Parents’ push for public dialogue about race begins at John Stark

  • Sharon Houle introduces her husband, Eric, to the John Stark District School Board as they prepare to speak about the issues their children have faced at school before the budget meeting on Friday night at John Stark Regional High School. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • John Stark School District Board Chair Zach Lawson listens to Eric and Sharon Houle as they address the board before the budget meeting on Friday night, January 13, 2023. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Sharon Houle and her husband, Eric, talk with Manchester NAACP President James McKim before the John Stark School District board meeting on Friday night at John Stark Regional High School. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Sharon Houle and her husband, Eric, listen to the John Stark School District board before the budget meeting on Friday night at John Stark Regional High School. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

For the Monitor and Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 1/14/2023 2:01:12 PM

Eric and Sharon Houle finally felt heard.

They came to the school board Friday night to discuss discrimination in schools after their Black son was the victim of a racial death threat at John Stark Regional High School last April.

“We are here to ask, ‘How can we prevent and respond to these incidents in the future?’ ” said Sharon Houle. “We know that the current policies have failed; otherwise we would not be here tonight.”

During two separate discussion periods, school board members listened and made a plan to form a committee that will help keep the community conversation going.

Others in the audience showed support and thanks.

“I’m very grateful that the school board is discussing this tonight,” said David Trumble of Weare. “It is coming out so positively in support of this family, and I just want them to know that the town is with you.”

On Friday, days before the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, the John Stark School Board was scheduled to hold a public hearing on the proposed 2023-2024 school budget. However, much of the night was spent discussing how to handle discrimination in the school district.

The Houles proposed creating a committee to advise the district on how to handle and prevent discrimination in schools. They suggested the committee would include parents, both past and present, along with teachers, administration, students, community members and outside sources.

School board members who represent the towns of Weare and Henniker favored creating a committee that will build community education and dialogue around all forms of discrimination, not just racism.

“I think that your request of forming a community around this, or a committee around this, is one we will take under advisement,” said Zach Lawson, chair of the school board.

With only a short time block to discuss the Houles’ proposal before moving on to the planned budget public hearing, the board assured the Houles and community members that there would be continued conversation on the subject later that evening, and into the following weeks.

“I do think that some of this is in motion, so I’m incredibly excited about that,” said school board member Deb Urbaitis. “At the next meeting, we can talk about, ‘How do we collaborate as a community and really across all of SAU 24?’ ”

Following the budget public hearing, the board made their way back to the Houles’ proposal and reopened conversation with the public.

James McKim, president of the Manchester branch of the NAACP, approached the podium to offer encouragement and advice on how to proceed moving forward.

“First, I want to commend you all for hitting it head-on,” he said. “It takes courage to talk about such a difficult topic.”

McKim emphasized the idea of getting all stakeholders involved to bring different perspectives to the committee.

“Who has a stake in the success of the district?” he said. “It’s not just the teachers and the administrators and the board and the students and the parents. There are other stakeholders as well.”

McKim told the board he would be happy to help out, whether that was coaching or providing facilitation on how to go about forming a committee.

Another resource present at the meeting was members from New Hampshire Listens, a community engagement initiative that works to facilitate inclusive public dialogue among different communities in the state. McKim said members of New Hampshire Listens are ready to help begin conversations around discrimination in SAU 24 schools.

“They’re experienced, they’re willing, they’ve been here,” he said. “Take advantage of them.”

The board decided that Superintendent Jacqueline Coe and team members would have homework to put together plans for a committee before the next school board meeting on Feb. 10.

“I feel like we landed in a good spot and that we have agreement around what the next steps are,” said Coe.

The Houles, who live in Weare, are pleased to finally have a public conversation after what’s been a long nine-month struggle in search of administrative action following the reported civil rights violation that targeted their son the week before April vacation.

On April 20, 2022, two 17-year-old male juveniles carved, wrote and caused threatening, race-motivated property damage inside a bathroom at John Stark Regional High School, according to the civil complaints filed in the Northern Judicial District of the Hillsborough County Superior Court.

While the incident took place in April, parents of John Stark weren’t informed of what happened until May 27, when Principal Gary Dempsey sent out an email to the community stating that an “ugly, racist threat” had taken place within the high school.

The Houles were frustrated that the school administration didn’t inform parents about the incident sooner and use it as an opportunity for a wider dialogue in the district, which has just a few Black students.

“Parents need to be informed of incidents in a timely manner, in hours, not days or months,” said Sharon Houle.

The Houles said that putting a date on the calendar to begin forming the committee was a big win from Friday night’s meeting.

“It’s promising,” said Eric Houle. “There’s still a lot of work to be done, but it’s a start.”

The incident was reported to the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Unit by the Weare Police Department. Both complaints against the white students are still pending.

The Houles have said their focus is not to punish the perpetrators but to make this experience a learning opportunity and chance for community growth.

“When we educate kids, we all win. When we educate and give teachers a voice, we set students up to win,” said Sharon Houle. “This sounds like a win-win situation.”

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