Our journey began in November 2014. Riots broke out in Ferguson, Missouri after a grand jury chose not to indict a police officer for shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown. Protests and demonstrations erupted throughout the country. President Barack Obama weighed in and expressed sympathy for objectors but denounced the violence. Locally, in our home state of New Jersey, religious institutions held events, college campuses staged protests, and superintendents in neighboring K-12 districts planned for possible walkouts. The incident and the fallout were being debated everywhere. Well almost everywhere…

The First Conversation In our bucolic suburb in central New Jersey, this watershed moment was barely noticed. The high school principal had no worries about a student response. There was no buzz in the hallways for or against the ruling. And few, if any, teachers faced questions about the month’s events. The indifference was almost surreal.

The first district conversation about Ferguson was between the superintendent and the board president. We suspected the disinterest stemmed from students who could not connect or relate their life experiences with a Ferguson teenager’s circumstances. In fact, the demographics of the student population of the Hopewell Valley Regional School District does not mirror the average communities throughout our local county, state or nation. The overwhelming majority of Hopewell Valley households are highly-educated white residents and our poverty numbers are negligible.

Additionally, we pondered whether our “luck” in avoiding the challenges faced by surrounding districts was actually a double-edged sword. Clearly, it is politically expedient to avoid the controversy that comes with discussing contentious issues. Further, maintaining the status quo was certainly the easiest path – especially when nobody else was asking questions. On the other hand, if we ignored thorny issues such as race, income and gender, we may be neglecting our mission to prepare students for life beyond our walls. After careful consideration, we made the chancy decision to embrace the journey and pursue the conversation.

Although our demographic make-up may be unique, the struggle to have an open conversation about race, income and gender is endemic across America. Most school districts have developed an environment and culture where students and adults are afraid to openly discuss sensitive issues.

Self Reflection That initial conversation led our district and board of education to engage in serious self-reflection. Like any public school district, we have worked hard to develop programs to support our students both academically and socio-emotionally. Although not perfect, we are highly ranked by most metrics and we provide a solid foundation for our students. Our work was challenged when racially charged incidents unfolded and engaged the nation, yet failed to resonate in our own schools and community. We determined that in addition to our academic mission, we shoulder a responsibility to develop cultural competency in our students and staff. In an effort to better understand our school community and the seeming indifference towards the events unfolding across America, we initiated authentic conversations about race, income and gender with students, staff and community.

We have always had fairly comprehensive programs in place to encourage open mindedness and acceptance. Elementary students participate in service learning and friendship groups led by our counselors. Middle schoolers complete character education and special programs along with opportunities to join Kidsbridge and other clubs. And high school students have a plethora of diversity initiatives. Yet we knew there was something still missing. To truly prepare our students for a diverse world, we needed to do more.

Why Focused Attention is Needed Students are inundated with stories about racial intolerance by a media that often sensationalizes messages without providing any context or opportunity for discussion. Issues of race, income and gender have permeated the political conversations and polarized communities. Media reports leave us collectively appalled that deplorable events could happen or that “those” words could be said, but outrage dissipates and the conversation fades until the next tragic event occurs. The continuous cycle may desensitize viewers and normalize offensive behavior as acceptable.

Unfortunately, our schools are not immune; we reflect the communities around us. When episodes tied to race, income or gender arise in schools, students may quickly share and debate via social media – often before the school administrators are even aware. Public school districts are mandated to have specific protocols in place to investigate such matters. While some cases have been classified as “bullying,” others are misconstrued events involving misguided individuals unaware of how their actions could be offensive to others. Although we try using these circumstances as teachable moments, navigating these topics can be difficult for even the most experienced.

To further complicate matters, nationwide trends in education show a negative bias based upon race, income and gender. Unfortunately, our district confirmed similar findings. While open and welcoming on the surface, we identified areas where our district systematically marginalized a portion of our student body. For example, we were disappointed to discover that although African American students account for only 3 percent of our student population, they accounted for more than 25 percent of our middle and high school class failures. Similar disproportionality concerns exist for our students based upon low income and male gender.

Owning Our Issues Our school district, the board of education and the administration have begun the conversations that we previously had keenly avoided. We committed to stop side-stepping uncomfortable topics. We now provide students and staff with opportunities to share and discuss. We are optimistic that perspectives will change from disinterested tolerance toward understanding and acceptance.

We presume outside resistance may increase as our changes become more evident, therefore this undertaking requires courage and steadfast commitment from the board of education and the administration.

Student Discussions Defined the Issue Our self-reflective journey continued with focus groups at our high school and middle schools. Small student groups engaged in conversations about the issues they are facing. In one important discussion, students were asked to, “reflect for a minute and think about the cultural norms that occur in your school that no one ever talks about or challenges… They are just accepted.” As “unspeakables” were shared, an important trend emerged that cut to the heart of our issues. “While we do not necessarily assume that everyone is from a nuclear family, Christian, white, straight, cisgender, upper income, and able-bodied with no learning differences, we do not overtly acknowledge any different in polite conversation.” Since we do not discuss differences, the majority is somewhat oblivious and often those who are different may feel minimized.

Conversations with Staff To better understand their difficulties, and to share some of the data driving our work, focus groups were assembled with staff. Our teachers shared that they tend to avoid raising the “unspeakable” topics for fear of parent complaints, social media repercussions and other backlash. They asked, “How will topics be portrayed on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat posts? Will parents complain? How will administrators respond?” It is a difficult position for teachers. Finally, evading important discussions surrounding race, income and gender ensures that no one is offended, uncomfortable or complains.

The unfortunate reality that ultimately resulted was that rather than having conversations guided by a knowledgeable, trained adult in an enlightened, respectful and secure environment, discussions were pushed to less optimal solutions – from whispers in the shadows through exchanges in boisterous, sensational and unsupervised online platforms.

In response, we have increased student supports and continue districtwide conversations. In the fall of 2016, all staff members including teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians, bus drivers were asked to complete a survey to further explore our unspeakables.

Expanding Our Reach and Exposure In-district conversations, while a strong first step, fail to address one of our more sizable challenges. Namely, how can we expose our students to others outside their zip code and standard demographic profile? Could students garner meaningful insights and make true connections in order to better understand and empathize with those unlike themselves? Could we peel back enough layers to sufficiently stimulate a transformation of embracing the differences around us?

Superintendents from around Mercer County met and discussed the importance of raising awareness and action around issues of race, income and gender in the wake of several national incidents that challenged the perceptions of societal harmony. Being uniquely diverse, racially, ethnically and socioeconomically, our county offers an ideal backdrop for promoting interaction, exposure, and conversation. The superintendents committed to the inauguration of a countywide “Day of Dialogue.”

In February 2016, students from every Mercer County high school gathered together to participate in the student-centered event. The Day of Dialogue helped students better understand the world around them. After many meaningful exercises and interactions, student participants committed to making positive changes within their home schools and ultimately the surrounding community.

The feedback has been extraordinary. Students truly appreciated exploration, sharing and exposure to others. The program has grown with additional dates scheduled for this school year and has expanded beyond Mercer County.

Our superintendent has given presentations about the Day of Dialogue at county and state levels and has received invitations to share the findings nationally. Our work has encouraged surrounding districts to conduct similar self-reflective exercises and has led to the planning of a countywide diversity institute. When fully realized, the institute will be a place where students and staff have the opportunity to gain the kinds of insight and empathy that we want in our 21st century citizens.

While there is still considerable work to do in our district, county, and across America, we believe starting the conversation was a big step in our continued growth as a district. Every conversation leads to insight. Insights lead to more ideas, actions and programs.

Other times the conversation simply planted a seed. Our teachers have shared how rewarding it is when parents report that their student, who just sat quietly in class absorbing the discourse, furthered the conversation at home with family and friends.

We began by incorporating conversations into age-appropriate relevant areas throughout the curriculum. For example, if our nation deals with another Ferguson-like situation, students will discuss and process those current events at school. We know as we continue our work that we will stumble and make mistakes, but our motives are sincere. Ultimately, we want our school community to engage in collaboration, critical discovery and exploration. We hope that students will start the exchange but even if they do not, we will initiate. As we repeat this process, the numbers of students promoting authentic conversation should increase. We are already experiencing the growth.

When our students leave our district, we hope that they continue walking through the doors of exposure and empathy that we helped open to the outside world. We started the conversation and look forward to seeing where our students will take it.

Thomas A. Smith is the superintendent and Lisa Wolff is the board of education president for the Hopewell Valley Regional School District. Dr. Smith can be reached at (609) 737-4000, extension 2721, or by mail at 425 South Main St., Pennington, NJ 08534.