On Task 

The Richmond Public Schools hope to hit the reset button on Latino community relations by disbanding a controversial task force.

click to enlarge Demonstrators outside Huguenot High School last year protest what they said was discrimination against Latino students.

Scott Elmquist

Demonstrators outside Huguenot High School last year protest what they said was discrimination against Latino students.

Nearly 18 months after Latino students and parents protested discrimination at Huguenot High School, they’re applauding the dismantling of a task force they saw as standing in the way.

The demonstration, held outside Huguenot in June 2013, sought an apology for an incident in which protesters said the school’s principal herded Latino students into the cafeteria to search their backpacks. It was seen as the last straw, following what families described as repeated harassment from school officials.

The administration of then-superintendent Yvonne Brandon acknowledged the concerns by establishing a Multicultural Task Force. It included members from such organizations as the Richmond Peace Education Center and Catholic Charities — but none of the protesters.

“The youth and families were never approached by them,” says Carolina Velez-Rendon, an organizer with the Wayside Center for Popular Education who helped coordinate the school protest.

“Communities of color, we have been put in the same position all the time,” she says — “there are always outside people coming in and creating solutions for us. It’s continuing the cycle of oppression.”

Led by community advocate Charles Willis, the task force worked toward establishing a welcome center for Latino families and getting more interpretation services in schools. But it stressed that its work also was meant to serve the entire school community.

The group has made positive contributions, says new Superintendent Dana Bedden, who started in January. But the omission of the Latino community was glaring.

“The missing piece — the real, true, valid thing — is that they’re not at the table,” Bedden says. “I’m trying to bridge the gap now. I’m hoping to accomplish trust, collaboration and better communication.”

Hours before a new group, dubbed Latino Families and Youth United for Inclusive Schools, was scheduled to meet with Bedden last week, the superintendent and his staff arrived at the Multicultural Task Force’s monthly meeting, held at the Southside Community Service Center. They broke the news that the task force was being disbanded.

Bedden at first tried diplomacy, thanking the group for its work, but adding that “a task force is not in perpetuity.”

After a heated exchange that lasted nearly an hour, three of the task force members followed Bedden and his staff out, over the objections of Willis.

“We have to leave,” Richmond Peace Education Center staff member Paul Fleisher told Willis. “Our work is done.”

Willis says the task force will continue with or without official involvement, but canceled its next meetings. “This is one city, our city,” Willis said. “They are being divisive.”

School Board members Mamie Taylor and Tichi Pinkney-Eppes expressed their support for Willis.

Bedden met with about 30 students and parents that night in a meeting closed to reporters. Claudia Rodriguez, one of the organizers of Latino Families and Youth United for Inclusive Schools, says she’s optimistic about Bedden’s willingness to address the concerns raised more than a year ago.

“He has been able to speak with us directly and address the demands that we made,” Rodriguez said through interpreter Velez-Rendon. “We are waiting for those demands to see if he’ll follow them.”

With Huguenot Principal Jafar Barakat returning following a period of administrative leave, Velez-Rendon says the way forward has become clearer.

“What we propose are community meetings with school officials where we can bring more people, more families and present ideas and experiences,” Velez-Rendon says — “and then work together and create solutions.” S


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