Sarita Lawrence has dealt with multiple racially motivated incidents involving her 9-year-old, son Cordez.
Cordez, who is Black, attends Benjamin Harrison Elementary School in Marion, where he has been the target of white classmates. Lawrence said her son is involved in an episode at least once every school year and was not seeing any progress with the school administration.
Feeling frustrated, the Marion resident decided to team up with five other mothers of color who were experiencing similar situations at Harrison. The recently formed group is called MAGIC, or Moms Against Gaslighting in Classrooms. The group hopes to make the school more inclusive and provide equitable education opportunities specifically for Black and brown children.
“I wanted parents of Black and brown children to feel like they had a platform to use their voice to express what the realities were for them and their children being in school,” Lawrence said. “And that other people can share those experiences with them and that something can be done.”
Lawrence said recent incidents that have happened at the school include Cordez and a few other students being called the N-word and a child screaming at another child to shut up.
“It’s exhausting and really frustrating,” she said. “Just the whole experience was really discouraging because this is a big deal to African American families and brown families as well. When we say, ‘Hey, this is a really big deal for us’ and it has significant negative consequences on the physical and mental health of our children and that’s not being met with an intense level of compassion and action to make sure that will never happen anymore, that’s really upsetting.”
MAGIC met with Marion City Schools Superintendent Ron Iarussi and Diversity and Equity supervisor Johnnie Jackson earlier this month and told them about some of the incidents that have occurred. Lawrence said Iarussi did not know about most of the situations.
“We have to do a good job of opening the lines of communication with all of our families, but specifically that group,” Iarussi said. “We need to have open lines of communication, so that when those issues arise, we can make sure we address it.”
Iarussi said he walked away from the meeting feeling reenergized about providing a more inclusive environment for students, which the district had pledged to do after passing a social justice resolution last summer.
“After that resolution, we had planned to get some folks together to put an equity plan together,” he said. “The pandemic definitely slowed us down, but that’s not an excuse. So, it’s a just support for the district to continue to move forward with developing this equity plan. We’re definitely going to have some members of that group as part of an advisory committee to have some conversations about how we need to educate, not just our staff, but our students as well on equity and inclusion and social justice and those issues we need to address from the education standpoint.”
Lawrence hopes that the initiatives in the equity plan will not be voluntary like in the past, but mandated. Some suggestions she gave include book clubs, training and small groups facilitated by diversity and equity staff members. In addition, MAGIC wants to see more teachers of color being hired by the district.
“Representation matters and if children feel like they can’t trust non-minority educators or leaders, there’s no alternative,” Lawrence said. “There’s so much distrust that’s creating a barrier and we need to start breaking that down. That’s one of the ways the district can pledge to do.”
MAGIC plans to meet with Iarussi and Jackson, as well as Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Lawson again next month about what the equity plan may look like. Lawrence hopes more mothers will join them.
“One of the things that we’re asking from the district is, ‘How can we start to incorporate cultural sensitivity, awareness and racial differences into professional development and student curriculum?'” she said.