“It is our moral imperative to be courageous and intentional in promoting understanding, addressing bias, identifying and honoring qualities of justice, respecting multiple perspectives and contributions, and valuing the dignity of all.”

—from the Winchester Thurston School Equity and Inclusion Statement

Last winter, Winchester Thurston’s deeply-held commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) was violated by a racist act on campus. School leaders, in concert with the full community, reflected, acted, and committed as they forged a path toward concrete institutional change.

“This was a wake-up call to our stated DEI commitment,” shares Head of School Dr. Scott D. Fech. “We know that the work we do can’t just be academic in nature. And, when tested, it came up short.”

That work, a key component of the school’s strategic vision, has been built upon an infrastructure of programs, policies, and coursework evolving over several years. This foundation provided a firm springboard for both immediate and long-term action. “Our overall goal in the short-term was to create developmentally appropriate opportunities for students and employees to process and heal,” explains Jessica Walton, Director of Equity, Inclusion, and Wellness.

The original plan called for individual days of community restoration, but Walton says feedback led to a revised approach lasting the remainder of the school year, focusing on educational opportunities for parents and families, conversations about updating curriculum through a DEI lens, and ensuring that the DEI Action Plan is not merely concrete, but measurable. “Remaining flexible was important because we were receiving new information almost daily about how best to meet the needs of our community, and there were many to consider, especially those of our Black and Brown students, employees, and families.”

WT Education in Action

Not surprisingly, some of the most impassioned feedback came from WT students, who stood up for their beliefs and put together a list of requests including an apology, details on how the school will ensure similar incidents never happen again, and a policy clarifying what disciplinary actions will be taken against any student that commits any act of racism. Their determination and leadership built momentum for change.

“When we think about our priorities to learn passionately, embrace diversity, break boundaries, and foster community, we recognize that with these requests, our students were calling us to do just that,” notes Fech. “So, as challenging as working through this process was, it was also a moment to recognize that the WT education was in action. Our students didn’t sit back and say ‘OK, there it is again.’ They were leaders in creating change, in demanding accountability.”

“How can we create opportunities to discuss effective restorative measures for repairing trust in our community?”

Learning to Constructively Navigate Conflict

WT also engaged Dr. Liza Talusan, an educator and facilitator who helps school communities build skills in areas of diversity, equity, inclusion, justice, and leadership—and an existing partner in WT’s DEI work—to facilitate professional development sessions for faculty, staff, and the Board of Trustees.

“During the workshops, I shared Glenn Singleton’s Courageous Conversations Protocol,” says Talusan. “The way I talk about that protocol is that we need to build skills to actually create meaningful change as a result of conflict. We need to spend a significant amount of time, energy, resources, and discomfort in naming, owning, and interrupting thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs that contribute to an environment where harm can occur.”

WT leadership couldn’t agree more. “We learned that our Student and Community Handbooks needed more clarity around such issues,” shares Fech. “And, in our advisory programs, student wellness correlates to student-teacher relationships. I think in general WT does that very well; however, those programs need work to be able to respond more appropriately in transformative moments. Finally, how we communicate about ongoing work is another area for improvement. For example, I’ve talked relatively generically, in retrospect, about the fact that we’ve changed admissions processes and updated our hiring processes, but I haven’t unpacked each of those to say, what exactly changed and what are the outcomes?”

“We need to ensure we have systems, structures, and processes in place to clearly hold the school, and its community members, accountable for upholding our DEI commitments,” adds Walton. “For example, how might the school benefit from a bias incident reporting mechanism? In what ways do we measure positive growth across the community? How can we create opportunities to discuss effective restorative measures for repairing trust in our community?”

“When we pay attention, we see more”

Because Winchester Thurston established its deep commitment to DEI work more than six years ago, then codified it as a key component of its strategic vision a few years later, and just this past fall re-established a DEI committee at the Board level, last winter’s DEI violation took many by surprise. But it didn’t surprise equity educator Talusan.

“WT has been doing so much work to uncover, unmask, and reveal DEI issues so it makes sense the community would begin to see more of the inequities that have existed. Essentially, when we pay attention, we see more.”

Moreover, she notes, “We are human beings who are constantly adapting to new information. As communities build new habits and skills, we still are working from an existing lens. It is not uncommon to see those overlapping behaviors contradict each other as we learn, grow, and adjust.”

A Pivotal Moment

It is a pivotal moment for Winchester Thurston, says Fech, one of challenge, change, and pain—but also one of promise. “We’ve got to allow this to come to some good that will make us a stronger, safer, and better community and school for our children.”