Aurora panel explores diversity, barriers in schools
Diversity and division are attracting a lot of attention in the political realm -- and in suburban schools.
As nationwide concerns about a resurgence of racial bias trickle into classrooms in diverse cities such as Aurora, educators are moved to respond -- and so are community groups.
So a parent diversity promotion group in Indian Prairie Unit District 204 and an Indian-American outreach board in Aurora recently convened a panel to discuss the role of schools in ensuring the safety and cultural integration of students.
"Children just need to know they are loved and they are safe," said Sanjog Aul of Aurora, moderator of the panel hosted at Waubonsie Valley High School and founder of the technology podcast company CIO Talk Network. "We have to look at what's going on in the environment that might take away the feeling of being loved or feeling safe."
Aul asked panelists, composed of three school leaders, two attorneys and a businessman, to describe what's causing problems in cultural integration of local students -- in one word.
"Adults," said Karen Sullivan, superintendent of Indian Prairie Unit District 204, which serves parts of Aurora, Naperville, Bolingbrook and Plainfield.
"Social media," said Darrell Echols, principal of Metea Valley High School in Aurora.
"Barriers," said Aadil Farid, partner in an IT company and former board president of the Islamic Center of Naperville.
"Mean," said Tejas Shah, an immigration attorney, intending to convey that people's meanness prevents inclusion and integration.
"Bullying," said Charles Fox, a special education attorney.
"News," said Tony Martinez, director of community affairs for West Aurora Unit District 129.
Members of the audience of roughly 100 people chimed in, too, pointing out problems such as assumptions, forced assimilation, bias, intolerance and ignorance.
Panelists, at Aul's prompting, tried to come up with "one thing new, more or different" they can do to help ensure student safety and cultural integration, despite the challenges.
But with so much gray area in topics of diversity and inclusion, one of the organizers of the event, Gautam Bhatia of Aurora, admitted that coming up with concrete ideas is going to take more time -- and more talk.
"My vision is not just to have a discussion and forget about it," said Bhatia, a founding member of the city of Aurora's Indian American Community Outreach Advisory Board. "The idea is to do a series and the topics may evolve. This is just a starting point."
School leaders say they try to promote safety by ensuring students' voices are heard when they report bullying or other inappropriate behavior. Sullivan said District 204 schools try to counter negative outside messages by challenging students to think differently.
But among the high school population, especially, educators say issues of cultural inclusion are amplified by challenges of self-discovery. Echols said schools encounter a lot of students struggling with self-esteem.
"Am I as good as I think I am?" he said students wonder, often comparing themselves to other cultural groups or to whatever seems to be the norm.
Students want to fit in, so if the culture seems negative, they'll display negative behaviors, too, Martinez said.
And sometimes, all types of people just don't give each other a chance.
"Diversity," Farid said, "is something we need to experience."
The Indian American Community Outreach Advisory Board likely will plan a follow-up discussion in the coming months, Bhatia said. The other group involved with the panel, the Parent Diversity Advisory Council in District 204, already has several dates planned to discuss implicit bias, including three more events this year and five in 2018 to go over advantages afforded by race, religion, ability, language and income.