Protesters call on Batavia school district to speed up anti-discrimination, inclusivity work

People picket before a Batavia school board meeting Tuesday, urging the district to do more to improve diversity, equity and inclusion for students, including racial minorities, and transgender and gay students.

Dozens and dozens of people pushed the Batavia school board Tuesday to do more, and do it faster, to eliminate discrimination against, and bullying of, marginalized students -- including students of color, and gay and transgender students.

“There can be no later. There has to be a now,” said Madison Foy, a senior graduating from Batavia High Thursday night.

Foy said she has often heard classmates say slurs, and has seen classmates of color standing in doorways to school crying because they are afraid. She said white, cisgender students such as herself specifically “need education” about diversity, equity and inclusion.

“This has been pushed out for far too long,” Foy said.

People displayed signs such as “DEI Batavia Now,” “Trans Lives Matter” and “Queer People Belong in Batavia,” on a picket line before and during the meeting.

People picket before a Batavia school board meeting Tuesday.

Several told the board they were disappointed in how Rotolo Middle School and district officials handled an incident May 11 where, they said, 100 boys objected to a transgender boy using a restroom for boys. They said the boys bullied that student, making the student feel afraid at school. But Superintendent Lisa Hichens said their information -- such as that the boys had barricaded the restroom -- was incorrect. According to the district’s communications director, some boys had asked to meet with the principal about their concerns. While waiting for that meeting, other students gathered around them, asking what was happening.

“We do follow up on any incident that is reported,” Hichens said, but that she does realize some students are not comfortable reporting slurs, racism, sexism and other problems.

Speakers said the district is taking too long to address problems.

According to the group Batavia Parents for Equity and Justice, concerns were brought to the district in summer 2020. The district delayed addressing them due to the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, and further postponed it until after the 2020 election. Parents and students continued to raise their concerns throughout 2021. In February, a district committee recommended the district establish an equity committee.

The committee began meeting in April.

The parents group, as well as the Batavia Education Association, several student groups and a community group, want the district to hire a chief equity officer, and hire a professional consultant to audit the district’s practices. They also wants the district to hire more people of color as teachers. About 3.5% of the district’s students are Black, and 11% Hispanic. But only 1.6% percent of the teaching staff is Black, and 2% is Hispanic. They also want more affinity groups.

Two speakers urged the district to be cautious.

“Tonight I am speaking to you clearly as a minority member in this crowd,” said Jennifer Nevins, speaking about affinity groups and spaces. “All I hear is ‘divide, divide, divide.’”

She said her daughter, who is white, has been called a bigot and chased by students because of her race, drawing a derisive laugh from one of the other speakers. “(The discussion) is really not about diversity and inclusion.”