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Newton must end toxic environment for Black and brown students and families, white alumni say

Newton North High School.
Newton North High School.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

Newton’s Black and brown children and families deserve a safe, welcoming community, and the city and its schools must put an end to the toxic environment they created for people of color, hundreds of white alumni told city leaders in a recent letter.

In the letter, which was signed by about 500 white alumni of the city’s schools, the alumni said they were giving their full support to current students and fellow alumni who are people of color.

“Newton needs an educational system that reflects its professed values,” the letter said. “Now is the time for swift, clear, justice-oriented action, and whether we currently reside in Newton or still have family and social ties to the community, we will be watching for bold action from our former school system in this historic moment.”

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Newton has long needed to deal with issues of racial justice and equality within its schools, said Phil Goldwater, a 2005 Newton North graduate.

The 33-year-old, whose mother is Black and whose father is white, was among the Black alumni who was consulted on the letter and provided feedback to its writer, fellow Newton alumnus Alexi Paraschos, who is white. The letter also was signed by several alumni of color, they said.

Goldwater said in a phone interview that, while a student in Newton’s schools, he frequently faced racial jokes about being “half-Black” because of his background and last name.

“Newton should be wanting to be a diverse community,” Goldwater said. “It shouldn’t be putting up walls.”

The alumni, in their letter, described instances of the “commonplace, daily ‘minefield’ of microaggressions” faced by people of color in Newton.

Among the undated experiences included in the letter: A Black student was physically accosted by a white teacher and pinned against the wall for “talking too loudly” before a class. And white students were described as receiving no punishment for using racial slurs, while Black students faced suspensions or reprimands when they acted in defense.

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“I have heard our Black and brown students talk about incidents like this, so I wasn’t shocked by it,” Superintendent David Fleishman said in a phone interview. “But what I would say is we need to do a better job of making sure that our white students are aware of the racism in their environments.”

The white alumni who signed the letter also said they acknowledged their “own complicity” in many of the racist acts perpetrated against classmates of color. And they also criticized Newton and its schools for having “largely failed” former students over issues of racial equity.

Goldwater’s North classmate, Paraschos, who is also 33, said racism is embedded in the existence of white people in the United States.

“There needs to be some kind of sustained involvement in educating ourselves, and holding ourselves and our communities accountable,” Paraschos said by phone.

In their letter, alumni told school officials the district must take steps, including a transparent process for handling complaints of racism. The schools must also boost hiring and retention of Black and Latino faculty and staff, particularly women and LGBTQ members.

Officials also must implement anti-bias training, screen curriculum for bias, remove police from school campuses, and require white students to complete anti-racism coursework, the letter said.

Community leaders such as the Rev. Devlin Scott, lead pastor of NewCity Church, praised alumni who signed the letter.

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“Because of the foundation and history of our country, white people [and their ancestors] have created and continue to contribute to a system of issues that inherently challenges the values of Black and brown lives," he said. "Fixing this is the primary responsibility of white people.”

What the white alumni are doing, he said, is “correct and necessary."

Elisa Rodriguez, coordinator for the Newton community group Families Organizing for Racial Justice, said in a phone interview that the letter shows these alumni are taking seriously issues of accountability to Black and brown students and families.

The district has taken steps to improve, including the hiring of a director of diversity, equity, and inclusion for the school system this past year, Rodriguez said, but much more needs to be done.

“We need to be pushing, in as many ways as possible, to get as many voices out there, that are vocalizing the same goal,” Rodriguez said. “We really have to be focusing on how to make an anti-racist district in the Newton Public Schools.”

The letter, striking in its scope as it invokes the voices of generations of past Newton students to demand change for the city’s current pupils, comes as the city continues to have its own discussions of equity over race in the wake of Black Lives Matter.

It also follows instances of racial discrimination in the city’s school system in recent years, including when students were recorded using racist slurs and more epithets were written on a sidewalk near a school building.

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Sara Banks, 33, who graduated high school in Newton in 2005, said in an e-mail the city must start addressing racist incidents head on.

“In short, in order for us to feel like the ‘hostile, unwelcoming, and toxic environment’ has ended, white people will need to step up and do the work,” said Banks, who is Black. “Educate one another on the issues and hold one another accountable in a real way, we have had enough of the performative allies.”

Alumni also pointed to social media posts made by current and former students that described racist conduct, including the Black at Newton North HS and BIPOC in Newton Instagram pages.

In one post on the latter page, a student described an experience on the bus, when a white classmate told the student they "should sit in the back of the bus because it was ‘for Black people.’ "

“Everyone laughed. I did not,” the student wrote. “I told my teacher the next day but nothing was done.”

Bridget Ray-Canada, who represents Ward 1 on the School Committee, said the district must listen to its students of color as it develops and implements anti-racism training and other programs.

Educators want that training, “and we have to figure out how to provide those tools in the best way possible,” Ray-Canada said in a phone interview.

White students make up about 61 percent of Newton’s school district, and Asian students make up about 19 percent, according to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Latino students make up nearly 8 percent, and Black students nearly 5 percent.

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Students of more than one racial background represent another 7 percent of the district, according to state data.

Among Newton school staff, about 87 percent of the full-time equivalent workforce is white, state data reported.

Ruth Goldman, the chairwoman of the School Committee, said she and her colleagues have been working on these issues, and that they would be focusing more on them following the start of the school year last month.

“The uprisings this spring gave us the permission to go at this,” Goldman said, referring to the Black Lives Matter protests earlier in the year. As for the alumni’s letter, “they are adding good fuel to the fire.”

In a statement, Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said she is proud that the former students are speaking out, and are committed to ensuring the community lives up to its “core values” of respect, diversity, and acceptance.

“This means our actions and deeds, words and symbols, policies and practices, and teaching and learning need to be anti-racist in order for us to achieve the Newton Public Schools' mission of excellence and equity,” Fuller said.

Goldwater, the 2005 graduate, said he experienced racism throughout his educational experience in Newton: He was assumed to be a METCO student because of his color, he wasn’t encouraged to take on more challenging courses, and saw few consequences for white students who used racist slurs.

Goldwater has read social media posts by current Newton students, and said the racial climate remains the same as it was when he attended school there.

“It invalidates our feelings, because if our school is not going to stand up for us, who else will stand up for us?” Goldwater said.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.