This past Tuesday, Raima Dutt and Minhal Nazeer led a Town Hall for the Jefferson County Public Schools school board election. Raima and Minhal are both students who work at the Kentucky Student Voice Team as Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Research & Policy Co-coordinators. The town hall was centered around ways to make Kentucky schools more equitable and resources and opportunities more accessible to underserved students, as well as ways we could better support our district’s educators. This was a non-partisan discussion that was entirely grounded in improving Jefferson County Public Schools.
After weeks of emailing, drafting questions that best reflect the needs of students, and hours of logistical planning, the turnout of the town hall consisted of students, educators, journalists, community members, and 9 of the 13 candidates running in the Jefferson County Public Schools School Board election, including the 3 incumbents up for re-election.
Alongside other student researchers and adult allies with the Kentucky Student Voice Team, the latest approach to mobilizing students as partners in education research was the statewide Race to Learn Study. The study launched in December in the midst of heated local and nationwide discussions about whether and how to discuss the history and legacy of racism in schools.
The moderators were both researchers in the 2022 Race to Learn Report. In the report, nearly half of Kentucky students expressed that racism is a prevalent issue that schools need to address. The first question in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion segment of the town hall delved into the report’s findings and how they can shape policies for improving our schools moving forward.
Minhal Nazeer: As a board member, how would you ensure that students' desire to learn about race is protected in the classroom?
Ahamara Brewster: First off, the curriculum is outdated. We need better methods of teaching children about race. I am totally against critical race theory. We are not as intimate as we should be.
School takes up over 30 hours in the week for the average Kentucky student, excluding time spent doing homework, sports, extracurricular activities, or managing family life. As school serves as the primary place for students to gain knowledge, it is a transformative part of the students’ learning experience and real-world applications. To deprive students of the right against more knowledge and truth, specifically in regards to the history and legacy of racism, is an injustice to all students.
On the other hand, some candidates expressed their support for teaching the truth and critical race theory (CRT).
Carol Travis-Clark: I think you should have classes that address discriminatory practices. You should have classes that have history, that tell about all different races, cultures, and ethnicity. I think that would open up for students to learn, and to also broaden the spectrum and kind of remove some discriminatory practices that JCPS has been accustomed to being involved in.
Gay Adelman: [I have] protected the right for teachers to teach the truth. I think that we have to make sure we are strong in our resistance to Frankfort. [Referencing anti-CRT bills that have been discussed]
The second question explored viewpoints on mental health services. In our team’s Coping with Covid study from 2020, we discovered that overall, there was an over 50% increase in the number of students who wanted but lacked access to mental health services (9.8% before COVID versus 14.9% since COVID). The recent passing of House Bill 44 excusing student mental health days was a small step in providing some of these much-needed resources to students.
Minhal Nazeer: What steps would you take to secure students' access to these resources regarding mental health days and House Bill 44?
Steve Ullum: I think mental health is just as important as physical health in academic costs. I think schools have a unique responsibility when students are difficult, we don’t want to be healthcare providers because those are family and doctor decisions. But with everything we are facing these days, I think we need those mental health counselors to address things as they arise. But not only for students, I think we quite frankly need them for teachers and staff as well. Last 2 years, mental health issues have skyrocketed.
Matthew Singleton: I believe that this is really an area for the parents.
It’s important to note that in many cases students either do not feel comfortable or lack a safe, supportive relationship with their parents to discuss mental health. In many cases, schools are a safe haven that provide struggling students with resources to best support them. With the increase in the commonality of students struggling with their mental health, it’s imperative that schools receive sufficient funding to properly receive more mental health practitioners to best support the needs of students
James Craig: We were promised in Senate Bill 1 in 2018 that we would receive SROs and mental health professionals for all of our buildings. The promise was a ratio of 250 students to 1 mental health professional in our legislation, and Frankfort never provided the funding. JCPS has gone above and beyond to try to find funding for mental health professionals over the course of the last 4 years, including efforts to funding that were opposed by most of the people on this call including the incumbents up for re-election, but we’re working hard towards that goal. We have to find funding for these kids.
The last question in the segment surrounded the rights of transgender students. Over the past few years, the state government has moved legislation like Senate Bill 83 that restrict transgender athletes, specifically women, from playing sports with the gender they identify with.
Minhal Nazeer: What would you do to address this and protect the rights of trans students?
Matthew Singleton: If you’re physically capable of demolishing your opponent because of superior genetic strength, we can’t be doing that; you’re gonna hurt somebody's abilities to achieve and get scholarships to go to college.
Not only would this reinforce the gender stereotype that “women are weak and need to be protected,”
but the theory regarding physical capabilities in sports has been refuted many times. Transgender students are not guaranteed to have a higher athletic capability than other students. Factors like the amount of money spent on personal training are more influential to a students’ athletic ability.
Ahamara Brewster: I do not agree. You may identify with being a girl, but who you are is who you are. I would not like to play a sport with me being a woman, cause our anatomy is different. Me competing with a biological male is not fair, and it’s not right. I suggest that we create transgender sports.
The belief that transgender students are not actually the gender they identify with is harmful, and inaccurate. As stated by the ACLU, bans excluding trans athletes from enjoying the sense of belonging, team work, and challenge associated with sports discriminate against trans youth in “ways that compromise their health, social and emotional development, and safety, they also raise a host of privacy concerns.”
Excluding a transgender athlete from competing in a sport further isolates that student.
On the contrary, two candidates advocated for the rights of transgender students to be protected. These candidates highlighted the impact of of exclusion and discrimination on the mental health and well-being of trans youth.
James Craig: I don’t care how you feel Ms. Brewster. The point of public schools is to spread an education for everybody who comes. We know that folks who are facing gender dysphoria are more likely to commit suicide… and they’re feeling of inclusivity in their school is the best way to overcome the challenges that they’re facing. We have to make sure that their needs are met.
Carol Travis-Clark: I believe that if an individual chooses a specific gender that they identify with, I’m in favor for them to play whatever sports that they identify with. We should not discriminate and not let them play sports that they enjoy
In October of 2020, the first-ever student member was selected to serve on the Kentucky Board of Education as a non-voting member. In March of 2021, a substitute bill was going to be introduced to remove the non-voting student and teacher representatives from the Kentucky Board of Education. The Kentucky Student Voice Team designed the #saveourseats campaign throughout the night and created a full-blown media campaign complete to deploy the moment the bill was introduced the next day. The substitution bill was ultimately removed by conference committee when the House overwhelmingly rejected the change, and the student and teacher seats were enshrined in law by the end of the session. This was an absolutely critical moment for student representation in school governance in Kentucky. Although there is a student seat on the Kentucky Board of Education, there has yet to be a student member on the Jefferson County Public Schools board.
Raima Dutt: Do you support student representation on school boards?
Steve Ullum: Absolutely. I think students should have that voice, I’m happy to include them in school board discussions, but I don’t think they should be voting members. I think that it takes the power away from the people. I think it’s the public’s power to elect voting members on the school board.
Ahamara Brewster: I support students being on the board in the capacity of helping the board with decision making. Then, the board would take the actual vote. I would like for them to be there, maybe not in voting capacity, but they are actually there. I wouldn’t mind students being there, not on voting power, but actually being there to help the board as well when it comes to decision making.
This open-floor discussion shared many conflicting viewpoints. Multiple candidates were in favor of students serving on the board, but believed they should be non-voting members. In a way, this response fielded the reaction that student voices on school boards served as performative justice, appearing to have good equitable intentions but not putting those intentions into practice. Students have just as much, if not more insight than fellow educators and administrators. Recognizing the value that students bring to the board while not allowing them to serve as voting members actually shifts the power away from students.
One candidate, however, did not acknowledge or recognize the value that student voices bring to the decision making process.
Matthew Singleton: I think the condition should be based upon if they’re taxpayers, and they’re paying property tax.
Students do not need to be taxpayers to understand the intricacies of their OWN school system. The following candidates acknowledged the importance of student representation on the school board.
Carol Travis-Clark: I feel like students should be allowed to sit on the board. They’re the ones that face everyday issues so they can enlighten the board on that issues that are at hand, so we can make a professional decision on how to move forward.
James Craig: I’m gonna guess that you know more about what we’re dealing with than most of the people on this call, we need your voice. [Directed at Solyana Mesfin, the first ever student member on the Kentucky Board of Education (KBE)]
Solyana Mesfin: I served as a non voting [student] member on the KBE, and it is 100% time to elect student voting members all across global boards of education. Students are capable of voting on these boards. Students have the knowledge to vote on these boards, we have the expertise, and we are also equal counterparts in making those decisions. Therefore, we deserve that power.
Solyana Mesfin, a long-time member of the Kentucky Student Voice Team, said it best. Not only do students possess the qualifications needed to serve on school boards, but they also have the expertise to gain power as a voting-member. Student representation is crucial in education decision-making. The moderators of the town hall, Minhal and Raima, are both high school juniors. They were able to professionally organize, network, and plan a town hall for the school board candidates just a week before the election. The town hall was the first ever student-led school board town hall hosted, demonstrating that students have the expertise to be capable of anything. Students are the present and future. Just because most students are too young to vote does not necessarily mean that they are too young to have a voice in the democratic process.
This is a pivotal year for the country, the state, and the district as we see such critical discussions surrounding reproductive rights, critical race theory, and the mayoral election coming to light. Don’t sit this one out. If you have not already voted by mail, we encourage you to vote in person and use your voice this election but ALSO empower others to do the same.