Lawrence Boys & Girls Club petition cites safety, equity concerns in calls for reform

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A group of current and former staffers of Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence have launched a petition with demands to overhaul the organization’s programs, which serve about 1,500 Lawrence kids.

Their three primary complaints — unsafe conditions, systemic inequity and mismanagement — are outlined in a online petition, “Petition for Equity and Accountability Boys & Girls Club of Lawrence.” The petition includes a link to eight personal testimonies by current and former employees, some written anonymously.

In interviews with the Times on Google Meet, organizers of the petition described the effort as a “last resort” to shed light on problems they said they’ve repeatedly brought to supervisors, CEO Monica Dittmer, human resources and the organization’s board of directors.

The group alleges in the petition that “when serious concerns about specific individuals were reported, no action, to our knowledge, was ever taken … despite many incriminating reports against specific individuals, they were given promotions, raises, and more programs to oversee.”

Among the most serious accusations in the petition, organizers say children at the elementary sites in Lawrence Public Schools are “being physically harmed, neglected, and bullied, due to complete lack of supervision.”

They cite “dangerously high” student-teacher ratios and inadequate training for staff who are often young, inexperienced and low paid, including highschoolers and college students who staff programs before and after school as well as during the summer.

Kiara Clark worked as a site coordinator for Quail Run Elementary BGC from September 2020 until she resigned in late May with health problems that she blames on the job.

“I was personally, incredibly beaten down and I was starting to get physically sick from how stressed I was,” Clark said.

Ella Dominguez worked as a site coordinator for Hillcrest Elementary BGC from August 2020 until late April when she resigned. Dominguez and Clark both said the organization’s goal of a 1:12 student-teacher ratio during the COVID-19 pandemic approached figures closer to 1:20, and higher at times.

Dominguez said students with high needs — including some assigned full-time paraprofessional support during the school day — arrive at BGC programs without that support or any information about their specific needs. Dominguez said staff receive a roster with names and grade levels. It isn’t until concerns arise that BGC staff learn about a student’s individual needs, which might include support related to behavioral challenges, disabilities or Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).

“Why wouldn’t you tell us that?” Dominguez asked. “We literally don’t have the skillset or the staff to serve them.”

She cited a situation during her tenure as site coordinator as an example. 

“A child was literally choked by another student,” Dominguez said, noting that she had previously voiced concerns about the student’s behaviors with her supervisor, but the process dragged on. She said de-escalation training might have at least made her feel better prepared.

“I didn’t get a single (training). The only thing we’re told is, ‘You can’t touch the children.’”

The petition also cites concerns about suspected abuse of alcohol, drugs and prescription pills by BGC staff that the petition says were allegedly reported and dismissed. The Times reached out to BGC with specific questions about the organization’s policy on substance use in the workplace, including how reports to management of substance use by an employee are handled and under what circumstances employees or potential hires are ever drug tested.

The Times received an emailed statement late Thursday afternoon from Vice-Chair Andy Pitts on behalf of the board of directors of BGC of Lawrence. It did not address concerns about substance use specifically but said BGC places “critical importance upon all allegations regarding our safety and operations.”

“The safety and protection of the young people we serve are always our number one priorities, and we take any allegation or situation that might impact their well-being very seriously,” the statement reads. “Our Clubs are safe spaces and meet the stringent safety standards we have as an organization, and are required to adhere to as a licensed facility. Our staff to youth ratio exceeds national recommendations, and we’ve maintained a 1:10 ratio in recent months.”

The statement also said there is a “specific process for managing higher-need youth, modeled on a matrix used by USD 497” and if it’s determined a child can’t be “successful or safe” in BGC, staff communicates with parents to inform them the organization is “unable to provide the type of support needed.”

The board has called a special meeting to review the petition’s allegations and implement a plan for improvement. In July, Boys & Girls Clubs of America will conduct an extensive review of Lawrence BGC programs, staffing and facilities during their safety assessment process, according to the statement.

Organizers of the petition say BGC also has a record of systemic inequity in its pay, promotion and disciplinary practices, noting specific concerns that “BIPOC (Black people, Indigenous people or People of Color) are more likely to get reprimanded, written up, and terminated than white employees who engage in the same, and oftentimes more severe, actions.”

They’ve also called for onsite translators for the diverse population BGC serves, and the creation of a full-time director of diversity, equity and inclusion who would “ensure safe, equitable, and ethical operations” of BGC. The group says the position is necessary to oversee the current Diversity Equity and Inclusion Team, which is led by Dittmer, the CEO.

Organizers say the team has been mostly comprised of white women, restricted to full-time employees and overseen by Dittmer, who the petition says is “unqualified for the role.” Clark told the Times that any diversity concern brought to Dittmer yielded a response time of two to three weeks, in her experience.

Clark, who identifies as Black, said when she and Dominguez approached Dittmer about the creation of a diversity, equity and inclusion team for part-time employees, it took Dittmer a month to schedule a meeting with them. By the time the group met — approximately two months after the request — Clark said it was “very discouraging” and the frustrations of the process led to the petition. 

She said she endured regular microaggressions and simply bringing up equity problems resulted in her being accused of perpetuating the problems by white coworkers rather than receiving acknowledgement for trying to address them.

Dominguez, who identifies as Latinx, said BGC puts the burden of diversity education “solely on the people of color in the organization.”

“I cannot tell you how many times they went to people of color when the DEI Team didn’t know the answer and weren’t qualified or knowledgeable to answer it,” Dominguez said. “You can’t just ask your employees that are people of color about every race-related issue. That’s just not OK to put the burden on (them).”

The petition also says a key staff position that focuses on social emotional learning is vacant and that relying on a single position to support the emotional well-being of students from 14 elementary sites across Lawrence is “unsustainable and led to many children being neglected and put into harmful and unsafe situations, involving emotional, physical, racial and anti-LGBTQ+ issues.” It also asks BGC to pay its full-time staff a minimum wage of $15 an hour and to phase out the AmeriCorps positions, which organizers say can involve large amounts of work in exchange for little pay.

As site coordinator, Dominguez said it was difficult for her to obtain supplies for lessons, including those related to diversity, equity and inclusion, and real-world current events. She said that although there is flexibility in grant funds, her request to purchase books about Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong for Black History Month was denied due to lack of funds. The petition questions the purchase of new iPhones for full-time staff and requests “accountability and transparency” for the BGC budget.

The statement from BGC says the organization “stands against racism and discrimination of any kind” and the board “continues to discuss effective ways to reach” BIPOC “as prospective board members and future staff … Our organization is also working to incorporate diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices into all of our programs year-round.”

The statement also says the board has engaged a third-party resource to conduct diversity, equity and inclusion training, some of which was recently completed by the board and staff. None of the Times’ questions regarding pay or budget issues and oversight were addressed in the statement.

With sliding scale fees for its programs, BGC has become a go-to service for families in search of affordable childcare, with some families paying less than $10 a week in fees. When asked whether organizers are concerned their petition could interrupt those services for Lawrence families, Clark said the issue had weighed heavily in her mind and made her feel “conflicted” about the decision to organize the petition. She said the petition was sent to the BGC board before it was made public in an effort to start the dialogue for change.

“As a Black person I don’t want to take away affordable childcare, but then I really had to think about how unsafe the Black kids actually are in the programs and how unsafe the Black employees are and how people absolutely dread coming to work, which is not safe for anyone,” Clark said. “It has personally, emotionally affected us — and physically — so deeply, and many others that we know, that we ultimately decided this absolutely is the right thing.”

Throughout the petition’s testimonies, staffers write about starting their BGC careers with enthusiasm and hunger for change but leaving feeling burnt out, exploited and unheard. Still, Dominguez said, she’s embarking on a master’s degree in social work with her sights on a career in elementary school counseling. She said “nothing but dumb luck” has kept a child from being seriously injured at BGC and she knew she had to speak out.

“When you get to work with these kids and get to know these kids, they’re the most amazing little people you’ve ever met,” she said. “I think, for a lot of us, the goal with this is we just want to keep them safe and we want to make sure they are not being put in situations where they’re not.”

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