Social Justice Commission goes to school

Mark Laurrie

Eight-months ago Mayor Robert Restaino released the 53-page report on the Social Justice Commission he created in the wake of the murder of George Floyd a year earlier.

There were two protests in the Falls within eight days of Floyd’s death. It was a tense time.

In several cities violence erupted.

The Cataract City’s protests ended differently.

The mayor and law enforcement officers joined demonstrators in taking a knee to protest racial inequality. At the second protest, Restaino walked the entire route with protesters.

But the mayor knew the momentary calm was not a long-term solution to centuries of oppression, or to the decades of racial tensions that ebbed and flowed in Niagara Falls.

Restaino appointed the commission that looked at addressing inequities and promoting diversity in several areas including law enforcement, education, employment, housing and health care.

The report contains more than 20 specific action items to be completed by the city, schools and other partner institutions.

“I thought it was a great idea,” said Falls Superintendent Mark Laurrie. “Long overdue.”

Laurrie is a 1980 graduate of Niagara Falls High School, he’s seen the worst of times in Niagara Falls, particularly the schools. He remembers racial tension and violence, when it was not uncommon in the city and its schools.

“I keep thinking, what am I contributing?” Laurrie said, reflecting on how he, as school superintendent, has been making daily efforts to implement several of the commission’s

recommendations, both with regard to education and in overlapping areas such as employment and law enforcement.

The school’s chief is worried that the commission’s efforts “can become just another binder on the shelf, if we don’t revisit it, update it and implement it. We should celebrate our successes as well as ask what we still have yet to address.”

For his part, Laurrie said there are several items that he and the school’s have undertaken, expanded or expedited, in light of the commission’s efforts.

“While it has been controversial, I closed the alternative school,” Laurrie said.

Laurrie said he looked at the demographic makeup of that school’s population, and in light of the commission’s calls to reassess the measures the schools take in evaluating student performance and achievement – particularly in light of what the commission report calls the “school to prison pipeline” – he decided that it was time for the school to be shut.

“If you take students, many of whom have behavioral issues and put them together, you don’t really have good role models. They will model their behaviors after one another.”

Laurrie also said that the school district has advanced on another of the recommendations of Restaino’s commission, that of diversity training. Laurrie has made efforts to expand and expedite diversity training for the 1300 school district employees, one of the largest workforces in the Falls.

“I had to start with the instructional and administrative staff, but moving forward we are going on to the non-instructional staff too,” Laurrie said. “We all have implicit biases and how secretarial or janitorial staff, say, greets somebody, is important also.”

Improving graduation rates is the most direct and significant responsibility that the commission recognizes for the schools.

Getting students to graduation is an overlapping reason, in addition to providing for improved methods of evaluation, why Laurrie scuttled the alternative school.

“It just wasn’t helping us to get students to graduation. The way to get students to graduate is not through a truant officer, it’s through programming that retains the student’s interest in education.”

Laurrie also said that the school district becoming one of only three in the state to take control of the local Head Start program is another step toward meeting the commission’s charge to improve graduation rates.

“If we can get the children early enough, provide them with the structure and skills, keep the parents involved, then we have a better chance of getting them to graduation.”

Another new schools program that has been expedited to follow up on the recommendations of the Social Justice Commission is the Post Secondary Success, or PS2, program.

PS2 helps get students ready for the world after school, and so it addresses recommendations from both the law enforcement and employment subcommittees of the social justice panel, as well as those more directly focused on education.

Laurrie points to two components of PS2, first, the recently completed skilled-trades training with Laborers Local 91, and the upcoming Junior Law Enforcement Academy, as closely aligned with the goals of the mayor’s commission.

The skills training is designed to help open the door to jobs for Niagara Falls students, while the academy not only will open employment opportunities, but also help promote the changing face of law enforcement in ways consistent with the recommendations of the Social Justice Commission.

Laurrie talks about the composition of the students involved in these PS2 programs, and about half represent diversity that has not traditionally been represented in these fields.

He also said that there is more of a conscious effort to make the school district employees look more representative of the student population, since the commission’s report was published.

“We are a 60 percent minority district, we’ve made positive strides, while we haven’t gotten to 60 percent, we have improved,” he said. “We may never get to 60 percent, but we are definitely more in tune to this since the work of the commission.”

Some of the broader hiring practice issues that need to be addressed are at the state and federal levels, and Laurrie thinks school boards across the state need to do a better job of advocating.

Specifically, he points to a local person who was engaged in criminal activity several decades ago who has applied with the schools “but the state won’t clear his fingerprints.”

“I know him, he’s reformed his life, but I can’t hire him.”

More directly on the question of education, he also talks about the federal student aid or FAFSA form. “When my kids went to school I hired somebody to complete that.”

He said these items provide a barrier-to-entry to students once they leave schools, whether they are seeking further educational opportunities or to enter the workforce.

Looking forward to the ongoing impact of the Social Justice Commission, Laurrie said “the original timelines were certainly aggressive, we will probably need to go back through at some point, we may need to address somethings, to amend those timelines or even to eliminate some of the original recommendations that may be no longer relevant.

Circumstances change, it needs to be an ongoing process.”

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