New mini-documentary sparks conversation about racism at State College public schools

Wideline Seraphin and Ana Carolina Díaz Beltrán are the filmmakers behind the documentary “Schooling Narratives.”
Wideline Seraphin and Ana Carolina Díaz Beltrán are the filmmakers behind the documentary “Schooling Narratives.”

The ninth-grader looked at the camera solemnly and said he feels like his teachers see him as a target.

“All they’re trying to do is hit it, until that target falls apart,” he said.

The student, who was not named, is one of six children and adults featured in a new mini-documentary called “Schooling Narratives,” which discusses the personal experiences of State College Area School District alumni, students, parents and community activists of color who say they’ve dealt with racism and pushback in the school system.

There was a public viewing of the film Monday night, followed by a panel discussion with six current and past SCASD parents and graduates, three of whom were featured in the film. Close to 100 people attended the showing in Heritage Hall at the HUB in Penn State.

‘We wanted to provide a platform for those stories’

Wideline Seraphin and Ana Carolina Díaz Beltrán are the Penn State curriculum and instruction doctoral students behind the documentary project. They both focus on narrative research and have done it in different capacities throughout their education.

The idea for the film, Seraphin said, came from “my work with the African-American students’ support group,” with which she has volunteered for six years. Each cohort, she realized, told similar stories of racism and discrimination, but were surprised to find out that the wider community did not know “what black and brown students go through.”

With the film, she said, she and Díaz Beltrán wanted to “highlight the narrative of the children, their feelings and experiences about school. We wanted to provide a platform for those stories to be heard.”

Their interview and meeting process lasted 2-3 years, said Seraphin, even though filming only took eight months. “A lot of the work came with building relationships with students and the families,” she said. “The only reason the families felt comfortable working and talking with us was because we had relationships with the children.”

Facing discrimination

About one-fifth of SCASD’s 6,975 student body are students of color, which breaks down to 2.4 percent black, 3.49 percent Hispanic, 5 percent multi-racial and 8.02 percent Asian, according to the district’s website.

In the film, Jeanelle Mitchell, who is black, described how she moved from Brooklyn, New York, to State College to give her children better educational opportunities, only to have them experience bullying, discrimination and ostracism from students and some teachers.

“This is something we have to endure to get them where I need them to be,” she said.

At the panel, Mitchell talked about what message she wanted the audience to take away from the film’s narratives.

“As a regular working parent in the community, without prominence ... we’re tired. I’m tired. I’m tired of repairing the damage that is done in school, a safe place, a place to educate,” she said. “We need to do something ... together. But if I felt that I was heard, when I went to administrators, if I felt that it was handled in a non-biased way, I would not be here.”

Other panelists talked about working together to benefit the children, and imagining what life is like for students of color and their parents in order to put the situation in perspective.

Dave Vactor, a 1995 graduate of State College Area High School, who is the parent of a current SCASD student, implored other parents and teachers to consider the discrimination children of color deal with on a daily basis.

He asked parents what they would do if their children had to deal with being called derogatory terms at school. Teachers and administrators might never see the initial moment of discrimination, he said, but then punish the child of color for retaliating.

Gary Abdullah, a 50-year resident of State College with grandchildren in the school system, said community members formed the African American Community Organization in the 1990s in response to reports of racism and discrimination in the schools.

They talked with school board members and other school officials and found the problem was more widespread than they had thought.

“If it’s systemic and the problem is wide enough, it’s not just a touchy-feely social issue — it’s a public health issue,” he said. “If enough of your children got sick every time they drank the water at the school district, it’s not just, ‘Let’s talk about this, let’s have meetings,’ it’s, ‘Let’s fix this and get it over with.’ ”

Working with SCASD

Both Seraphin and Díaz Beltrán expressed an interest in working with SCASD to overcome the problems discussed in the documentary and the public event.

“We would love to have a working relationship with the district,” said Seraphin. “I think we need each other to be able to bring this conversation to a broader audience.”

Lorraine Jones, a mother of three SCASD students and doctoral student at Penn State, said she wanted the school district to know that parents of color want to be partners and allies.

“But you have to listen,” she said. “We want you to actually hear what we are saying.”

In a statement, SCASD Superintendent Bob O’Donnell said the film “highlights important issues that focus on equity and diversity, and we respect and value the viewpoints of the participants. We also believe that the various perspectives of the panelists are helpful for our community to increase its understanding of what our families of color experience. We recognize the importance of this work and thus are engaged in a concerted effort to provide more caring and inclusive experiences for every student.”

Over the course of the panel discussion, some panelists and audience members called for racial sensitivity training for teachers and administrators, and better behavior from the student body at SCASD.

The district has taken steps toward improving the school climate, including developing a climate and inclusive excellence policy, said O’Donnell.

“Our school climate/inclusive excellence steering committee, which includes some of the panelists who spoke after the film, is guiding us through this process, creating work groups that will specifically focus on topics such as race, LGBT and gender equity, class, international and immigration issues, inclusion in athletics, and student voice,” he said. “Additionally, we have implemented implicit bias training for all faculty and staff and begun restorative practices for creating more equity district-wide.”

Several panelists also praised SCASD’s new director of diversity and inclusivity, Seria Chatters, for the work she has done in the community.

“This year, the district hired its first director of diversity and inclusivity to coordinate our efforts and community outreach, making us one of five school districts out of 500 statewide to have such a position,” O’Donnell said. “With our director, Dr. Seria Chatters, we are working to build a comprehensive professional development plan aimed at training our faculty and staff in integrating culturally responsive pedagogy and restorative practices. Already across our district, our employees are participating in a book club led by Dr. Chatters in which they will read about and discuss issues of diversity, starting with the topic of race.”

Díaz Beltrán said the decision to produce “Schooling Narratives” and put together a panel of speakers was a difficult one, especially because some participants were concerned about the backlash they might receive as a result of speaking out.

“There are things that families really felt needed to be talked about publicly,” she said. “It was not in their interest, or it was not ... an easy decision. But it was more of knowing that they needed these conversations to come out to the public.”

The filmmakers hope to have more screenings of the film in the future, but are “in the process of getting getting feedback from families to ensure that it’s done with care,” said Seraphin.