Portage County NAACP President Geraldine Hayes-Nelson and Rootstown Board of Education President Amanda Waesch speak to Rootstown residents during a community forum at Northeast Ohio Medical University on Sunday. Michael Indriolo/The Portager
Rootstown begins conversations about racism, with second forum set for Sunday
Residents discussed ways to build a more tolerant community, but some feared attendance was too low
The Rootstown Board of Education is committed to making Rootstown more inclusive, Board President Amanda Waesch said during the first community forum after reported racism on the high school football team compelled residents to question their school district’s values.
About 20 Rootstown residents gathered in a lecture hall at Northeast Ohio Medical University on Sunday for Critical Conversations, hosted by the Board of Education and the Portage County NAACP. The next forum will be 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Oct. 25. Rootstown residents can register to attend through this form.
“We’re in listening and learning mode,” Waesch said. “This is just the first step to move forward. We’re not going to be able to flip a switch and change things overnight.”
The board’s partnership with the NAACP began after Superintendent Andrew Hawkins, under pressure from board member Steven Vasbinder, overturned head football coach Troy Spiker’s decision to remove a player from the team after he violated team policy by repeatedly using racial slurs against teammates. Spiker and assistant coach Tom Wilson resigned, followed one week later by the resignations of board members Scott Krieger and Vasbinder.
At the forum, Portage County NAACP Vice President Renee Romine defined racism and explained how it manifests culturally, individually, institutionally and internally. Community members broke into smaller groups for more intimate discussion. Everyone met back in the lecture hall afterward to report their conversations’ key takeaways.
Rootstown High School Principal James Conley said his group focused on the school’s role in healing, and potentially implementing an app or a website students could use to report racism and bullying discreetly.
“Should there be some type of curriculum developed and/or adopted to help teach diversity and tolerance?” he said. “Because, you know, in our community, we don’t have a lot of diversity. We have some, but it’s not always easy to see, so how do we, as the school, bring that to the forefront, to students?”
Terri Hrina-Triharn, Rootstown’s assistant superintendent and curriculum director, said school leaders haven’t discussed integrating racial awareness into the school’s curriculum yet, so for now, teachers expose students to racial topics through books and videos. Focusing on staff, she arranged for representatives from the Summit County Educational Service Center to speak at an elementary, middle and high school staff diversity and inclusion training session last Friday.
“These are the first of many steps,” Hrina-Triharn said. “We don’t see this as being, ‘We did this, check, we’re done.’ That’s not the approach that we want to take.”
She joined Rev. Don Richards from Rootstown United Methodist Church and his small group as they discussed concerns and desires for future change.
“I think, for me, one of the bigger issues is that this would not define us as a community, and it would not define us as a school district,” Richards said. “We have an opportunity to kind of mold and shape how we are defined.”
Nancy Nichols, longtime Rootstown resident and grandparent to children in the school district, said Rootstown can redefine itself through education. She said she’s never seen the community change as much as it has over this one incident, but she’s disappointed at scarce attendance to Critical Conversations. Recent Rootstown alumnus Evan Stalla expressed similar concerns.
“I’m afraid now it seems a lot of people in the community would rather just sit at home on Facebook where they’re in the safety of their house and they can say whatever instead of actually coming and having open discussions about what happened, actually wanting to make a change,” he said. “And I think it’s going to continue to be hard until more people realize that conversations need to happen.”
Kathy Nichols, a guidance counselor at Rootstown High School, said she’s concerned about how the incident on the football team and the school’s response to it could impact students as they move forward in life.
“I just think that whatever they learn from this experience now, they take with them for later,” she said. “How do they impact their community going forward?”
The group discussed healing through education, communication and hard work, while also pointing out a need for self-evaluation. Richards said he was surprised by his results on an online implicit bias test.
“My daughter was married to an African man,” he said. “I mean, I’m embracing the possibility of biracial grandchildren with joy, and yet I carry implicit bias, and I didn’t even know that about myself.”
Other groups voiced similar thoughts on implicit bias and seemed to come together behind hopes that through community-wide self-evaluation, Rootstown can become more open and inclusive. When they finished, Portage County NAACP President Geraldine Hayes-Nelson said she would like to broaden the conversation to address all forms of discrimination.
“Yes, we are going to be talking about racism, but we want to look at all the -isms,” she said. “We want to be able to talk about that because, if we want to prepare our students for a global workforce, we cannot help but to talk about that and help us to be aware of the biases that each of us have within us. None of us is perfect, but I think the first step is to realize where our shortcomings are, and then that’s when we can begin to move forward.”