School boards in action: Commemorating UN vision on universal human rights

Up and down California, local educational agency boards are working tirelessly to make sure students can safely return to campus as quickly as possible in areas that are still in distance learning, and have everything they need to be academically, social-emotionally and physically supported — no matter which mode of learning they are in.

The Riverside and San Bernardino County Boards of Education together pledged to embrace diversity and support all students when they passed a joint resolution in March commemorating the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The day observes what happened on March 21, 1960, in Sharpeville, South Africa, when police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid pass-laws.

Riverside CBOE President Bruce Dennis and San Bernardino CBOE President Ken Larson described in a joint statement the resolution’s purpose. “Our goal as non-partisan board members is to bring us together and give our communities the support they need in education and future career opportunities,” wrote Dennis and Larson. “In our conversations, we were searching for something that would allow us to be able to learn from history, and together support a resolution that had the essence of our vision.”

The boards support the UN’s mission to promote and encourage universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language, religion, sexual orientation or disability. “We were proud to work together on this resolution and believe that it will be a great addition to the work that both our county offices of education have been working on with multiple superintendents,” said Dennis and Larson.

In a 1960 resolution, the UN committed to a Universal Declaration of Human Rights that proclaims that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set out therein, without distinction of any kind, as to race, color or national origin.

Board members saw the work they were currently engaging in reflected in the 1960 resolution. “As we researched the document, and I read the statement, ‘All human beings are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of the law against any discrimination and against any incitement to discrimination,’ this included topics that our board was already discussing as a part of our countywide vision,” said Riverside County board member Cory Jackson.

San Bernardino and Riverside counties have a long history of working across county lines on regional issues. “We have world-class public and private universities that call our region home,” said San Bernardino County board member Hardy Brown II. “This allows us to have the research and data to grow while we build a more inclusive community that represents all of us. During multiple county and local board meetings, the discussion of equity and building an inclusive community is not a new subject — this is the work of thousands of amazing students, teachers, administrators and parents. Assuring educators and students of San Bernardino and Riverside counties that they have a voice, and feel supported and safe, is why we support these conversations.”

Dr. Cherina Betters, Chief of Equity and Access for the San Bernardino County Superintendent, said including student voices is key to a focus on equity. “The work in equity and access for both counties has been to illuminate the voice of all students as they experience schooling and specifically those who have historically been underserved and therefore, furthest from learning,” Betters said. “In addition to focusing on how students are engaged throughout the learning process, the urgency of equity and access is rooted in the partnership amongst educational stakeholders and around the intentionality of school leaders to be inclusive of all students — culturally, linguistically, socially and cognitively — to ensure each student feels like they belong in schools and society.”

Dennis, who is also CSBA Director-at-Large, County and a past CCBE president, said resolutions are an important first step, but must be followed by action. “Resolutions can be a document that you vote on, pass and then sits on the shelf — or it can be a leading document that shares the vision that moves us all closer to a combined goal,” Dennis said.  “As we continue to work together on other projects, we will work with our county superintendents and give them all the support they need to add the tone of this resolution to the community impact strategies that our teams are already implementing. During 2020, many community members stood up and used their voices to say they want change, and they want fundamental freedoms for all, without distinction as to race, sex, language, religion, sexual orientation or disability. It was our desire to support these talks because we believe to our core that each one of our students deserve to feel supported and know that we are in this together.”