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What Parents Need to Know About New York State’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Policy

By Marion M. Walsh, Esq., Littman Krooks LLP

As the school year begins, school districts in New York State will be examining new policies on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and parents should be aware of these policies.  As a first step, in April 2021, the Board of Regents released a draft Framework on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in New York’s Schools:  A Call to Action and then adopted the DEI Policy in May 2021. The DEI Policy intends to be empowering for all students and families and to adapt student-centered learning approaches, with a particular focus on assisting marginalized students. Here are some basic questions and answers on the initiative:

    • Why did NYS Develop the Initiative?
      The Board of Regents recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic exposed long-standing inequities in society and that the nation appeared, in many ways, ready to address our long history of systemic racism and bigotry and its impact. The confluence of events of the past year inspired action:

      • The brutal and documented killing of people of color by law enforcement and the consequent demands for racial justice
      • A dangerous increase in violence aimed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders—fueled in part by ill-informed attempts to link the Asian community with the spread of COVID-19
      • A renewed wave of discrimination and hate speech directed at groups historically subject to discrimination and viewed as “different,” such as people of color (including immigrants and refugees), Jews, Muslims, LBGTQ individuals, and individuals with disabilities
      • The toll of COVID-19 on all and the disproportionate impact on students of color, economically-disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities. The Framework notes that “school closures and the resulting learning loss for our most marginalized students compound existing learning disparities, leading to the potential for poor life outcomes and lingering long-term effects.”
    • What are the Elements of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Policy?
      The DEI Policy expects that school districts adopt and implement policies to advance diversity, equity and inclusion. Specifically, while each local school board has discretion on developing a policy, the Board Regents “expects that all school districts and institutions of higher education will develop and implement policies and practices that advance diversity, equity and inclusion –and that they will implement such policies and practices with fidelity and urgency.” The Board of Regents suggests the following elements of a policy:

      • Governance. Each school district should establish a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, that is representative of all stakeholders, including students. Some districts have hired Diversity coordinators, but this is not required.
      • Teaching and Learning. Each school district should address the need for inclusive and culturally responsible teaching and learning. The DEI Policy notes:
        • The dangers in teaching courses of study through only one perspective
        • The impact of systemic racism on students and society
        • The importance of looking beyond the data to discover and address the root causes of societal issues
        • The myriad benefits that accrue from providing students with school environments that are diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
    • What is Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning?
      NYSED has provided guidance on how districts can develop a Culturally Responsive Sustaining (CR-S) Framework to create environments that affirm student’s cultural identities. NYSED views culture as “the multiple components of one’s identity, including but not limited to: race, economic background, gender, language, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, and ability.” This initiative thus includes students with disabilities, although there is not guidance on creating disability-inclusive environments.
      NYSED and the Board of Regents emphasize that educators must prevent the exclusion of historically silenced, erased, and disenfranchised groups, and that culturally responsive education must also be sustaining – encouraging cultural pluralism rather than assimilation. To do so, educators must work to understand and to support perpetuating cultures, languages and histories that have been devalued, suppressed, and imperiled by years of educational, social, political, economic neglect.
      Using this approach to education, all families are believed to have cultural capital – knowledge, abilities, and networks that can and should be leveraged in classrooms. While schooling has traditionally privileged the cultural capital of families from dominant backgrounds, CR-S positions educators to acknowledge, value, and leverage the wealth of knowledge found in communities that have been marginalized.
        • Family and Community Engagement. The Policy and Framework specifically recognize the importance of parental involvement and building trust.
        • Workforce Diversity. The Policy also requires districts to recruit and retain a diverse workforce in all areas and at all levels.
        • Diverse Schools and Learning Opportunities. The Policy recommends that school districts should:
          • Take creative steps to enhance the level of socioeconomic and racial diversity within district schools (even if the district’s student population is relatively homogeneous).
          • Examine the use of language which prevents some students from accessing and fully participating in the district’s classes, programs, and offerings. Language matters, and it is therefore critical that districts eliminate the use of terms and phrases that perpetuate negative stereotypes and minimize student opportunities.
          • Ensure that coursework, programs, and activities are accessible to all students, regardless of their disability status, native language, income level, or any other basis.
        • Student Supports, Discipline, and Wellness. Districts should employ programs and practices that enhance all students’ self-identity, self-confidence, and self-esteem. According to the Policy, this includes, among other things, implementing non-discriminatory discipline policies and focusing on the “whole child” by always considering and addressing the full range of student developmental pathways.
    • Will the Guidance Change Education in New York?
      The DEI initiative has the potential to be revolutionary. With the right implementation, it could improve inclusive teaching and learning and help those who have been marginalized and excluded. However, without appropriate attention, it will just be another initiative that school districts give lip service to but do not use to effectuate change, particularly given the time and disruption caused by COVID-19.
      Unfortunately, there are many essential pieces missing from the guidance. These include, among other opportunities: reviewing the disproportionate number of students of color and with disabilities suspended or removed from school; reviewing the removal of students with disabilities into special classrooms without an opportunity for inclusion; or reviewing or taking steps to ameliorate the deep racial segregation in schools throughout New York. In addition, certain marginalized and stigmatized groups are not mentioned in the framework, such as students with mental health conditions. For missing pieces, parents and students should speak out to ensure that your school district understand the needs and perspective of all.
    • What If I Do Not Agree with Initiative?
      The DEI initiative intends to be inclusive of all. Thus, parents or students who share different perspectives on DEI may respectfully share opinions on the initiative to their local Board members. The Board of Regents is the governing policy-making body in New York so does have authority to set policy initiatives. As noted, each local Board of Education has the authority to set its own policies and curriculum.
    • What Can Parents Do who Want for Forward the Initiative?
      The DEI Policy can be a tool for advocacy. Review the DEI Policy, the Framework and the CR-S guidance carefully. The DEI Policy is the policy of New York State and if you believe your District is not respecting or implementing policies that favor diversity, equity or inclusion, bring it to the District’s attention to foster change.
      Review what your school district is doing to implement the DEI policy. If you do not see information on your school district’s website, contact your school Board Members, the Superintendent or your school principal. Offer to volunteer to share your perspective on the initiative or to chair a committee or task force. If you disagree with the initiative or have questions, it is or if your child has disabilities, ensure that the voices of students with disabilities and their parents are heard as part of the initiative. The DEI policy intends to include all and recognizes that there is not one perspective.

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