April 27, 2021 by Carol Britton Meyer
The Hingham Public Schools Equity & Inclusion Working Group is conducting an Equity Audit of the district’s operations, programs, and services leading up to the creation of a multi-year Equity and Inclusion Plan, with a targeted completion date of June 2021.
Asst. Supt. of Schools James LaBillois, chair of the working group, shared an update at last night's remote School Committee meeting.
The working group is partnering with the Harvard RIDES program (Reimagining Integration for Diverse and Equitable Schools) and the Suffolk University Center for Restorative Justice in this effort.
"This is a theory of justice that focuses on mediation and agreement rather than punishment," La Billois explained. "It's not about focusing on right or wrong [behavior] but accepting responsibility for your role as a good citizen and working to repair and restore a [damaged] relationship."
Under this system, offenders are expected to accept responsibility for harm they caused and to make restitution to their victims. "The concept has been used successfully for generations," LaBillois said. "School application is used to focus on the concept of community and the need to repair relationships due to bias, behavior, or violations to the school’s code of conduct."
The HPS is working with the Center for Restorative Justice to train school and district administrators on implementing these practices within all district schools.
Training for HPS educators is scheduled for June 4, followed by in-depth training during two currently-scheduled two-day institutes this summer for elementary and secondary team members.
"We're here to protect the children," LaBillois said. "The major focus is on the kids. Their behavior is either telling us a story that they can't verbalize, or that they haven't yet learned that certain behaviors are inappropriate."
The premise of restorative justice is that all children are good, but that it's important for them to understand the impact that their behavior has on others. "Words have power, and when used the wrong way, they can harm people," he said. "When someone's behavior damages a relationship, it's about what he or she is going to do to fix it versus receiving five days of detention. This represents a huge cultural shift, and that's why we are taking the work slowly -- we want it to be effective."
The working group has its work cut out in helping the community understand "what this is all about," according to LaBillois. "Forgiveness is a process, not an act, and it takes time and understanding."
Educational equity is the shared responsibility of all members of the HPS community "in addressing the opportunity gaps that exist within society and that impact our students' ability to reach their full potential," he explained.
Part of the working group's role is to define educational equity in the district and to develop a Vision of Equity for the HPS. A SWOT (Strength, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis has been completed, with feedback from teachers, the Special Education Parent Advisory Council, and the PTOs.
The Vision of Equity states that regardless of student background, experience, and knowledge, HPS students will be provided with "opportunities and resources to develop socially, emotionally, and academically in a safe, supportive, enriching, and bias-free environment."
The working group is currently conducting a series of "Courageous Conversations" with affinity groups in the district that allows students, teachers, and others to share their experiences in small groups; overseeing the Equity Audit; and meeting regularly to discuss implementation and roll-out strategy for the developing Equity and Inclusion Plan.
"We believe all members of our community –- students, parents, guardians, caregivers, faculty, and staff –- deserve the right to be fully seen, authenticated, and affirmed," LaBillois said. "This sense of belonging is a basic human need, which must be met in order for any member to reach his or her full potential."
At the same time, he said, it is recognized that each member of the school community has different needs, experiences, and opportunities. "By exploring these differences, we gain understanding, compassion, and empathy for each other."
School Committee member Liza O'Reilly suggested finding ways to educate families "in deep and productive ways about this new culture by providing an overview of the work and possibly offering workshops for parents," she said. "We really need to find ways to positively engage the community in this type of equity and restorative justice work. It will be a challenge to get parents to understand [what this is all about]. To be successful, we need to get them onboard." While the working group has accomplished a great deal so far, "There's still a lot of work ahead of us, including implementation," LaBillois said.
Hingham Unity Council member Katie Sutton is pleased with the working group's efforts so far. "Bravo! I'm glad to see this progress and grateful that this work is moving forward," she said. "I'm happy to help in any way."
Supt. of Schools Paul Austin called this "incredibly important work" and said he's looking forward to "working together to change the culture."
Other working group members are: School Committee member Nes Correnti; HPS Director of World Languages Erica Pollard; Foster School representatives Carolyn Bixby and Heather Andersen; Dr. Suzanne Vinnes, HPS Student Services; Plymouth River School representative Boris Samarov; Hingham High School representative Kara Roth; METCO Director Carols Perez; Middle School representatives Lindsey Troy, Melissa Goldman, and Jenna Nelson; and South School Principal Mary Eastwood.
For more information, visit https://hinghamschools.org/equity-inclusion/