Superintendent Defends Treatment of Minority Students; Board Will Review Black Student Union Concept
McKeesport Area School Board members will meet with people who have pressed the district to create a Black Student Union.
The decision came after former city councilwoman Fawn Walker-Montgomery and others urged the district during the school board's Feb. 27 meeting to create the group as a safe space for students to talk about racial issues, including a lack of African-American representation on the faculty.
“This is something I feel like I've been advocating for since I was in ninth grade at McKeesport High School,” Walker-Montgomery said, adding that “every time we want something for the black community it has to be a struggle.”
“We don’t want that this time, so that's why we came to you all with this,” she said. “Let's work together.”
School Superintendent Mark P. Holtzman Jr. defended the district's record and asked for examples of how minority students are being mistreated.
Holtzman said students know him well and that he hasn't seen evidence that black students are being treated unfairly.
“The color of their skin has meant nothing to me over the last 15 years,” Holtzman said. “I spend time in the schools every single day, I'm not a person they see once a month.”
The allegation that students of color are being mistreated or ignored “really blows me away,” Holtzman said. “I must have my blindfold on or maybe it doesn’t exist. We can just agree to disagree on this topic.”
Walker-Montgomery said she isn't talking about any one person, but a widespread problem.
“It's the system as a whole,” she said. “Just because you don't think that a problem exist, does not mean it doesn't exist.”
Walker-Montgomery said that black students have come to her and other community leaders and complained of a "disconnect" between the student body and district administrators and school officials. They are upset, she said, that their voices aren't being heard.
“I don't know where it comes from, but that’s what I'm here to talk to you about,” Walker-Montgomery said. “That’s why I feel a black student union could help with some of those things.”
Aaron Coleman, a teacher and assistant athletic director at Pittsburgh's Environmental Charter School, also spoke to the board. A 1997 graduate of McKeesport Area High School, Coleman said he feels the lack of black teachers in this country is an epidemic.
Although educators talk about equity and diversity, Coleman said, “it's hard to have a conversation” around those issues when the people who are actually facing inequality aren't part of it.
Coleman said the Environmental Charter School has a black student union, and he is active in it. Its goal is to provide students with a safe space to talk about race.
Having that space provides students with an opportunity “to understand that you can think of different ways to handle certain situations, you don’t always have to feel nervous and feel (like) you are not understood because a teacher doesn’t look like you,” Coleman said.
Holtzman invited Coleman to share any documents or relevant experience from the Environmental Charter School's black student union.
Board member Jim Brown, chair of the district's cultural diversity committee, agreed to meet with Walker-Montgomery after the meeting.
Reached after the meeting, school district spokesperson Kristen James said the black student union idea will go through the cultural diversity committee.
Richard Finch Jr. is a freelance writer who covers news from McKeesport Area School District and North Versailles Twp. for Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published March 12, 2019.