Message from the Superintendent – June 3, 2020

Dear Shrewsbury Families, Colleagues, & Community Members,

I write to you because I feel it is important that I share my perspective, as your superintendent, regarding the crisis our nation is experiencing and how I believe our school community should respond.

Like you, I am deeply disturbed by the killing of George Floyd, and I am angered by the tragedies and injustices that have been suffered – in recent weeks and historically – by so many Black Americans and their families because of racism. 

I greatly respect those who have been exercising their constitutional right to peacefully assemble to protest George Floyd’s killing and racism in our country, and I am angered by those who have compromised their message through looting and violence.  I greatly respect the law enforcement officers who honorably serve and safeguard our communities, and I am angered by those who have abused their power and authority in ways that have harmed – and even unjustifiably killed – those whom they were sworn to protect.  It is my hope that we, as a society, will have the wisdom to protect the rights of all who act within the law and support the officers who respectfully enforce the law, while ensuring that all those who violate the law are fairly brought to justice. 
I am disappointed and disillusioned that the virus of racism continues to infect our country in insidious ways.  Any progress our nation has made to address racism over the past decades feels very fragile at this moment, and it is critical that we take collective action toward eradicating this disease that contaminates America’s soul.

As a young boy growing up in Massachusetts, I saw on the news the terrible convulsions Boston underwent during the busing era.  As an American history major in college, I learned about the tragic saga of African Americans throughout our republic’s history.   As a new teacher in Houston, Texas, I worked with veteran Black faculty members who had grown up going to segregated schools, which made the Jim Crow era much more tangible than what I had learned from books or films; and I taught many Black students and learned much more about their real lives, and the challenges they and their families faced, than I did from the media or popular culture.  Like so many of you, as a baseball fan and a history buff, I have been inspired by Jackie Robinson’s heroism.  Like so many of you, as a U2 fan, I have sung along with Bono about Martin Luther King’s pride in the name of love.

But none of those things mean that I truly understand what it is like to be Black in America.  And none of those things mean that I am doing enough, as a citizen and in my role as an educational leader, to address the problem of racism and prejudice in America that affects African Americans, as well as Latino Americans, Asian Americans, and other minority groups.  I need to do more and I need to do better.

There are many things that we already do in our schools to teach our students about racism.  In addition to what is taught in the classroom, there are also ongoing efforts, such as the annual Black History Month initiative at Shrewsbury High School, that address this difficult and complex topic.  But, if as a school community we want to truly live up to our stated core values of respect and equity, and prepare our students so that they can move our society to a better place, we need to do more and we need to do better. 

As educators, we need to do the work to become better informed about issues of race so that we can better model for and teach all of our students, and so that our school communities are not only inclusive but are actively anti-racist. As your superintendent, this starts with me, and I will be sharing my efforts as I seek to become better equipped to do this work.   

It is my hope that in our schools our students will not only learn about the history of racism and understand its impact on our society, but that they will also develop the character and will to do what is right, both now and when they become adults.  It is my hope that whatever their future roles may be – business people, doctors, construction workers, lawyers, counselors, accountants, soldiers, politicians, computer programmers, social workers, firefighters, nurses, teachers, police officers, and, most importantly, parents – they act in ways that create a more equitable society for everyone, one that lives up to our American aspirations for liberty and justice for all.

I’m sure that there will be many disagreements and much discomfort as we do this work, but that is no excuse to avoid it.  I am certain that some will feel we are not doing enough and some will feel that we shouldn’t do this work at all.  I am not going to worry about whether we will be judged for not being sufficiently “politically correct” – or criticized for being too much so.  What I am going to worry about is how we can improve in order to do what is right for our students and our community.  In order to do this I will need to find ways to listen to all of the diverse voices of our students, families, staff, and community, and to help us all collectively hear each other.

As I write this, when I look up I see a piece of artwork hung on my office wall, a photo of which is at the top of this message.  It is a graphic design by Layla Nayfeh, SHS Class of 2019, that was the winning entry in the SHS Black History Month art competition a few years ago.  It is an image of Ruby Bridges from the iconic Norman Rockwell painting, The Problem We All Live With, walking into her newly integrated school, silhouetted over the text of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech, with another MLK quote layered over in script: “The time is always right to do what is right.”  

The time is right.  I hope that, together, we will find the wisdom – and the will – to do what is right.


Joe Sawyer
Superintendent of Schools

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