WESTERLY — Current high school students are open-minded about sexuality and understand that the country has at times struggled with discrimination, prejudice and racism, according to the school board’s student representative.
Dominick Lombard, who was appointed as student representative in December, raised the issues with the school committee at its meeting on Wednesday. The remarks came after Lombard spoke with his peers at Westerly High School about the now-hot topics that came up at the committee meeting on Dec. 8 and have become part of the local and national dialogue.
Students, Lombard said, were largely unaware of the “Gender Queer” book’s existence or that it was available for circulation in the school library. The book, a memoir that uses graphic novel-like illustrations, chronicles its author’s journey through adolescence as a non-binary person. The book has been targeted for removal in school districts across the country, including here.
After learning about the book, Lombard said, students weren’t fazed by its contents, but instead were bothered that it was subject to “censorship and suppression.”
“Our generation is much more tolerant and accepting of these themes,” Lombard said, referencing the book’s discussion of sexual preferences and identities.
Lombard also touched on the subject of critical race theory, the academic framework of studying the country through the lens of racism, and how discrimination affects institutions such as the legal system, housing and banking. A few residents claimed that some aspects of the theory are taught in public schools in the city. Like “Gender Queer,” critical accusations of race theory have played out across the country.
“Critical race theory isn’t taught at Westerly High School, and most students don’t know what it is either,” Lombard said.
Although academic theory is not taught, students should have the opportunity to learn about racism, discrimination and prejudice, Lombard said.
“To say that teenagers cannot be taught the history of discrimination, persecution and racism in America undermines our intelligence as young adults,” Lombard said.
Additionally, Lombard said, omitting a study of the country’s fight against racism “diminishes the experiences and feelings of students who have faced discrimination and prejudice.”
“Literature has always been known for pushing boundaries and tackling topics that aren’t fully accepted by society… censoring books would set a dangerous precedent for how we view education,” Lombard said.
School committee member Robert Cillino thanked Lombard for speaking with his peers and for his comments, saying they provided the committee with valuable insight into students’ thoughts, beliefs and feelings. “If you are an example of the type of student we produce, then we have nothing to worry about,” Cillino said.
In a related area, a resident renewed his criticism of the equity statement recently adopted by the school committee. The statement sets out the district’s priorities for improving the way students are treated and ensuring that a strong education is accessible to all, regardless of factors such as race or socioeconomic status.
Resident Michael Johnson said he decided to move his family to Westerly based on the belief that the school board adhered to ‘traditional values’. He also asked the committee not to authorize an equity audit or study to determine whether some students have unfair advantages or disadvantages in the public school system. The committee has been discussing the possibility of conducting an equity audit for several months and recently asked Superintendent of Schools Mark Garceau to investigate grants that could be used to pay for such a study.
“I would rather my sons learn equality, fairness, work hard, study hard and be rewarded for their merits,” Johnson said.
Johnson made similar comments at the committee’s previous meeting.