Letter to the Editor: Darien’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work in schools has paid off

Public comment at the June 14 Board of Education meeting felt elevated by some passionate and articulate students regarding our community’s often toxic pressure to achieve, and we were disappointed when that level was brought low by an adult’s comment.

In that comment, a member of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team attempted to quantify the value of the team’s work by claiming that the “two-sentence” DEI statement draft was not worth what we paid for it. It should be noted that this commenter was a vocal critic and opponent of Ken Shelton and DEI training at many earlier BOE meetings. As members of the DEI team, we want to assure everyone that two sentences are not the sum total result of those meetings — not by a long shot.

Students shared with us that for some, the struggles with mental health and the single-minded pressure to be the best begins as early as first grade and intensifies as the student gets older. Another shared that students sometimes turn to dangerous behaviors to cope. Another shared the overwhelming need for more mental health services because school psychologists, counselors and social workers are booked, and there is nowhere to turn in times of immediate crisis.

Even one day of the perspective the team got from the kids was worth the “price.” During one meeting, a breakout group was tasked with discussing the climate in our schools. The kids took the lead and said many of the same things echoed by the students at the recent Board of Education meeting. By helping foster an environment where everyone is seen and valued, inclusion work is inextricably linked to student mental health. It is a shame that the commenter missed the connection those students made between DEI training and their mental health in those DEI team meetings and then again when the students spoke ahead of him at the BOE meeting on June 14.

For those of us who were willing, DEI team meetings offered more. We were challenged to explore many types of bias and confront our own. Some of us joined additional seminars and training on DEI offered locally. We cannot be the only ones in the room who experienced self-reflection and growth during DEI team meetings. The ripple effect this team will have on the culture of our families, our town and hence, our schools, cannot fit into a basic math equation. Human experience and community building is bigger than that.

The Darien DEI team launched successfully and yielded much more than two sentences. After five months, five meetings and 15 hours, we got much more than we paid for.

Susie Flaherty, Krista Carnes, Theresa Voght, Katrina O’Connor and Deb Ritchie are members of the DEI Team.