumstances call for that.
The superintendent said multiple factors have to be weighed when making decisions about consequences and what to do going forward.
“In terms of consequences, I hear what people are saying about, what are the consequences for a race-based act or a hateful act?” Galdston said. “I hate to say this, because I know people say if you call someone the N-word then you are automatically suspended — and that generally might be what — but equally more important is all of our students are entitled to a free and appropriate public education. That is what we do in public schools.”
School officials are also working on new system for reviewing race-based incidents using a review board to oversee the school’s code of conduct.
“The idea will be when there is a race-based incident we will work through our code of conduct, and more importantly what do we do in terms of climate and culture in terms of a response for how to we make sure we are transparent and sharing the information that needs to be shared to move forward as a community,” Galdston said.
The group advising the creation of the review board will meet this week and come up with recommendations about the composition of the board by late December or early January. After that, feedback will be sought from a variety of groups, Galdston said, including the school leadership, school councils, PTOs and others.
In terms of prevention, Galdston said that the Schools have anti-racism assemblies in the beginning of the year, along with other lessons. She said it is important to show students how their words can be harmful.
“Now more than ever before we have to be clear what it means o to support and be a part of the community, and have people understand the dramatic harmful impact words can have on students, even if people think it is a joke,” Galdston said. “It isn’t a joke. It is a micro-aggression. It’s racism. Its’ hurtful and that’s got to stop.”
Casey Halle, a WHS graduate who teaches in the Boston Public Schools, said that she did not think of the the issues as micro-agressions.
“These are not micro-aggressions, these are racial harassment incidents, and I think those need to be named every single time we talk about these situations,” Halle said. “A student calling another student the N-word is not a micro-aggression, it is a macro-aggression.”
Multiple people said that the focus in the race-based harassment cannot be just on the students.
“The incidents need to be addressed, but not involving parents and just holding accountable students for punishment, I believe, it seems to me, is missing something extremely important,” said resident Chuck Dickinson. “These are attitudes learned at the kitchen table. This is something, personally, I think, is for parents talking to parents.”
Third-Party Review, Other Efforts
Last week, Galdston announced the hiring of two consultants to do a third-party review of the district’s harassment and bullying policies and procedures: John Dristiliaris of Southern New Hampshire University, who previously led a review of alleged racially bullying in the public schools in Hampton, N.H.; and Claudia Rinaldi, who is the Chair of Education at Lasell University and a nationally-renown expert on education and school reform efforts.
Some on the call said they did not feel like the people would be independent, because they are both from the same public relations firm. Others noted that neither are a person of color.
Parent Liz Marino said one of the reviewers particularly bothered her.
“One had been a cop for 30 years,” Marino said. “How are students going to feel comfortable with someone who has been a cop investigating. This when cops are killing black people day in and day out in this country. It is absolutely unacceptable.”
Some people at the forum did not get to speak during the forum, which lasted about 1-3/4 hours. Galdston said she will be hosting a Superintendent’s Coffee on Dec. 22, and she will be happy to speak with people individually, or schedule more forums.
People can also fill out the following form to submit input to Galdston: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/133KiL6_l9L6QHkDcL7Q1wAeNT7_CCXLcYKg-jjyWWvA/edit
Other efforts in town about racial harassment include the Watertown Story Share. Coordinated by a Watertown Middle School teacher, students can anonymously share their experiences of racism and harassment which are posted on the group’s Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/watertown.storyshare/.
To view the video of the form click here: https://www.watertown.k12.ma.us/about_our_district/superintendent (Note that you must include the period in the passcode to enter).