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Silver Chips interviews former MCPS Student Members of the Board of Education

On July 16, Silver Chips’ Anika Seth, Aviva Bechky, and Abednego Togas sat down with three previous Student Members of the Board of Education (SMOBs)—Matthew Post, Ananya Tadikonda, and Nathaniel Tinbite—to discuss their recent op/ed about inequity in Montgomery County Public Schools (published in the Washington Post). Conversation topics included racial equity, sexual misconduct, mental health services, and the School Resource Officer program.

The full interview is published both both as a a video series on our YouTube channel, split up by topic, and a written transcript on our website. We welcome feedback: Feel free to reach out to silver.chips.print@gmail.com with any questions or comments.


Part 1: Introductionmeet Silver Chips and the SMOBs


Seth: Thank you to all three of you for your time speaking with us. So just for some quick introductions, I'm Anika, one of the editors-in-chief at Silver Chips at Montgomery Blair. Aviva is here—she's one of our opinions editors—and so is Abednego; he's a features editor at Silver Chips. But before we get into some of our questions about your joint op/ed and your thoughts on student safety in MCPS, would you all mind just telling us your year on the Board and where you're at right now, how things are going in general? That would be cool. Anyone can start.


Tinbite: Sure, I'll start off, since I'm the youngest of the three. So my name's Nate, I just finished my term on the Board this year, and I'm a rising freshman at Cornell, and it's... I'm sorry, what was your third question?


Seth: How are things?


Tinbite: Yeah, things are, things are going good. Trying to keep myself busy throughout the summer. The Board term has been an interesting term and experience, which I'm sure Matt and Ananya can attest to. It's been a great high school tenure for sure. I've been able to experience a lot of things, to talk to many people, and just do the work that I love. And so now I'm just prepping up for freshman year at college, and I hope that I have a real first semester.


Seth: Sounds great. Ananya?


Tadikonda: Yeah, hi everyone. Thank you for having this conversation with us today. I'm Ananya, I served on the Board in the 2018-2019 school year. And, right now, I'm a rising sophomore at UNC Chapel Hill studying public health, and things are going… Definitely an unprecedented time. That's all I have to say about that, but trying to do my best to give back to the community to the extent that it's possible, and continue thinking about some of the problems that I was first exposed to, or first began to truly understand, when I was on the Board. So, thank you again.


Seth: Awesome.


Post: Yeah, hi guys. My name's Matt. I served on the Board in 2017 and 2018, which feels like a lifetime ago now. I'm a rising junior at Yale University, studying ethics, politics, and economics. And, what's the vibe check? You know, not great, but given the privilege I sort of have in being fine, mostly just being bored, I'm pretty blessed given all the craziness that's happening across the country right now. So, with that in mind, I'm doing okay.


Seth: Thank you so much again to all three of you. So our intention here is just to ask you some questions about that op/ed in the Washington Post, but also get your thoughts on student safety in light of all the anecdotes coming out on social media, especially about sexual assault and bigotry within MCPS. So, Aviva, do you want to take the first few questions?



CHIPS TALKS with three previous Montgomery County Student Members of the Board of Education.
From left to right: (top) Silver Chips' Aviva Bechky, Anika Seth, and Abednego Togas;  (bottom) previous SMOBs Matthew Post, Ananya Tadikonda, and Nathaniel Tinbite.

Part 2: School boundaries, racial integration, and balancing the views of the “vocal minority” with those of the entire county


Bechky: Yeah, sure. So in your Washington Post op/ed, you mentioned that people living in Montgomery County have given the school system, kind of, you said, “a go-ahead to pursue bolder policies of racial and socioeconomic equality,” and then you said that we should kind of go further than that, not just stop there. So what specifically do you support in terms of these bold new policies, and then what more beyond those policies do you think that the county should do? Anyone.


Post: So I think on the surface, in all future boundary decisions, the racial and socioeconomic composition of the schools, the outcomes of those boundary decisions, that should be the most important factor in those decisions. Obviously you can't put people in a bus all the way across county, can't get people from Damascus to go all the way down to Silver Spring, but we have an enormous number of schools in this county, which means you have an enormous number of lines, just boundary lines and it's very easy to tweak them to balance out student populations so we're both addressing over enrollment and the concentration of poverty in the county. And that's for what the op/ed is talking about, but beyond that, MCPS has so much more work to do, to make sure that the books that we read in English class reflect the cultural diversity of the school system, that our teachers are receiving actual cultural proficiency training and not just something that they click through, to make sure that the history curriculum that we learn starting in elementary school reflects the reality of this country and not some whitewashed colonialist interpretation of it. This county has a long way to go before it truly adopts an anti-racist model of education.


MCPS has so much more work to do, to make sure that the books that we read in English class reflect the cultural diversity of the school system, that our teachers are receiving actual cultural proficiency training and not just something that they click through, to make sure that the history curriculum that we learn starting in elementary school reflects the reality of this country and not some whitewashed colonialist interpretation of it.
Matthew Post, the 40th Student Member of the Board of Education


Tadikonda: Building off of that, I think one commitment that I truly believed in at the time of proposing the analysis, and the reason that I proposed the analysis was that students, and myself, believed that we need to do a proactive look at boundaries across our district. We can't just wait for a time when there's a new school built to make that shared commitment to equity and diversity, because time and again, it proved, we proved, the Board proved that they were unable to make those individual bold changes at the time that new schools were built to really ensure that there was equity across the board and that our schools retained the diversity that our county is so fortunate to have. So in the analysis it's definitely been highlighted that there are many opportunities for us to do better, and right now, it may feel like to the community that we're making all, we may engage in all of these rapid changes, but in reality, those changes need to be made as a result of many, many years of conscious decisions to continue separating populations by race and socioeconomic status, and that's because of those loud voices that came to the table every single time we had one of these decisions in front of us and said, 'We don't want this. We want anything but this.' And an elected body is going to always respond to the constituents that are the loudest, that may have the most say in future elections, that may come to the table every single time. And that's why we've had these generations of decisions that have negatively impacted very specific populations. So just to go back to your question, I apologize, I kind of went off on a tangent, but my— what I support and what I believe in is that this approach that is racial equity and social justice in our schools has to be something we think about all the time. It can't just be something that comes up because people notice that there are disparities in school population, because people notice that there is an opportunity gap. It has to be something we think about in every single decision we make. And like Matt said, we have a long way to go before we do that, but I hope that at least, this time is a wake-up call for all of our elected officials, whether it be school board, county council, state legislature, to continue thinking about every decision from this standpoint.


Tinbite: Bouncing off of what Ananya said, I think one reason why our op/ed was so important was because we're saying that it's, having an anti-racist curriculum is not enough. Saying you'll help out our lack and brown and impoverished students is not enough. You have to start addressing the deep roots of this issue, of systemic racism, of marginalization of black and brown people. With this thing that we, with what we said in our op/ed, which is school integration, it's one thing that worked after Brown v. Board, but has reversed our schools back to what schools looked like back then, and that's the problem that we're in right now. And so I hope this op/ed that we wrote together truly conveys the message that one way to address the deep rooted issue of the marginalization and oppression against black and brown students is through integration.


Bechky: And then you mentioned, I think Ananya, the vocal minorities. So how can other people kind of combat that? How can parents, students, teachers, and administrators help to contribute to school desegregation?


Tadikonda: Absolutely. So I think, first and foremost, is making your voice as heard as possible directly by the people making these decisions. And that doesn't necessarily have to be in person; that can be via emails. I'm sure Matt and Nate can also attest to this, but we get tons of emails, and every single email we get from constituents comes individually to Board member inboxes as well. So Board members read these emails, and they see them, and when multiple people email saying that they don't want their housing value property—their property values to go down, or that they don't want [their kids] to sit on the bus for five more minutes, and we get 500 of those emails versus ten or 15 emails from a group of students, who in reality aren't necessarily even yet in the voting population for school board members other than the SMOB, there's of course a big disparity. So it's really important for students to turn out in those same numbers, because there's as much of a shared passion, but there's less awareness about how to contribute that in the most effective manner possible. And there are a lot of conversationsI, you know, Matt, Nate, and I all heard them on the campaign trail, when we did our school visits as SMOBs—there are lots of conversations that happen within schools, and it would be really great for students to take those conversations and translate them to direct advocacy, to people who actually vote on these issues. Showing up to Board meetings. I know that times have changed right now, there's not necessarily in person opportunities, but when that returns, showing up. Matt mentioned earlier today that if there's a group of 20 students in the room, that's the largest coalition or group of students on a shared issue who are going to show up to a Board meeting. Not that many people really show up in person in big groups other than students and teachers, really, so I think it's really important to make that direct impact as much as possible. Regardless of whether you're able to really make it in person or not, because at the end of the day, we can have as many conversations about this problem or other problems as we can, but the real impact is going to be when we speak with the people who are in power, which is the reality of the situation. 



When multiple people email [the Board] saying that they don't want... their property values to go down, or that they don't want [their kids] to sit on the bus for five more minutes, and we get 500 of those emails versus ten or 15 emails from a group of students, who in reality aren't necessarily even yet in the voting population for school board members other than the SMOB, there's of course a big disparity. So it's really important for students to turn out in those same numbers, because there's as much of a shared passion, but there's less awareness about how to contribute that in the most effective manner possible.
Ananya Tadikonda, the 41st Student Member of the Board of Education



Part 3: Specific ways to effect change


Bechky: Okay. And, anyone, do you think petitions, which a lot—there are a lot of petitions going around. Do you think these are effective, or is it more effective to share voices individually?


Post: Yeah, I mean, I don't think petitions are particularly... I mean I think, I think if you got a huge number of people to sign a petition it would be effective, but I think it would be way more effective if every person who signed a petition just instead sent an email to Board members individually or wrote a letter. I totally agree with everything that Ananya said. And yeah, it really only takes 20 people to change Board members' minds, or to change the direction of a policy. That was the thing, and tell me if you guys disagree, that was the thing I took away the most from my experience on the Board was how hypersensitive the school board and all local politics is to perceived public opinion, which is incredibly easy to shape. Because local government is so distant from people, so few people are engaged with it; when people do engage with it, the people in power notice. You know, school board's at the bottom of the ballot but has this enormous control of the school system, and at the same time, it doesn't really hear from folks. So, yeah, even more than emails, I think sending letters to Board members is hyper effective. The Board members open them, read them. They don't receive a whole lot of letters; they do receive a decent number of emails. Calling the Board office I think is effective; that will get reported to the Board. Tweeting at the Board members I think is effective. And also, I think the barrier to participation at Board meetings is actually significantly lower now than it was when things were in person because all you have to do is sign up. You can sign up to speak at a Board meeting, because they have a section for public comments, and you can just do it over Zoom. You can share your beliefs directly to the people in power. So yeah, there's a whole slew of things that are really effective, but the more direct you get, where you know that the Board members are reading it, the more likely it is to actually be effective.

Tinbite: Yeah, I'd probably say, I'd probably say one thing that really shaped my term and what I would talk about with Board members is when students who I've never heard of would actually come up to me and talk to me about issues that they care about. Bouncing off of what Matt and Ananya said, which is what I completely agree with, I think students who are organized in a school, let's say Blair High School, and it were your newspaper club, if all of you came to talk to the SMOB, which never happens, then the SMOB would notice, and therefore bring up the issues that you're talking about in, at Board conversations, in meetings, et cetera, or if as a newspaper club, y'all published the resources to email these Board members or write the letters, that would also be effective too. I think it's not one thing or another, it's everything combined, and that way you'd be able to push on the issues that you're hoping to get done. And we've seen that by folks who are anti-boundary changes. They're doing anything and everything possible, and they're not even just hitting the Board members from social media or from letters or from groups online. They're hitting us legally as well. And so that's one thing that you can see. They're doing anything and everything possible to get their voices heard on this issue. And for students who agree with us on integration, it's time for them to do the same.


Bechky: And what about people like parents, teachers, or administrators? Do they have other options that they should be taking to make their voices heard?


Tinbite: Teachers and administrators have unions, so they voice their concerns through there. Parents have the MCCPTA, just as we have our SMOB and county student governments, so parents traditionally voice their concerns through there. But a lot of parents who don't go through MCCPTA straight up write to the Board. They don't want to waste time on this, on whatever they're trying to get their voices heard on. But they do that, Board members show up to MCCPTA meetings, and they also show up to student events, and teachers and parents who voice their concerns on issues can either go through their parent route as part of MCCPTA or through their unions, which would then speak to MCPS leaders.


Note from Silver Chips: The MCCPTA is the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, and more information can be found here




I think it would be way more effective if every person who signed a petition just instead sent an email to Board members individually or wrote a letter... Calling the Board office I think is effective; that will get reported to the Board. Tweeting at the Board members I think is effective. And also, I think the barrier to participation at Board meetings is actually significantly lower now than it was when things were in person because all you have to do is sign up. You can sign up to speak at a Board meeting, because they have a section for public comments, and you can just do it over Zoom. You can share your beliefs directly to the people in power... the more direct you get, where you know that the Board members are reading it, the more likely it is to actually be effective.
Matthew Post, the 40th Student Member of the Board of Education



Part 4: Sexual abuse within schools—such as Damascus, Seneca Valley, and Gaithersburg High Schools—and the ongoing county-wide investigation


Seth: That makes a lot of sense. So we want to switch gears a little bit here to the ongoing sexual assault investigations. So this might be more pertinent to Matt and Ananya, but as SMOBs at the time that Damascus and Seneca Valley and Gaithersburg, when those events occurred, can you talk a little bit about what conversations happened within the Board with respect to those events? Was there information that the Board knew before the public about any of this? What was the general dynamic with those conversations?


Note from Silver Chips: In recent months, lawsuits were filed against administration and staff members at the three above listed schools (Damascus, Seneca Valley, and Gaithersburg), as well as against the school board, for negligence with respect to sexual abuse. 


Post: That's all Ananya's term, so I think she can speak to that.


Tadikonda: Yeah, so, absolutely. A lot of the questions that, sorry, a lot of the conversations that did happen during my time on the Board I unfortunately can't fully disclose; just for full transparency, I want to share that. But I will say it did change a lot of the conversations that were being had about proactive approaches to these system-wide ideas that we've always talked about but not necessarily taken a completely proactive approach to, so for example a culture of respect between students and among students was something that was discussed, and Dr. Smith talked about significantly. Also, talking about a holistic review of our sports programs, which I'm sure you all saw, to talk about the types of relationships that students have with each other who are on these teams or in these groups. It doesn't even have to be limited to sports, it can really be any group of students. Thinking about how we can proactively address possible strains in these, in these communities to ensure that such events never take place. It was surely something quite difficult to deal with as a system and as a community, as a Montgomery County community, especially for the community at Damascus High School, but it really brought to light what kind of systemic changes we need to be thinking about as a system. And I will say, as a Board member observing the process, the school system really got to the core, really tried to get to the core of the issue as opposed to just trying to address one singular instance, because in reality we don't know if this has happened before, or if it's a common occurrence, and I think that that's something that to the public, even, Dr. Smith, our superintendent, really expressed a commitment to, is ensuring that all of our students' safety is protected in a proactive manner so that we don't have to come back and necessarily address the, we don't have to have, students don't have to experience the trauma that comes with such an instance. So we shouldn't have to address these issues after they've already happened; we should be preventing them, is what kind of came out of those conversations. And I definitely think, as a student, as a student Board member, I really appreciated that, because it really demonstrated the system's shared commitment to student safety. 


Anika: For sure. So I guess the WilmerHale report that was commissioned after the Damascus incident—Do you think that something like that is in order now based on what's been coming out recently, or is that not needed yet?


Note from Silver Chips: After the events at Damascus High School on Oct 31. 2018, MCPS hired the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr (WilmerHale) to conduct an external review of after-school supervision for athletics and other extracurricular activities. The objective was for the firm to identify steps MCPS could take to prevent further incidents like the one at Damascus from occurring. While WilmerHale’s review, which was separate from ongoing legal investigations, did not find any evidence of widespread bullying, hazing, or sexual assault within Montgomery County, the document provided three recommendations to the school system: to “create in-person interactive hazing training and programming for student athletes and extracurricular participants… create in-person interactive trainings and programming for athletic directors and administrators to train coaches and sponsors on preventing and responding to hazing, bullying, and sexual assault… [and] emphasize ‘tone at the top,’ as well as the importance of engaging students on bullying, hazing, and sexual assault, in trainings for administrators, athletic directors, coaches, and sponsors.”


Tadikonda: I definitely think that a similar assessment could be done to better understand the pervasiveness of—So just to clarify, you're referring to the allegations of sexual assault and harassment by students?


Seth: Yes.


Tadikonda: Yeah, absolutely. I think that there needs to be a system wide assessment of how individual—a lot of this comes down to individual administration as well, right? So in reality, the system is overseeing 207 schools with over 160,000 students. So I don't necessarily know how such an assessment could be outlined. The system has even changed since I've been on the board even though it's only been two years. But it would be important to really think about how we are holding staff and administrators accountable to ensure that it's not only about incidents not happening, because the reality is a lot of things happen under the rug, which is what has been demonstrated by this Instagram account with all of these stories. But it has to be that every single student feels safe when they walk into the building. That's the reality that we need to create. And I believe it is an order for the system to assess, maybe not in the same exact way they did for the other report, but in a manner that is most effective for this particular issue. So I know that's a bit vague. But to clarify, the board isn't really the body that engages in the direct work, like assessment and review of these system wide problems. It's the superintendent who brings this information to the board. So that's why I'm not able to give you a very clear outline of what I think that such a study or analysis would entail, if that makes sense. So, unless Matt or Nate have anything to add in that realm.


Post: I question whether—and we sort of talked about this in the op/ed—oftentimes, the response to crises is to study it and collect more data on things that we already know. So we know that this is a pervasive problem in our schools and that clearly, it's not being addressed, right? People don't make these Instagram accounts and come forward like this if they feel like justice has been done. And importantly, they wouldn't need to even come forward if we were teaching students consent and respect at an early age so that the sexual assault and the harassment and the predation isn't happening in the first place. So in my view, yeah I think MCPS has fallen super short, and what we're seeing now is the explosion. It's what happens when you don't address an issue. People get frustrated, and they turn to whatever outlets they possibly can. You know, the system has dragged its feet on stuff like embedding consent into the health curriculum, creating an anonymous online reporting form for sexual harassment and assault. I think our health curriculum needs to go way further, way earlier, and talking about consent and talking about respect. And I think only then, can we say that we've actually addressed these issues. Studying them is not nearly enough. Although it probably couldn't hurt to hear more feedback from students; it never hurts to hear more feedback from students on how the system can do better.


Tadikonda: Yeah, I think an analysis, to build off of what Matt was saying, would be more as a measure of accountability than a measure of trying to understand the issue better. Because like he said, we all know what the problem is. And hopefully, the system and administrators at schools understand it too. But I believe that the analysis that happened in the subsequent report after the Damascus High School incident was something that increased individual administrator accountability and other school professional accountability as well. So taking this comprehensive look would be beneficial while simultaneously also listening to these individuals stories and taking action in response. So it's kind of a combination of the two, but it's one of the interesting dynamics with such a big system is how do you manage at both an individual and system-wide level justice for all students? Definitely a challenge that I observed when I was on the board. By no means excuses the problems that we see in our schools. But hopefully students can propose some creative ways to combat that challenge.


Tinbite: Yeah, I completely agree with every single thing that Matt and Ananya said. And I think a big thing for the future, just as Matt mentioned, is teaching our young children consent and respect. I know that's one thing that both all three of us have pushed on. And it's a matter of being proactive and not reactive in these situations. Not just sending out an email to staff, parents and students saying you'll look at it and work on it, but actually doing things and saying that and putting out a press release with action steps that you're taking right there. I mean, it's as simple as that, and everything that Matt mentioned, it shouldn't be a conversation of 2020. I mean, this should have been done decades ago. But we're here now and we just have to keep pushing on this issue to make sure that we hold the system accountable for its failures in being proactive on sexual assault.



It's a matter of being proactive and not reactive in these situations. Not just sending out an email to staff, parents, and students saying you'll look at it and work on it, but actually doing things and saying that and putting out a press release with action steps that you're taking right there.
Nathaniel Tinbite, the 42nd Student Member of the Board of Education




Part 5: Considering the role of teachers’ unions in cases of staff misconduct


Seth: Yeah, for sure. Nate, you mentioned earlier unions. So I guess that one thing that unions have pushed for, for teachers, is tenure. But what are your thoughts on tenure as it relates to teachers who may engage in misconduct themselves and or fail to report misconduct of other students? At what extent should tenure stop protecting teachers from being reassigned to other schools?


Tinbite: As soon as any wrongdoing has happened. Right? I mean, I'm pro-union for sure, but one thing that I've always seen that's been a pain for school districts, for institutions, is that we've seen this with police killings, with police brutality, when there is someone who does wrongdoing, there's a lot of stonewalling. There's a lot of patience when, if you see something that's happened—if you've just seen wrongdoing, then you take action on it right there. And then—but that's obviously discussion for union leaders, for administrators and school districts, something for them to work on. They're not contract negotiations. I know that they still have a—they're still finalizing their contract with MCEA, for example.


Note from Silver Chips: The MCEA is the Montgomery County Education Association, which is the MCPS teachers’ union. More information can be found here


Post: Yeah, my understanding of—and I think if you talk to anyone from MCEA, they'd tell you that their job is to protect teachers, for sure, but I don't think in cases of sexual misconduct that the union would be standing behind the teacher. I think that the union would not be preventing the system from firing or getting rid of a teacher who's committed sexual misconduct.


Seth: Right. I think where some of the disconnect might exist is because it's very hard to apply a tenure policy that doesn't apply to every individual, right? So with substitutes, for example, one school can say, “No, you can't sub at my high school,” but then that sub can continue to instruct at elementary or middle or other high schools across the county, hypothetically—which has happened in the past. So I don't know if you all have recommendations for how tenure and/or unionization can happen in a way that's more productive and balances those two things. It's obviously a very loaded and difficult question to answer.


Tinbite: So, you know, from the start and from my knowledge, based off of how I ended off this year, I mean, that's a conversation to bring up to your SMOB, right? That's the reason why we have a SMOB and what's actually so effective here versus everywhere else. Our SMOB actually sits in on contract negotiations, votes on our contract negotiations, and takes part in our contract negotiations. There's not much that community members can, from my perspective, can push on, but if we're talking to members of the union or members of MCPS administration, also our SMOB, they'd be able to push on specifically what you're mentioning on these disparities of where teachers and staff are placed in school buildings. But from my knowledge, I believe that this is something that the district has always focused on, same with principals as well. And so something to bring up to your SMOB to focus on throughout this year, as Nick Asante enters in contract negotiations. Matt and Ananya, you guys could add to this.


Tadikonda: I think part of the disconnect might be that there's a—with the whole proceedings of sexual harassment and misconduct, there's often a significant disconnect between the time that the incident occurs, it's recognized, and it's addressed. Which is why an incident—which is part of the reason why an incident occurs and an individual, even if they are moved away from a particular school is allowed to keep working. Because the way—So I've spent some time in college engaged in some Title IX advocacy work as well, and the way these proceedings occur is pretty much that it's a very neutral process, which I have my own thoughts and opinions on, because it can become very difficult for a survivor and much easier for a perpetrator to continue engaging in such behavior. So because it's that neutral process is part of the reason why, when an incident is reported, you can take certain actions like moving individuals out of a certain space, but you can't take actions that would be significantly detrimental to that individual because it hasn't been ordained that incident has occurred as such yet. So again, I have a lot of thoughts on this, but I'm just sharing my perspective sitting on a policy committee at college institutions, specifically on actions that the university is able to take when such an incident is reported. So I think that that speaks to some opportunities from broader federal advocacy and state advocacy on this issue. But it also can speak to some of the disconnect that you're referring to. So that's my understanding of the issue and I can definitely say I can't speak to every individual instance, but this is a general trend that I've observed in my time advocating in this field.


Part 6: Building a better support system for survivors of sexual abuse instead of solely focusing on prevention


Togas: Moving back to the conversation on sexual assault allegations, it seems like the discussion is focused more on prevention and stymieing rape culture in MCPS right now. But currently, a lot of students view the counseling system in MCPS as a bust, and oftentimes students do not view adults as someone that they can trust. What are some suggestions for adults, students, and all stakeholders to improve on this and create a community that helps survivors?


Tinbite: Yeah, I was just gonna say, I quickly say we do not have enough social workers, enough counselors, enough psychologists, enough health workers. We do not have enough wellness centers. We do not have enough mental health professionals. We do not have enough teachers and staff who are trained to diagnose mental health illnesses. We don't have enough mental health support period. We are failing in that as a district, as a county. We've been failing in that for a long time now. And I think one thing that we can do right now is, in the districts' next school year savings plan, say “don't cut these essential personnel,” Our counselors that we need right now, after students are leaving—after students are traumatized by a pandemic, and racial oppression and police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. How students are affected, as you mentioned right now, with sexual assault happening in their school buildings, harassment happening online, and grooming as well. Right now, there are people who are working behind the doors of this district and of this county who are shaping the numbers, who are saying what is going to be cut and what's not. And I think it's time for us to say that we need mental health services prioritized and at the top of what's not getting cut. Because that's what's happening right now, we're entering our budget savings plan as a county. And back when I was on my term, and I pushed for more counselors and got that added in, towards the end of my term, as we're answering on budget savings plan, they tried cutting out more counselors. I mean, what good is that doing when you know we're in the middle of a pandemic, when you know kids are traumatized and have not seen their friends for months on end, when you know that they haven't seen teachers or just other people outside of their families? I mean, money needs to go somewhere and this is where it needs to go right now, among other places, but we need to tell this district that they need to fund our mental health services and make that a priority for our students.


Post: Yeah, I totally agree. So MCPS prides itself at the high school level on almost meeting the federal guideline of 250 students per counselor, which is absurd to me. I know that's the federal guideline, but can you really know the name or story of 250 people if you're responsible for 250 people? I think we need to cut that number in half, if not more, in MCPS if we really want students to have a relationship with their counselor who they can depend on. Unfortunately, counselors have been converted from somebody who's supposed to be there for the student to somebody who's just in charge of classes and college recommendation letters. In my mind, we should have two different tracks in MCPS: one for classes and college and one for mental health. I think we need social workers in every single school who can build relationships with students who they're assigned to. I think we need to implement trauma-informed learning and a trauma-informed pedagogy in MCPS, and I agree with Nate. So often when budget cuts season comes around, the first thing to go, the first thing on the chopping block is the social, emotional support for our students. Every year, our population of ESOL students, for example, grows by about 3,000 students. Every year, the number of ESOL counselors in the system, counselors specifically for those students who disproportionately are students who have experienced trauma, the number of those ESOL counselors goes down. It's something that I fought for on the board. A board that constantly prides itself on social justice, racial justice, couldn't even barely be convinced to add seven more counselors for these students who the population grows by 3,000 students a year. So yeah, we have to stand up, as we were saying earlier, in board meetings through letters, and say that this is not something that should be cut.

Growing Needs

Tadikonda: I think with regards specifically—I'll keep my answer briefto sexual assault survivors, one of… I think it's important for the system to make a shared commitment and acknowledgement to the issue, that it's manifesting in our schools and that it's disproportionately affecting specific populations, particularly young girls of color. I believe that's something very important for the school system to acknowledge and in their approach to addressing it, whether it be at individual schools or system wide. They have to take into account how it impacts different populations. Because just simply in my observation of the Instagram account, and I'm sure that these are not, of course, all the stories, the issue is disproportionately affecting young women of color, which is incredibly concerning because with the whole process on addressing sexual assault and harassment, in the process of possibly pursuing a perpetrator and legal action, these communities are also negatively impacted disproportionately in terms of their ability to move their case across. So a whole area of issues come in that realm. But also, other initiatives that the school could put into place is potentially a facilitated peer-to-peer support network. Granted that this issue has really come out to the forefront, I think it's particularly the high school level. It could still be staff member facilitated and staff members could engage in training for students. But oftentimes, especially with with mental health, sexual assault and harassment, when you're able to talk to students of your own, who share your background, who are in your age group, who share your experiences, those conversations can resonate a lot more with a student who's experienced this. So I think it's very important to possibly create such a network for students to be able to talk to one another about the problem and for survivors to be able to brainstorm. Although the burden should never be on survivors. I feel that many survivors become advocates because of the trauma that they experience. And it's important to give them a voice at the table, whether they'd like to remain anonymous or, if like the students who have come forward, they'd like to share their stories and actually propose solutions that would have literally prevented their own perpetrator from being able to engage in the actions that they did.


Part 7: Drawbacks to the School Resource Officer program and the need for increased mental health support—and how these two ideas are related


Togas: So obviously, this all comes down to money and the debate on whether to cut mental resource funding or to continue having police officers in school is something that's been brought into light. So, to anyone—I know Nate, you were heavily involved in this conversation recently—but what are all your thoughts on school resource officers? And do you think that we should focus more towards mental health resources rather than having SROs in school? 


Tinbite: Yeah, so, head on the dot. I know Matt and Ananya have been vocal on this issue as well. So, to start, I think a lot of us had good relationships with our SROs. I mean, a lot of these folks are people of good character, but, one thing that I’ve recognized, and after going through the data actually last night as well is that we are criminalizing our black youth over the past years twice more than their white peers. And in some years, over four times. We are creating a disservice to these students, and instead of punishing a student by putting them through the criminal system, you’re supposed to ask the question: What is the real problem? We just need to have counselors step in, essentially is what I’m trying to say. We need to have mental health professionals step in instead of our first resource being an armed person with a bulletproof vest and a badge. The real problem right now is how we are going to stop funding the school to prison pipeline. And it’s going to be a few things, and this is one thing that Matt and I have worked on. If it’s from the start right now, you have to re-imagine the system, because right now, it’s not working in the way it should or that it was intended to at all. Second, if we are going to have SROs, then our memorandum of understanding what the local law enforcement has to say that the SROs do not have complete authority in the school buildings. It should be principals, it should be folks that resort to MCPS practices before putting our students in the criminal database and that’s one thing that needs to happen as well. But I think right now, SROs are not providing the best service that they can to a lot of our students. The numbers tell the truth statistically. It spells out clear that black and brown students are put into the prison system or arrested more than their white peers and they only represent 21% of this district. I truly don’t believe that our mental health professionals, counselors, administrators, are stepping in before SROs in incidents with our white students [not] of color. Something needs to change and I think that right now, it’s removing our SROs, diverting the funding to more mental health services, and starting from there. And if they want to bring this program back, then you re-imagine it. 


Post: To me, the anecdote that defines SROs is—this was when I was either a freshman or sophomore—an SRO, at prom the SRO was there, and a student was doing a dumb-student thing, which was drinking at prom, and the SRO body slammed her. It’s this disproportionate response that’s the issue, to dumb-kid things. We all do dumb kid things, that’s the point of being a kid: getting in fights, trespassing, cheating. You do dumb things as a kid, you endure the consequences, and you learn and you grow. It’s part of growing up. The issue is when you involve the criminal justice system in that process, dumb-kid things become criminal things, and you get funneled through the criminal justice system, and it irreparably changes your life. So yeah, SROs were initially put in schools to better build community police relationships. It was a community policing measure; they were there to build relationships with the young people. But, I don’t think any of us interpret SROs as that now. We interpret them as armed security for our schools that are responsible for breaking up fights, for punishing students, for arresting students. That was not the purpose of the program, that was not the intent of the program, and it shows that the program is fundamentally broken. We should end the criminalization of our schools; our schools are not prisons, and given the horrible fiscal situation we’re in right now, we should eliminate the SRO program entirely, reallocate those funds to mental health resources, and when we are in a better fiscal situation, then we can re-imagine what this program looks like to actually facilitate community policing—instead of the terrorization of our students who disproportionately, as Nate said, widely disproportionately are black and brown students.



We need to have mental health professionals step in instead of our first resource being an armed person with a bulletproof vest and a badge.
Nathaniel Tinbite, the 42nd Student Member of the Board of Education
We should end the criminalization of our schools; our schools are not prisons, and given the horrible fiscal situation we’re in right now, we should eliminate the SRO program entirely, reallocate those funds to mental health resources, and when we are in a better fiscal situation, then we can re-imagine what this program looks like to actually facilitate community policing
Matthew Post, the 40th Student Member of the Board of Education


Tinbite: And I quickly wanted to say that MCPS prides itself on leading in so many issues. We see covid-19 recovery plans, budget, anything else; we pride ourselves on innovation. This issue is not an issue that’s MCPS-specific. I was reading data on Prince George’s county, and I forgot which year, I think it was 2016-2017 or 2017-2018, and of their 350 arrests, 300 of them were black students. I mean, those numbers that I read right there are gross, inhumane—and we have statistics that resemble the same issue in Montgomery County. And again, in Montgomery County, black students are only 21%. But—I have to double check which year, I have this up right now—2016-2017, 349 arrests and 255 of those were black and Hispanic students. And that is 4.25 times their white peers, which there were 60 arrests for white students. I mean, that in and of itself should say: Is this program actually helping out black kids and our Hispanic kids and our impoverished kids in our school buildings? Or are we literally funding the school to prison pipeline?



Chart from a March 2016 report by the Montgomery County Office of Legislative Oversight; data from the Maryland State Department of Education


Tadikonda: I just completely want to echo everything that Nate said, I think that they covered it pretty much, so I don’t want to be redundant, but I don’t even think there needs to be a need for reallocating funds to say that this program, this system, is broken, and it needs to be fixed before things continue to oppress some very specific populations.


Post: And to be clear, as Nate was saying, there's plenty of really good SROs out there who really do build strong relationships with students, who do the work for community policing; the issue is so long as the program remains broken and the purpose of the program has strayed so far from its original purpose, the program can’t exist, and it’s irreparable, and we need to start over. 


Part 8: Balancing intersectionality with productivity, the upcoming anti-racist system audit, and MCPS’s “existential crisis”


Bechky: Alright, so just to wrap it up, I wanted to ask about, kind of an intersectional approach. I know Ananya you mentioned, I want to talk about sexual harassment, how these issues disproportionately affect certain populations and you said especially women of color. So I just wanted to ask what your thoughts are about how the county should approach intersectionality when it comes to problems such as racism and sexism and how we should balance that intersectional approach with productively solving all of these very serious problems with our school district.


Tadikonda: Yeah, that’s an awesome question. I think at the core, it actually goes back to our op/ed and what Nate, Matt, and I talked about, which is this idea of a very vocal minority so much shaping the work that our school system does, which results in new policies, programs, initiatives, not necessarily representing the broader student voice and community voice. So what ends up happening is we instate these programs and we realize 25, 30 years down the line that they haven’t worked and the data show that they haven’t worked. So I think that it’s really important at the fundamental level to start with when as students, we advocate, we really have to think about how we can effectively encompass the population of students who we might not necessarily individually represent, but it’s our obligation to ensure that our advocacy keeps in mind the perspectives of all people in our community especially those who may not be able to come to the table for various reasons. So I believe that intersectional approach really begins there in terms of the student and community engagement piece. In terms of a system-wide piece, I think it’s very very important for racial equity and social justice to be integrated into every single decision that’s made as a school system, and I know Montgomery County more broadly, one thing that they started last year—the county council started a racial equity and social justice initiative which literally obligates our district to think about every single policy, program, initiative from a social justice perspective, which I think is very valuable and critical to moving our society forward in a proactive manner, rather than a reactive manner. So I hope that our school system follows suit and continues to think about, for example, when we’re doing covid-19 recovery planning, I really hope that the school system does think about students who don’t have access to food at home, who don’t have transportation to school except for the school bus, you know, our buses need to be super sanitary and super clean because the unfortunate reality is the disparity that we see in this pandemic and in this time are going to be exacerbated by the school system reopening if we don’t think about it from a conscious, racial equity and social justice perspective and really consider every single population that’s going to be impacted. So, proactive measures, and ensuring that we consider our commitment to this progress that we speak of is only real when we think of every single issue proactively from that perspective. 


Seth: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. A quick follow up to that is when we think about measures like the anti-racist system audit that’s going to be happening, over this upcoming school year—how should intersectionality be factored into stuff like that, when we think about ways that it interacts with sexism or homophobia or transphobia or ableism? Should all these things combine into one audit or should they all be separate? How do we do that?


Tadikonda: I felt like I already talked a lot, but I’ll take this one too. So, I think the reality of the situation is when we think about creating a more anti-racist system and society, like I mentioned in my earlier response, we have to think about every single problem from an anti-racist perspective. So we really do have to think about, for example, how a racist system causes the disproportionate criminalization of black males, and we also have to think about how a racist system causes the disproportionate rate of sexual assault and harrassment on young women of color. So I think that every single problem, if we really look at our system as a whole and each individual piece, we’re bound to find that there’s intersectionality naturally. I think that right now, I’m not a research expert or anything, but when we think about doing research, we want to start with one issue or one perspective that you want to explore and allow that perspective to organically drive you to these other problems that manifest as a result of that initial driving perspective, or in addition to that. In such a massive system, I think it would be a little difficult to specifically outline the ways we might address sexism and homophobia and ableism as they intersect with racism, but if we do this exploration and research and understanding correctly and we develop solutions correctly, they’ll also take into account these other problems, if that makes sense. I think it’s very right to start from an anti-racist perspective because that’s a core issue we face in our society today, and that’s the purpose of this particular exploration, but it would be remiss to not think about these other problems and how they differ from different racial ethnic groups as well through this analysis, if that makes any sense.


We’re bound to find that there’s intersectionality naturally... we want to start with one issue... and allow that perspective to organically drive you to these other problems that manifest as a result of that initial driving perspective, or in addition to that. In such a massive system, I think it would be a little difficult to specifically outline the ways we might address sexism and homophobia and ableism as they intersect with racism, but if we do this exploration and research and understanding correctly and we develop solutions correctly, they’ll also take into account these other problems.
Ananya Tadikonda, the 41st Student Member of the Board of Education



Seth: It definitely does. I actually really liked that take of letting it organically fuel an intersectional approach; that makes a lot of sense. Those are all of our questions that we had about your article in general and proceedings going forward. Do you all want to add anything about your perspectives being on the board, student advocacy, any of that?


Post: Something that I always think about is that the big challenge of MCPS, in fact I’d say it’s the existential crisis of MCPS, is that we’re considered a really good school system. And the question is, were we just considered a good school system because for a long time, Montgomery County was really affluent and really white, and those students were going to do well no matter what? Or are we a good school system because we can extend those same really good outcomes to the students who increasingly come to us with poverty, with need, who don’t look like what this county initially looked like, what it was initially zoned for? And I think that that is the challenge that the county faces and is trudging through right now. Can we provide good outcomes to poor, black and brown students just like we did for white students for decades? And I think the answer to that is an open question and is what we’re dealing with right now. 


Tinbite: Well said, and Ananya, well said to your last question as well. As Rebecca Smondrowski says, “Ditto.”

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