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Looney explains cultural competency videos, addresses use of ‘white privilege’ term

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Mike Looney

Williamson County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney was mum on the subject of the Franklin High incident and resulting attorney fees at Monday’s Board of Education meeting, but two board members spoke candidly on the issue.

Following a district-generated video shown to Williamson County Schools teachers over the past two years as part of “Cultural Competency” professional development training, some parents expressed their concern about the topics addressed.

One such topic discussed in the video is “privilege,” or “white privilege,” a term that has stirred some dissent among parents and even the Williamson County Republican Party, which started a petition against the district training series.

However, at the Monday school board meeting, WCS Director of Schools Mike Looney took almost an hour to explain the purpose of the video, as well as clarify how the professional development series came to be.

Looney explained that he directed staff to devise the video, that it meets state requirements and that its purpose was to educate teachers on how to approach cultural issues in an equitable way. 

WCS staff also explained to the audience how professional development is implemented in the school district, using statewide guidelines, particularly an online system called ePlan, where information about all professional development courses can be found.

Looney also admitted that the video series “isn’t perfect.”

Most of all, Looney emphasized that the videos, included as part of the Cultural Competency training have no political intent.

Recently the WCRP issued a petition against the professional development series “divisive” and a “leftist” agenda.

“Are you concerned about the Williamson County Schools using teacher in-service training to promote ‘white privilege’ and a leftist political agenda,” WCRP chairman Debbie Deaver writes in a recent newsletter.

“Would you join us in making our voices heard.”  

However, Looney said the videos were meant to unify.

“Let me assure you we have no intentions to indoctrinate teachers, employees or children in Williamson County Schools,” Looney said. “This is not a liberal or conservative agenda topic for us.”

Parents concerned about cultural equity

Looney explained that the Cultural Competency training series originated within the district as a response to parents’ concerns over the years, regarding how employees are treating children and addressing culturally sensitive topics such as race.

Just last month two teachers resigned and/or retired after they received criticism regarding a racially insensitive assignment given to middle school children, asking them to list duties they would give to slaves if they were slave owners.

“It is also important to acknowledge shortcomings that we have, to face them head on and to engage with honest debate and conversation on how we might improve and continue to make progress as a school district,” Looney said.

Cultural Competency Council launched

As a result of some parents’ concerns about the district’s approach to cultural aspects, two years ago, Looney also helped to launch a Cultural Competency Council, open to parents and employees, which meets once a quarter.

“In January 2018, we started working on how to ensure all children feel welcomed and worthwhile. And while there were a number of issues brought to the forefront, I decided, the work of the council for the first year was to work on the incoming social studies standards revisions.”

Those revisions included the topics of slavery, the birth of America and related historical issues.

Council members, Looney explained helped to present a “more balanced” story on historical issues in social studies.

“I am proud of that work,” Looney said.

“Unfortunately, in that process other things happened,” Looney said, including various incidents that involved teachers assigning coursework that could be interpreted as culturally insensitive.

“We have had several incidents where teachers, former teachers, said things and did things that were professionally out of bounds.

“I decided that we needed to work to stem the damage we were doing, inadvertently at times, and sometimes overtly, to the students we are charged with serving and protecting.”

Looney said the purpose of the videos is to make sure all students are treated with dignity and respect, though are not perfect.

“They are not perfect videos,” he said. “They are internal, low cost in which our employees were sharing their perspectives with each other.”

“In a perfect world, I would’ve used the word ‘privilege’ instead of ‘white privilege,’” Looney added.

Looney also said and would have done more editing of the video.

Having a conversation is good

“Our intent was never to disenfranchise any single group,” Looney said. “It was an intent to bring us together. And despite the conflict that ensued, I think this is good for us because conflict allows us to clarify where we are and the values we have.”

The responsibility falls to me, Looney about the conflict it caused in the community.

“I think we all share the same values and that’s regardless of where students come from whether they are rich or poor rich or poor or what their race is or what their religion is deserve to go to school in a classroom loved by their teacher and be treated with dignity and respect. I think that everybody in here wants that.”

Looney also emphasized that the videos and conversations on diversity and different cultures was meant for an adult audience of teachers like an “internal family conversation among us, shown for employees to start conversations.”

Overall, the board of education agreed with Looney that having conversations about difficult topics is important.

Board member Eric Welch, 10th District, called for all involved to give each other “grace” because of the sensitive topics discussed, which naturally stir deep emotion among all parties.

KC Haugh, 11th District, thanked Looney for the detailed explanation of professional development procedures presented by staff.

“Maybe some of the word choices are hair triggers for some folks who are easily offended, advantages might come off better than privileges,” Haugh said.

“Not everyone is at the same starting point in the race.” Haugh said the conflict validates the “need to these discussions,” even if it makes “us uncomfortable.”

Board member Brad Fiscus, 4th District, said he beives the conversations are important.

“I work in the church and these are conversations we are having to have,” Fiscus said. “They are happening across every part of our society, and they have to happen, because if we don’t, there will be no movement forward.”

(1) comment

CollegeGrover

Watched one of the videos. It was very divisive and basically was something that politically correct social justice warriors promote across the nation. Shocked the way it attacked Williamson County citizens in such a direct and vile manner.

I can see why this was hidden from the public for so long. Come on School Board members and do your job. Branding people and especially students based on their race has no place in our schools.

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