Statement from Superintendent of Reading Public Schools Dr. John Doherty
“Our work is educating our students, building a stronger and more vibrant community, creating understanding, and acting with a sense of positive energy focused on the future of our young people.”
Note: The following statement was read by Dr. Doherty during the Reading Embraces Diversity (RED) event Tuesday night, Oct. 3.
First and foremost, I want to thank RED for sponsoring tonight’s event. I look forward to having our schools be part of a bigger conversation moving forward in our community on this critical issue. I also want to thank our RMHS Mixed Choir under the direction of Kristin Killian for providing the beautiful music this evening.
I want to reemphasize the point that Bob made about the strong collaboration between the Reading Public Schools and the Reading Police Department. This relationship, which has only grown stronger over the last several years is built on communication, trust, and a sense of purpose to keep our students and staff safe. We have been very fortunate in this community to have strong leadership at the Chief level with Chief Cormier and now Chief Segalla and exceptional School Resource Officers who understand their role in a school setting. This type of relationship is not necessarily the norm in some communities and I want to thank the Chief for his leadership in helping to provide safe schools.
Before I talk about moving forward, I do want to reflect for a moment on the past several months. When we first began having the swastika and other hate graffiti incidents last April, I was not satisfied with my response as Superintendent. I wanted to understand and learn more on how we could do a better job responding to the community. Bob mentioned to me at the time that he had reached out to Rabbi Susan Abramson from Temple Shalom Emeth in Burlington. I met and communicated with Rabbi Abramson on several occasions and she shared with me her experiences in Bedford a few years ago and how that community responded. I also reached out to the Bedford School Superintendent, Jon Sills, who shared with me the details of the plans that he and the police chief implemented when Bedford was going through a similar series of hate graffiti. Upon Rabbi Abramson’s recommendation, Deputy Chief Clarke and I met in late June with about 40 members of the Reading Jewish Community, some who currently have students in our schools and some who no longer have students in the Reading Public Schools. There were also current students who attended. We wanted to update them on what was going on, but more importantly, to listen to their concerns, their thoughts, and their fears.
The conversation we had that evening was impactful. Many in the group were very nervous and concerned about not only what is happening in Reading, but what is happening in our country. And this was before the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia. Some had grandparents who survived the holocaust. They were told the stories about how this horrific time in our history started, and how people did not respond or push back…and then it was too late. They talked about how important it is for schools to teach our students to be an upstander – someone who stands up against bullying or mean/cruel behavior. They emphasized the need to mobilize the entire community to end harmful harassment, teasing, and violence in our schools.
Those conversations motivated me to really reflect, along with our principals and central office administrators at what we were currently doing and what we could do differently. To that end, I want to share with you some of the areas that we have been working on as a school district, both prior to the graffiti incidents, and moving forward.
First and foremost, our schools take pride in the core values that we have developed and practiced for the past few years around the areas of respect and responsibility. Each school has developed their own unique culture of supporting these core values through monthly assemblies, guest speakers, course work, recognition, and community service. These activities are ongoing and strengthen our school cultures. One example here at the High School is that our English classes read the book Night, by Elie Wiesel who writes about his experience with his father in the Nazi German concentration camps. Last year, a holocaust survivor came to talk to the students about his experiences. We have also had Anna Ornstein come and talk to our eighth grade students and we plan on inviting her to speak to High School students later this year.
In August, our administrators attended a training session that was facilitated by the Anti-Defamation League to help support the work that we are doing in our schools in this area. During that training, there were two areas that really resonated with me. The first was the ADL’s explanation of the pyramid of hate, which shows what happens when biased behaviors, when left unchecked, grow in complexities from top to bottom. At first, these behaviors may start with insensitive remarks or stereotyping, but as a society they can get more and more complex, and lead to individual acts of prejudice, discrimination, violence, and if completely left unchecked, genocide. Like a pyramid, the upper levels are supported by the lower levels. If people or institutions treat behaviors on the lower levels as being acceptable or “normal,” it results in the behaviors at the next level becoming more accepted. The second important point that resonated with me is how we need to respond as adults in our school community when we witness incidents of bias, microaggressions, or bullying. As a district, we have been working on having a consistent response and making these teachable moments for our students. We are communicating the message that these actions do not define us as a school community. As members of the Reading Public Schools, we need to lead and model a culture that embraces a community of safety and respect for our students and adults.
Here are some other activities that we are planning or are already occurring that involve our students.
- For the first time in several years, we have A World of Difference Clubs at each of our middle schools and the high school. These after school clubs, sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, will lead the student response in creating a culture that promotes respect and embraces diversity. Last year, the club here at the High School created an RMHS Human Rights Resolution which was embraced by staff and students.
- Recently, under the direction of Assistant Principal Tom Zaya, Reading Memorial High School received the MVP grant in partnership with the New England Patriots and the District Attorney’s Office which will provide training to our student leaders to promote anti-violence at our High School.
- We are very excited that our middle schools have been introducing the curriculum Facing History and Ourselves during their advisory block. This program helps students learn about hatred and bigotry with the intention of stopping these types of incidents from happening in the future. The outcomes of the program foster empathy and reflection, improve students’ academic performance, and build safe and inclusive schools. The early results of this program have been very positive from both students and staff. We have also been teaching a course with the same name at the High School for several years.
- We have updated our Bullying Prevention Plan which reflects all of the changes above to expand the work that we have been doing to reduce bullying, harassment, and discrimination in our schools.
- We are proud to have been a partner with Understanding Disabilities for over 30 years and we are working closely with them to continue to provide lessons at our elementary schools around disability awareness and to bring in a speaker for our middle schools.
- On October 21st, from 8:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m., we will be holding our first annual Reading Public Schools Parent University, which is being sponsored by Reading Cooperative Bank. Several of the workshops focus on giving parents the tools and information necessary to support their children in this changing world.
- We have improved our internal protocol with administrators, staff, and police for identifying and reporting graffiti so that we have a more unified response.
- Finally, on Tuesday, October 24th, several administrators, Lieutenant Rich Abate, School Resource Officer Lewis, and I will be attending a workshop that is being sponsored by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts Civil Rights Unit. The name of the conference is called Responding to and Preventing Incidents of Hate in K-12 Schools. Some of the topics include preventing hate and creating welcoming schools, best practices in responding to hate speech in schools, addressing the needs of victims, addressing the needs of vulnerable populations, and distinguishing the line between first amendment free speech and hate speech.
As you can see, we have made progress in several areas, including curriculum changes and staff training. However, we know that there is always room to improve and learn from these experiences to support our core mission. A core mission which ensures that all students feel safe, have access to quality curriculum, that they are held to a high level of expectation, and that they are provided the support and/or interventions they need to make continuous growth.
Over the last two years, our main focus as a school district has been to close the achievement gap for our students. One of the ways you do that is to create a strong learning environment to create a safe and supportive environment for all students, including students with disabilities, economically disadvantaged students, students of different races and ethnicities, our LGBTQ students, and students who practice different religions. The conversations that we are having this evening began in April with the swastikas, the Star of David with a slash through it, and the racist graffiti. But, it does not end there. The conversations need to go beyond and focus on how we as a school community can create those safe and supportive schools and, subsequently, a safe and supportive community for all.
We are in a time where we are witnessing significant events in our country, our state, and in our region which impact our students and our classrooms. The violence in Charlottesville, Virginia is just the most recent of these events. The swastikas and other graffiti that we have witnessed in our community is a symptom of what is happening nationally. I want you to know that as the superintendent for the Reading Public Schools I will not and do not tolerate hateful words or actions, bigotry or any form of racist behavior. We will not tolerate this in our classrooms, schools, or on our grounds. There simply is no place for it. We have to be — and we are — better than that. Our work is educating our students, building a stronger and more vibrant community, creating understanding, and acting with a sense of positive energy focused on the future of our young people. Although Reading is not a very diverse community in many ways, we are in other ways. We need to embrace and respect our differences, listen respectfully to each other’s thoughts, and learn from those conversations. These conversations will help us better support and teach our students and create a more respectful community.