CHAGRIN FALLS — In nearly an hour and a half of testimonies, parents, alumni and other community members came forward Wednesday to share their grievances or support of the Chagrin Falls schools’ Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice Task Force.

In response, the board will hold a special meeting on Aug. 2 to carry forward the discussion in a work session.

Twenty-six individuals, in person and via letters to the Chagrin Falls Board of Education, spoke to the task force with more than 100 community members in attendance who applauded their side of the issue following each speaker – despite repeated requests from the board to hold applause for the sake of time.

The board met in the auditorium of the high school Performing Arts Center, in anticipation of the healthy turnout, and live-streamed the meeting via YouTube. Each speaker was entitled to an allotted three minutes to address the board or their fellow members of the community, the timing of which took display on a monitor with a gentle jingle upon the conclusion of its countdown.

The meeting was also the first for new Superintendent Jennifer Penczarski.

Speakers in opposition to the task force raised concerns pertaining to transparency of the committee’s implementation and goals, district expenses for the Diversity Center of Northeast Ohio – whom the district contracted as the facilitator of the DEIJ meetings, changes to the academic mission of the district and the indoctrination of or “psychological move” on students.

Those in support applauded the board for taking on the “difficult conversations” and using the “appreciative inquiry” process to improve on what they deemed an already great district and pleaded with the board to continue the DEIJ efforts. Supporters argued that DEIJ in the school creates a welcoming environment for students and community members of all backgrounds and exposes students to different cultures and viewpoints, preparing them for life outside “the bubble.”

Sheree Gravely of Bentleyville said DEIJ turns the district away from their academic mission, quoting an April 12 meeting, “they would like to change [Chagrin] schools from the idea of success based on academics and advanced classes to the development of a more well-rounded citizen of the community.”

She said DEIJ implements bigoted terminology and ideas, like “white fragility” or “encouraging people to be traitors to their whiteness.

“Why would Chagrin Falls citizens, led by an outside consultant, want to diminish Chagrin Falls' mission of delivering strong academics?” Ms. Gravely said, questioning why the school does not have a winning robotics team or a STEM center.

Tamera Chess of South Russell said she came to stand for clarity and transparency.

“A year ago, I made the decision to rally behind our district and support the levy,” she said of the 3.85-mill levy passed by voters last November. She said she joined the levy committee to support its passage to prevent cuts to programming. “For a school district and board to outright state, we need to sustain our programming and minimize further reductions, $22,500 is a lot in consulting fees to the diversity center.

“What other funds are likely to be spent in support of DEIJ that will be diverted from spending on academics, art, music, that I was told we so desperately needed?” she asked.

Blaire Woodward of Russell, a Chagrin alum, argued that DEIJ values should be taught at home and that teachers should not influence students in this respect, a point echoed by several other parents and community members.

“I've seen a lot of stuff go down in this town. What we have going on with this DEIJ is not a wise choice,” he said. “It's a psychological move on our children. They don't need psychological education from teachers. That's to be done at home. Bring it back to your home values. If your parents have a problem with something, call the other parent and have a meeting.

“You want to teach your kids something, start it at home,” Mr. Woodward said. “It's not for [teachers] to do. They're here to educate our kids.”

He added that the implementation of DEIJ on top of mask requirements in school is “psychological abuse.”

Dr. Penczarski explained at the start of the meeting that a presentation of the district’s return-to-school plan was postponed due to a last-minute change in guidance. She said at this point, parents of students in grades kindergarten through six should expect an extension of the current summer guidance on masks.

“I would say that you should plan for [mask wearing] because there hasn't been any guidance that has told us differently,” she said of the lower grade levels. “The new guidance that's coming out is recommending universal masking, and that would be K-12, including staff. We have not made that decision [yet].”

As for those in support of DEIJ, several community members described it as a “worthy pursuit.”

Cindy Reagan of Chagrin Falls said she teaches at a school with a “great reputation” like Chagrin schools.

She said many alumni in the district she teaches reflect on their fond experiences and return to the district for their own children, but she noticed not every student shared those same fond memories.

“It could have been very easy for us to have said, ‘Why should we change? What we've done has worked for so many. It worked for me. It worked for you. So it must be OK,’” she said. “But the status quo wasn't working for all the people in my school's community, and to ignore that is the antithesis of a good educational system.”

After a failed attempt at implementing diversity programming on their own, she said they turned to the “experts” of the Diversity Center of Northeast Ohio.

“They have been working with schools in the Northeast Ohio area since 2006, the diversity centers' programs aren't new and aren't reactionary to the latest buzzwords,” Ms. Reagan said. “My school has been using the diversity center as its consultant and for other resources for over 10 years; they know what to do and they know how to do it.”

Christina Lopez of South Russell, a mother of two, said her multi-racial, military family just bought their forever home in the Chagrin district because they were relieved to hear about the DEIJ Task Force upon searching for their new home.

She said having diversity programming, such as the DEIJ committee, “is a huge plus and positive that speaks volumes for the kind of community that Chagrin is,” adding she was disheartened to see the pushback it has received.

Erica Felder said she stood in support of the committee as an African-American parent and parent co-chair of the DEIJ task force to clear miseducation on their mission.

“Critical [race] theory is not our push. Why? Because we are a school system. We are not a university and we're not offering political science degrees nor juris doctorates,” the South Russell parent said. “What we are focused on is diversity, inclusion and justice.”

As a parent of a second- and fourth-grader, she said she has dealt with racial insensitivity from other students directed at her children for the color of their skin, even being told they don’t belong in the district because they’re black.

“We need diversity to make everyone feel welcome – in our textbooks, in our staffing, in our activities that we all take a part of,” Ms. Felder said. “We need equity, as in equity in education, equipping all students with the tools for strong curriculum; opportunities; and books, materials and equipment that make sure that our students feel inclusive in their learning.”

Chagrin Falls parent Anthony Fossaceca, the last speaker, likened the debate surrounding DEIJ to when civil rights activist Ruby Bridges was the first African-American child to attend an all-white school in 1960 in New Orleans.

He said he, too, was disheartened by the opposition to the task force.

“The last month has been really hard. Watching a handful of members of our community behave in a way that reinforces unfortunate stereotypes about Chagrin has been disheartening to say the least,” he said. “As I reflect on the tone, distortions, rhetoric and motives being used to reframe the work of the DEIJ committee, I keep going back to 1960 and that heroic walk of Ruby Bridges.

“Our community is, in many ways, awkwardly struggling to include a new generation of Ruby Bridges,” he said, explaining this could be in the form of many race, religion or sexual orientation of students. “Their entrance may not be blocked, but obstacles still stand in the way.

“DEIJ isn't about curriculum or a political agenda, it simply seeks to make all students feel welcomed. It's about opening doors, not lowering bars,” he continued.

While money is a factor in the DEIJ discussion, it’s not the issue, he said.

“Even if this initiative were free, I'd probably still have to be standing here tonight and defending it as we continue to discuss this issue,” Mr. Fossaceca said. “Decades from now, when our children return home to chagrin, having experienced the big world outside the bubble, think about how they will remember this debate.

History may not judge us by this moment,” he said, “but it's quite possible our children will.”

The board did not address any specific comments from the public.

“We wanted to use tonight to listen and reflect on all the comments of the people that came and spoke to us, but we also need time then to talk together and talk about the work of the DEIJ Task Force and where it goes from here,” Board member Sharon Broz said. The Aug. 2 work session will take place “to have that dialogue.”

Board President Phil Rankin said the meeting, which will take place at 5 p.m. in the Sands Community Room of the school campus, is open to the public, but it will not be open to public comment and there will be no vote or action taken.

Sam joined the Times in 2019 and covers several communities and schools in the Chagrin Valley and Geauga County. She also oversees the features/community events and the website. She earned her bachelor's degree in journalism from Kent State University.

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