Critics are calling out a Stow-Munroe Falls school board member for repeatedly laughing during a live-streamed session this week about racism and equality.
Immediately after Monday night’s virtual board meeting, social media posts began criticizing board member Lisa Johnson-Bowers for smiling and laughing while comments were read dealing with suicides and alleged discrimination related to the district.
Posters were enraged, calling her actions "disrespectful."
In a message sent to the media, Rachael Jamison said board member Lisa Johnson-Bowers could be seen laughing "a total of 28 times during the meeting . . . while emotional statements about racism experienced in the city of Stow and Stow Schools are being read."
"Students, parents, alumni, and community members poured their hearts, their trauma, and their pleas for action into those statements," Jamison said. "Topics ranged from suicides caused by racism in Stow to people’s personal experiences with racism and discrimination."
When contacted, Johnson-Bowers issued a statement, saying she was not laughing at comments, but rather what was going on in her home at the time of the meeting.
"I am so sorry for any misunderstanding at [Monday] night’s board meeting. I meant no disrespect," she wrote. "I want to assure the community that the expressions I conveyed during the virtual meeting ... were not in any way meant to show disregard or disinterest for the messages our residents, students and alumni shared regarding the challenges our Black students, staff and faculty members experience in our schools.
"I was reacting to distractions in my home and did not intend any disrespect for anything I and my fellow board members heard. This is a critically important subject for our schools and our community to address and I assure everyone it is a personal priority to me."
Johnson-Bowers went on to say that she has "learned an important lesson about making sure my home office space is free of any distractions when I participate in calls like these and I sincerely apologize for any misunderstanding my appearance and reactions caused. I will do better in the future."
She said she was disappointed anyone would have thought she was laughing at the comments being read and added she has received threats since the night of the meeting.
The special meeting was called to hear more than 40 public comments about the Stow-Munroe Falls City School District’s proposed wording of a statement regarding equality. Many commenters were unhappy that the proposed statement initially didn’t emphasize Black lives.
The district gave its approval to an amended statement at its June 22 meeting.
Citing time constraints, the public comments were not read at the June 22 meeting, prompting an outcry of protest and resulting in the special meeting later being scheduled to read all the comments into the record.
Noting the mission of the school district "is to ‘Provide Inspiration to Make a Difference in the World,’" the statement acknowledges that can’t be accomplished if students or staff feel "unwelcome, uninvited, or unimportant."
"We must improve, and the first step is to acknowledge that racism exists here in Stow-Munroe Falls and affirm that Black lives matter."
As a predominantly white school district, it states the district has not been "sufficiently mindful of the racial discrimination" that non-white students and staff face on a daily basis. These past efforts, "however well intentioned," the district said, have not promoted "an inclusive and anti-discriminatory culture" within the community.
Jamison said the final statement is "an improvement from the initial statement" and felt it is a "good start, a good jumping-off start" to dealing with racism and discrimination.
The district held a "listening luncheon" last month with several Black members of the community, who shared their experiences in the district and community.
As a result, the district is launching an effort focusing on addressing racism and inclusivity. K-6 curriculum director Iisha Collier is leading the initiative. Riverview Elementary Principal Traci Kosmach and Athletic Director Cyle Feldman are vice chairs.
Stow City Council, which includes Feldman, passed a resolution June 25 to fight racism in the city and further meetings are planned with school and city representatives.
Prior to the school board statement’s approval on June 22, school board member Nancy Brown shared her background growing in a small town in southern Ohio.
"My dad was from the South and he was very racist," she said. "Forget about white privilege. I grew up with white entitlement. I was taught that whites were superior to blacks because God created us that way. I don’t know if I ever believed that to be true, but I can’t deny I allowed that attitude to shape some of the actions I took way too many times."
Brown said as an adult she was opposed to racism but thought it was someone else’s problem. She said until she listened to Black people talk about their experiences, she didn’t realize her own privilege.
She referenced the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown vs Board of education, which gave Black students the right to attend the same schools as white students.
"That decision came out right before I was born," Brown said. "It’s not that old. In my lifetime Black students have had to fight for the right to be at the same schools with white students. As any parent, I certainly would want my children to have the best thing that’s available to them and to think that could be denied based on the color of their skin is reprehensible."
Brown said she was uncomfortable with the idea of white privilege and the phrase "Black Lives Matter," but the discomfort motivated her to change.
"I have had to realize through my own actions and mostly my inactions, I have been part of the problem," Brown said. "Racism exist and it exist here in Stow and Munroe Falls. And until we really accept that and look at what that means and listen to the people whom that affects, we won’t change."
The full recording of the Stow-Munroe Falls School Board meeting from Monday can be found on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9rH_jw6N-PM.
The district’s final, approved statement can be found on the district’s website, http://smfschools.org/.
Reporter Laura Freeman contributed to this report. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Editor Marsha McKenna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org