Western Albemarle Encourages School Community to Discuss Tough Topics

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Western Albemarle High School is encouraging its students and parents to discuss issues of race and diversity in response to a recent controversy over a poster some visiting athletes found offensive.

The Fluvanna County High School girls basketball team was using an English classroom for its locker room during an away game on Feb. 19 when players reported finding a poster with a racial slur, images of guns, and symbols associated with the Ku Klux Klan on it.

The school says it was a student project created as part of a study of racial tension and injustice that’s seen in the novel "To Kill a Mockingbird." However, the school is taking this opportunity to study itself.

"It's more on the radar now than it was before, and I think that this is an opportunity for us to move forward in a meaningful way and I think there are more people who want to be a part of that," says Monica Laux, and English and diversity resource teacher at WAHS.

Western Albemarle High School is responding to the incident from two weeks ago by developing a dialogue on racial equality, tolerance, and inclusiveness. The school's "Equity and Diversity Team" started meeting back in 2016 and more teachers have joined in since the poster incident. Now, the team is working with administrators to put together focus groups, discussions with students and parents, and help teachers overcome biases in the school.

“While these concerns have come about and certainly we're taking them seriously, we also want to see how that then starts the conversation more to be able to have some productive outcomes from the dialogue,” says Darah Bonham, the WAHS principal.

Laux wants to make sure Western Albemarle students feel empowered to talk about race and that, at the end of the day, their school is a community and everyone should be working together.

“We want people to feel comfortable in who they are and how they're represented in our community,” says Monica Laux, an English and diversity resource teacher at WAHS. “We want everyone to have that kind of activism and voice.”

Bonham says the school is working with teachers to break down biases, but this conversation also has to start at home. Since the event occurred, Bonham has sent a letter home to parents urging them to have these kinds of difficult discussions with their children. The letter says those discussions are necessary to "ensure that racism, bigotry, and all forms of harassment will have no place in our schools."

Letter sent home to families from Principal Darah Bonham:

Dear Western Families:

It has been almost two weeks since I issued a statement in response to a controversy over a student project related to the study of To Kill a Mockingbird in one of our English classes. This incident elicited many emotions, from anger among our visiting girls’ basketball team to surprise and then concern among our own students who were unaware of the situation. It is important for us to understand how our visitors felt about what was displayed on the student project as well as our own students’ feelings.

While the conversation began because of the historic images used in a student project, this situation has sparked a larger dialogue around issues of racial equality, respect, tolerance and inclusiveness in our relationships with one another in our community. We see this as an important opportunity which should be seized.

We are now at a point in time when, collectively, we can address, head-on, many of the issues that concern us. This is an opportunity to listen, learn and work together for the benefit of our community. We already have many mechanisms in place to support this discussion. We must use these structures and others to increase dialogue and build understanding.

Last year we created the Western Feeder Pattern Diversity Focus Group comprised of elementary, middle and high school teachers, parents and administrators. This group was formed to address issues within our own community around diversity and to help all of our schools provide a more supportive atmosphere for all kids.

We have an Equity and Diversity team of teachers and staff at Western who are focused on understanding biases in our school and in our practices and is working with staff and students to for equality, equity and success for all of our kids.

Our school improvement climate goal this year is focused on empowering all kids to have voice and agency and to be comfortable in stepping up when they see things that are harmful to others. We want our students to develop and actively use bystander awareness strategies to support each other and a healthier school community.

As principal, I see our students achieving in many areas as part of our school and division. Academically, students regularly challenge themselves to take many of the most rigorous classes offered. On the stage and athletic fields, our students compete at the highest level and challenge themselves and their teams in competition.

We must remind ourselves that achieving these goals should never be in the absence of qualities that best exemplify us as learners and leaders: sportsmanship, character, and integrity.

I care deeply about each one of my students, as does every member of our staff. We have and will continue to accomplish great things. If we are to continue to move forward as a caring, supportive, high-performing community, we must work together to better understand the contributions each of us will make. We need more honest conversations about school culture and student experiences.

Such conversations often are not easy, but they are necessary if we are to ensure that racism, bigotry and all forms of harassment will have no place in our schools. I know we can create the most respectful and best learning environment for every one of our kids. In the near future, I will be reaching out with information on opportunities for parents, students, and community members to join us in this work. I hope that you will partner with us as we move forward.

We will continue to find ways to improve. For your child. For every child.


Darah Bonham