Advisory group study topics focus on Pickerington Schools diversity issues

Nate Ellis
ThisWeek group
Pickerington Schools

About 75 residents have signed on to help Pickerington Schools develop strategies to enhance diversity, equity and inclusion in the district. 

The first of what is expected to be monthly meetings of a new Citizens’ Advisory Committee was Oct. 26. In addition to the 75 community members, the committee includes 20 district staff members and all five members of the Pickerington school board. 

Subcommittees of roughly 20 people each will address: 

• The level of understanding of diversity issues by staff. 

• Students’ understanding of diversity issues and that understanding can be expanded. 

• Recruitment and retention issues for faculty and staff. 

• Creating a well-rounded education curriculum to make students more prepared to work in a global economy. 

• Examining discipline policies so discipline taken against students and staff is equitable. 

Board President Lori Sanders said the committee will try to meet virtually each month. The next two meetings are scheduled for Nov. 9 and Dec. 14; district officials are exploring ways to either allow the public to watch the sessions live or via archived videos. 

Advisory committee members were selected after informing school board members of their interest and citing qualifications related to respective subcommittees. 

“This is a new endeavor for us, and we believe it’s the first of its kind in central Ohio,” Sanders said. “This group was formed because there is a belief by a number of people that the district can benefit from having an open and informative forum about diversity, equity and inclusion. 

“When we talk about DEI, we will be addressing not only racial diversity, but rather inclusivity for all, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, learning aptitude or other things that make each child unique,” she said. “We all want to provide them with the best environment in which to learn and thrive and we want to see all of them graduate with the confidence and tools to take on the world.” 

If work progresses as planned, the advisory committee would present recommendations to the school board in August. 

“It’s going to be a study, a needs-assessment,” Sanders said. “We want to look at what are the needs that aren’t being met for Step 1, and Step 2 would be, ‘What can we do?’ ” 

According to the district, about 48.3% of Pickerington Schools’ 10,600 students are female and 51.7% are male. Approximately 46% are non-Caucasian, including 29% who are Black, 7.6% who are mixed-race, 6% who are Hispanic and 5% who are Asian. 

“Our students come from households that speak over 53 languages,” Sanders said. “On the faculty side, our teachers and administrators are 90.5% Caucasian, 0.9% Hispanic, 6.5% Black and 1% from other underrepresented groups.” 

The CAC was established after the district dealt with several incidents in recent years involving both students and staff members. 

In January 2016, all students at Pickerington High School North took part in cultural-sensitivity training after a photo circulated on social media of a student wearing a Ku Klux Klan costume that had been taken from the school’s Performing Arts Center prop room. 

In April 2016, three Pickerington High School Central students were suspended after a video was posted to social media in which a student was seen pumping a shotgun and asking others on camera if they're "ready to go (N-word) hunting?" 

Last month, district officials faced criticism from community members who said they took inequitable disciplinary action against two school administrators for social media posts this summer. 

In one incident, Tussing Elementary assistant Principal Damicka Bates, who is Black, was denied a planned promotion to become principal at Pickerington Elementary because she posted a photo of her daughter posing near anti-police graffiti at a downtown Columbus protest. 

In another, Ruth Stickel, principal of Fairfield Elementary School, received a disciplinary letter Sept. 30 after posting controversial and political comments on Facebook, including sharing an image that said "Black Lives Matter is a leftist lie." 

Stickel, who is white, commented, "he was a criminal" on a news article about a memorial scholarship named for George Floyd, a Black man whose death while under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in May ignited worldwide protests against racial injustice. 

Stickel also posted a comment alleging that Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris wants to make the United States a communist nation and that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, should be charged with murder, stating "his little (President Barack) Obama and Fauci lab in Wuhan is cooking something up." 

Those events bookended the February 2019 retirement of former Pickerington Police Chief Mike Taylor, who stepped down amid allegations he had made homophobic, racist and sexist statements to police staff. 

Sanders said she hopes the work of the CAC will enhance understanding of issues of diversity and inclusion throughout the local community. 

“We do have a lot of great things here, but the world is ever-changing and we can always do better,” Sanders said. “We want a situation where change can occur for us by bringing a lot of participation from the community and give it some structure.” 

The advisory committee’s work is being assisted by Joelle Khouzam, a partner with Bricker & Eckler LLP, who is under contract with the district for $21,000. 

“I was asked to assist the board with this project because of work I have previously done with clients, including conducting training around workplace issues, including diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Khouzam said. “I initially helped the board gauge the district’s needs by developing a survey and then structuring a yearlong program.  

“The goal is to see the district challenge itself to best serve all its students, its faculty and staff and the community at large. The way to do that is to gather ideas informed by different points of view and lived experiences.” 

nellis@thisweeknews.com 

@ThisWeekNate