Dayton schools to increase civil rights education

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DAYTON —In response to a swastika burning incident and students trick-or-treating dressed as Ku Klux Klan members, the Dayton School District is looking to beef up its civil rights curriculum.

The district found the image of a swastika — a symbol of World War II-era German Nazism — burned on the lawn outside Dayton Elementary on Nov. 6.

That came a week after three students came to the door of a black teacher on Halloween dressed as members of the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan.

For Superintendent Doug Johnson, the incidents were a wake-up call about civil rights education.

“Are we just assuming that everyone understands this stuff?” he said.

A look at Washington state’s curriculum requirements suggests Dayton students could be forgiven for not understanding civil rights. According to a 2011 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, high school students are required to learn only about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X, the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Brown vs. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that abolished segregated schools.

The report gives the state a grade of F for its standards, noting that they “lack depth and breadth,” include no instruction before high school and don’t require learning about civil rights groups and tactics used by its leaders, such as nonviolent resistance.

Washington standards also don’t require teaching about opposition to the civil rights movement, an omission the Montgomery, Ala.,-based SPLC says “misses an opportunity to educate students about racism.”

The organization also gave 34 other states failing grades.

Johnson said currently, Dayton schools don’t do any additional civil rights education beyond discussing the movement in history classes, but he hopes to change this by inviting guest speakers to campus and reevaluating district curriculum.

“Sometimes I forget that I’m a middle-class white male, so I’m maybe not as aware of some of this stuff as I should be because I haven’t experienced it,” he said. He added that it’s easier to be aware of issues of race in more diverse communities.

Johnson has invited Living Voices, a Seattle-based group, to do a dramatic presentation called “The Right to Dream” for the district’s middle and high school students on Jan. 21.

He has also reached out to Whitman Teaches the Movement, a program where Whitman College students teach lessons on the civil rights movement in Walla Walla classrooms. The group will be hosting an educational event for Dayton students on Jan. 31 on the Whitman campus.

Noah Leavitt, Whitman’s assistant dean of student engagement, runs the Whitman Teaches the Movement program, which was started in 2011 in partnership with the SPLC to rectify some of the gaps in Washington’s civil rights curriculum.

Leavitt said he was looking forward to working with Johnson to do a civil rights education program for Dayton students.

“It’s a little bit of a different landscape than in Walla Walla. It’s actually a pretty diverse student body in the Walla Walla School District which it’s not in Dayton,” he said.

Leavitt said he would be working with the students involved in Teaches the Movement to figure out which segments of their curriculum would be most applicable to Dayton students.

In the longer term, the district is reviewing its curriculum to see if a more diverse group of authors should be read and discussed in class.

Johnson said it will take more than one lesson to address the issue.

“You can’t just do a program and think you’ve solved (the problem) and everybody’s on board with civil rights,” he said.

“We just think this is a good way to start. We’ll be looking at other ways to enhance our program.”

Rachel Alexander can be reached at rachelalexander@wwub.com or 509-526-8363.

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