OP-ED: Blackface incident not downplayed at Friendship

Deborah Kalina
Southern York County School Board
Friendship Elementary School Principal Lisa Boyer dons blackface as Steve Harvey in staff game of "Family Feud" in August 2018.

My heart is broken that Friendship Elementary School is among today’s headlines of blackface scandals.

Before school began last August, during a teacher in-service program, Friendship’s principal recreated the TV game show, "Family Feud," for a team building exercise, down to dressing like host Steve Harvey. She wore a suit, stocking to cover her hair, fake mustache, and makeup to darken her skin.

I was sick over the news the day it happened, as were so many on staff, shocked by her profound lack of judgment that she did not consider how her actions would be perceived.

I am a school board member; a longtime PTO officer at Friendship when my son was there from 2006 to 2013; and a person who is vocal in our community on social justice issues. I speak here not as an official spokesperson for the board or district, but as an individual school board member.

While I cannot defend, or understand the principal’s choice that day, I do take issue with the characterization that the incident was downplayed and that there was a lack of indignation by our district’s stakeholders.

Our administration was advised of the principal’s appearance, on the day it occurred, by teachers who recognized the offensive nature of darkening her face as part of the costume. Our superintendent alerted the school board of what was transpiring in real time. The incident was immediately investigated and we consulted with our district’s solicitor regarding disciplinary action.

Within days of the incident, the principal was disciplined. We are not able to share specific details regarding those actions because of the confidential nature of personnel matters — not because we want to be vague. She has expressed deep remorse for her actions, apologizing to the staff regarding her insensitivity and the implications of her actions. In conjunction with the administration, she has been voluntarily taking further steps to increase her diversity awareness.

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Our district has been working diligently to improve our diversity training and sensitivity education, including a district-wide diversity committee that meets four times a year and includes administrators, board members, teachers, and students.

We host a daylong cultural awareness event at the high school, Cultural Con, now in its third year that includes workshops, simulations and compelling keynote speakers on a range of topics.

We also have active Aevidum clubs, from elementary through high school. Melissa Plotkin, spokeswoman for the Jewish Community Center, sits on our Diversity Committee, and has participated in our Culture Con. Sandra Thompson, president of the NAACP, has offered to serve (or provide a representative) to sit on our diversity committee.

On the day this news broke, our administration immediately reached out to Thompson, Plotkin and Chad Lassiter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Relations Commission. We want them to meet with us to discuss policy language and protocol; determine ways to improve and develop more diversity and cultural sensitivity programs for the students and in-service programs for the teachers and administrators; and foster greater collaboration to increase the diversity of our staff.

Moreover, our teachers’ association was part of the discussion. They also reached out to Thompson, Plotkin and Lassiter to voice their condemnation and express their desire to partner and develop more training with the groups. 

There are so many things I am proud of at Southern, and it was because of my positive experiences at Friendship that I was encouraged to be an active parent volunteer in our schools, ultimately deciding to run for school board in 2017.

Our district recognizes the need for continuing improvement in diversity education, training and hiring practices. We welcome the chance to collaborate with our community leaders to identify additional steps we can take, as a district, to strengthen and grow respectful and inclusive environments in our schools.

— Deborah Kalina is a Southern York County school board member.