Examining Our Biases and Speaking Out against Racist Incidents

The article “7-year-old girl traumatized after White school staff member cuts her hair” first came across my news feed on Saturday evening, April 17. I clicked on the article to learn more. How could something like this happen in a school? As I began to read the article, my reaction was one of shock and disbelief. This happened in Michigan? This happened in a school library?

The article quoted the girl’s father: “’My library teacher cut my hair.’ I couldn’t believe it. I jumped in the car to go to the school but realized it was spring break. I couldn’t get ahold of anyone, so I called the cops.” The library teacher was listed as a media specialist on the school’s website.

My heart ached for this young girl. The article reported that she was very upset and has had trouble sleeping. It also said that she switched schools and started going to counseling. Now I was angry. This type of incident should never happen to any child at school.

Yet, I could not imagine that a certified school librarian would do something like this. I believe firmly in the AASL core value of equity, diversity, and inclusion (http://www.ala.org/aasl/about/govern). School librarians work hard to teach students to respect others and to view all perspectives and viewpoints. School librarians ensure that their school library is a safe place for students. They are actively involved in making sure that all students are valued and have access to diverse literature in order to see themselves in books as well as to see and respect others and develop empathy.

So, I did a little research. The Michigan Association for Media in Education (MAME) membership database showed no members from Mt. Pleasant Public Schools. In Michigan, media specialists must be certified teachers. So, I then checked the Michigan teacher certification verification website. The search for the woman named as the school librarian in the article came back with no credentials found. I also checked the Michigan Registry of Education Personnel spreadsheet, which includes a column for media specialists and a column for library support staff. The row for Mt. Pleasant Public Schools indicated zero media specialists and six library support staff (four of whom were labeled as media specialists on the district website).

I reported this incorrect placement of library staff based on guidelines (https://www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/Library_Media_Placements_606360_7.PDF) to the Michigan Department of Education (MDE). Personnel at MDE advised that I could write the district directly. So, I did.

I sent an e-mail on my lunch hour on Monday to the superintendent, the school board, and the principal of the school; I asked them to correct the misrepresentation of the staff member’s credentials on the website. I asked that they consider hiring at least one certified school librarian in their district because I believe that having at least one certified library staff member would make an incident like this less likely to happen. In addition, I asked that they provide equity, diversity, and inclusion training to their staff including their paraprofessional staff. I also asked for support from the district for the biracial girl and her family.

I also let the principal know that I would be sending copies of the books Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry and I Love My Natural Crown by King Ki’el as donations to the school library at Ganiard Elementary.

By the time I got home from school that late afternoon, the district’s website had been updated to modify the staff member’s title to media assistant.

In the meantime, both MAME and the Michigan Reading Association were contacted for statements about the incident. A joint statement was published on April 21.

I attended the Mt. Pleasant Public School Board meeting on the evening of Monday, April 19, to see if I could learn more about the incident. At the beginning of the meeting, the board stated that the media report was inaccurate, but did not clarify. They also mentioned that there were issues they could not speak about because of privacy concerns.

The public comment portion of the meeting went on for several hours. Since it was a virtual board meeting, there were commenters from a wide variety of locations including California and Switzerland. Some comments and questions that stuck with me included reports from BIPOC women about their own negative experiences involving their hair, questions asking if anyone has heard about hair incidences like this occurring with white girls, and a local Native American woman (in person) speaking about her tribe’s hair culture and a rule that foster parents of a Native American child cannot cut the child’s hair without permission from the birth parents.

While I did not learn new specifics about the incident or the district’s response, I do know that the staff member, no matter her motivation, was wrong in cutting the child’s hair. While I’d like to believe that this incident would not have occurred if the district had employed a certified school librarian, commenters on the article suggested that incidents do and can happen with certified staff.

Thus, we must work as a profession to train ourselves and to train paraprofessional staff in equity, diversity, and inclusion, and anti-racism. We must continue to work to diversify our profession. We must continue to examine our own biases and speak up against incidents with undertones of racism and violence such as this.

One possible resource for training is the Project Ready (Reimagining Equity and Access for Diverse Youth) Online Curriculum for library staff. The curriculum was designed to improve knowledge of race and racism, racial equity, and culturally sustaining pedagogy: https://ready.web.unc.edu/

I believe all children deserve to feel safe in their schools and safe in their school libraries. We must embrace the AASL core value of equity, diversity, and inclusion in all that we do.

Author: Kathy Lester

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

Tags: , , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. Thank you so much for this well thought out article and your proactive actions!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.