FARGO — A collection of online cries for help that detail racism in North Dakota schools has drawn the attention of Fargo administrators, who vow to increase efforts toward equity for all students.
The Fargo School District's newly-hired director of equity and inclusion, Tamara Uselman, says dealing with racism in schools cannot be delayed any longer.
“Students should not have to wait, and the kids and the adults who may be discriminating cannot wait to have an intervention to know what it’s like to be opposite of them and experience a hostile environment,” she said.
A school administrative assistant recently alerted Uselman to an Instagram page called Racism In ND Schools. On the page, hundreds of anonymous posts describe experiences with racism, offering a keyhole glimpse into the racial tension bubbling inside the halls of schools, from Fargo to Mandan to Tioga.
When contacted by The Forum, the page administrators declined to share their identities because they feared for their safety.
Uselman said she does not discredit the nameless voices crying for help.
“I need to respect that they want to remain anonymous as well. It’s very sad to me, and my reach out to them is to simply say, ‘There is a backbone of support being built in Fargo Public Schools and I need you to know that,’” she said.
The Instagram posts tell a range of stories of racism from across the state, including harassment and the use of slurs.
One post says English Language Learner students at Davies High School in Fargo feel segregated, “not fully allowing them to emerge in the high school culture."
A post from Sheyenne High School in West Fargo says, “I was beat up for being Indian and brown by a group of white boys for months"
Another post from Devils Lake says, “White kids get away with being slightly racist because nobody tells them it’s wrong or that it hurts."
'Racism is a pandemic'
Fargo Public Schools Superintendent Rupak Gandhi said the Instagram posts are concerning.
"We don't have the ability to validate their information, but that doesn't mean we don't take their sentiments or concerns seriously. There is no room for any discrimination in any Fargo public schools, but we think there are things we can address both individually in those situations and structurally," Gandhi said.
Uselman promised that the district will investigate all reports of racial discrimination and harassment. Even complaints on the Instagram page will be looked at, she said, although investigating anonymous posts is difficult.
“We have an individual trained on how to investigate complaints in every secondary school, and one in the elementary, who will work with elementary school principals,” she said.
Uselman said she's initiated the use of reporting forms meant to lead to actionable steps every time an investigator receives a report. There's also ongoing diversity training for Fargo Public Schools staff.
“It’s hard during COVID, but that’s not an excuse, because racism is a pandemic — people are suffering with both,” she said.
On Oct. 1, Uselman met with student leaders to discuss what they want to see in schools. “They hold a tremendous amount of power to say we don’t want this in our schools. What students are able to do is make it uncool,” she said.
'Change that mental model'
A critical part of Uselman's job is including parents and local employers as part of solving the problem, not just students and staff.
“What messaging do parents give their children?” she said. “The language people use is a reflection of their mental model, which is how they think the world should work when it’s working right. We as a country have politicized that so deeply that I think we need to recalibrate to make schools a safe place for students all the time. At the end of the day, every single child who entrusts their self to our schools needs to feel safe and welcome and truly be included."
To Uselman, inclusion means how are people finding their voices and gaining opportunities, and equity is something measured by data.
“We have to have no tolerance for racism, but we don’t have to throw people away if they say something racist or improper. Our job is to re-educate and change that mental model," she said. “I want us to address racism head on but also wholeheartedly because young people have to have an opportunity to reset after they’ve done something vile."
Discipline such as suspensions and expulsions will be used if necessary, Uselman said.
“I’m a believer that there is a balance between accountability and responsibility,” she said. “The overall goal always is restorative justice. Yes, we can use the heavy hand of suspension and expulsion, and there are times when it’s appropriate, but that student is coming back to us. And we need to really engage them in learning better behavior patterns.”