Two alumni of the Delta County School District (DCSD) began an all-out effort last year to pressure the Delta County School District to address the pervasive racism and discrimination they and others say they have experienced in Delta County Schools. Edmondson says while they have made some progress, the School District and School Board have largely stonewalled them and resisted the change.
In June of 2020, Marisa Edmondson and Jordan Evans, two alumni of color who graduated from Paonia High School (PHS) in 2016 and 2018 respectively, submitted an open letter to the Delta County School District (DCSD) about the racism they experienced during their time in the Delta County public school system, and asked the District to take clear steps to “dismantle the toxic and at times overtly racist culture that exists in Delta County Schools.” Their open letter was accompanied by signatures of 500-600 supporters of efforts to push the District to address the racism in Delta schools.
In her own testimony to the Delta County School Board, Edmondson said that as a Latina, during her 12 years in Delta County schools, she was called slurs and derogatory names including “Little Mexican,” heard her classmates rant that “all the Mexicans should go back home,” felt hyper-sexualized by both students and school staff and had to put up with racist jokes about Mexicans “hopping the border.” When she told the offenders how this made her feel, Marisa said, she was “gaslit and ridiculed as being ‘too sensitive.'” When she told her teachers about the problems, they were dismissive and told her to “just ignore it, it’s not a big deal.”
An open portal for people to tell their stories about discrimination in Delta schools
To better show what students have had to endure, Evans and Edmondson created an open online portal through which people can tell about their experiences being confronted with racism and discrimination in Delta schools and remain anonymous if they choose. Testimony received through the portal revealed that students of color in Delta County schools have had rocks thrown at them, have had a school wrongly report them to the police for crimes they did not commit, and that another problem is that students in Delta County schools also get bullied, belittled, mocked and harassed for being gay, lesbian and transgender. Some have even had to endure physical altercations. One person recalled that while a sophomore in high school, one Delta County School Board member publicly stated that transgender students should be castrated. (This board member was Katharine Svenson who, in 2013 became known as “the castration school board member” for comments she made after the Colorado Civil Rights Division ruled that a 6 year old transgender student could use the restroom of her choice in her public school.)
One person wrote that when her son was in 3rd grade at Delta Elementary School, he came home tearful after school one day. When she asked him why, he said his classmates had told him that “Mexicans come in packs and they all need to be lined up and shot.” She said the family handled the matter themselves because, she said, “the schools prefer to just pretend these issues don’t exist.”
Many of the comments reiterated the same perception that Delta County School District in general preferred to sweep such behavior under the rug and dismiss it instead of address it.
“Diversity library” donated to raise awareness of racial bias issues
With the help of The Learning Council, a non-profit public alternative learning center in Paonia, Evans and Edmondson have taken action to start educating people within the Delta County school system about discrimination and racial equity. They amassed a “diversity library” of over 153 books authored by Black and other under-represented authors, and donated them to school libraries. With the assistance of The Learning Council, they also formed the DC CARES Coalition (Delta County Citizens Advocating for Radically Equitable Spaces), to help businesses find out what they can do to make Delta County more welcoming and inclusive of Black, Indigenous people color (BIPOC).
Edmondson and Evans have also asked the school district to take clear steps to address the discrimination and racism in Delta schools. They asked the school district to ban symbols like swastikas and confederate flags on school grounds, including on clothing and vehicles, saying the symbols create a hostile atmosphere and incite racial violence among students. The women also made numerous additional constructive suggestions to the school board, like suggesting training school counselors in how to support students who face race-based harassment, educating students and staff about implicit bias, and updating the curriculum to include information on the history of systemic racism, the transatlantic slave trade, colonialism, and issues like redlining, voter suppression, police brutality, war on drugs, the racial wealth gap, genocide, removal of indigenous people from their homeland and other issues.
District first rebuffed their efforts, then tried intimidation
It’s been a tough slog for the two as they work to rid the school district of the the racism they say is endemic in Delta public schools.
Edmondson spent 9 months trying to meet with Delta County School Board members in person, but was consistently rebuffed. Edmondson says the district repeatedly ignored her contacts with them, “accidentally” left her off email chains, set dates for meetings and then changed the dates without informing her. Edmondson also said District Superintendent Caryn Gibson would repeatedly address Edmondson only by saying “Hi there” instead of using Edmondson’s name. Gibson did this both in person and in emails, Edmondson noted, but saw that Gibson had a far easier time remembering the names of all of the white members of her group. After Edmondson posted on Instagram about how disrespectful it was as a woman of color not to be addressed by her name while her white counterparts were, the School District had their lawyer write to Edmondson, and the attorney started sending Edmondson letters every time she emailed the District. Edmondson says she got 6-10 letters from the school district’s attorney in the period of a single month, in an attempt to harass and intimidate her, and scare her into being silent.
Reforming Delta County Schools is a tall order
While it did scare her in the short term, in the long run the intimidation tactic hasn’t worked. Edmondson and Jordan have continued for over a year now pressing ahead with their efforts to make Delta County a more inclusive place to live for everyone.
These ladies deserve a huge round of applause for their efforts, and lots of encouragement and support for their good work. We’ve saw in 2016 how the Delta County School District punishes students they perceive as being out of the mainstream.
The Delta County School District has shown itself to be a rogue district that punishes students who don’t conform. Someone needs to keep shining a bright light on the school district’s errant ways, and the difficulties many students who are different face while attending public school in this district.
Evans and Edmondson are up to the task.