Commission on Human Relations gets to work

Monday, July 6, 2020

History was made last week in the cozy conference room tucked away upstairs at Greencastle’s City Hall.

For the first time ever, the newly appointed Commission on Human Relations -- a group created by the City Council after more than two years in the making -- convened for its first meeting, marked mostly by oaths of office and a brief dialogue about commission goals.

The new commission consists of seven members:

-- Three appointed by the City Council, Mary Foster of Putnam County Comprehensive Services, Kevin Hamilton, assistant dean at DePauw University, and Councilman Jacob Widner of Ivy Tech Community College.

-- Two mayoral appointments, Russell Harvey, current president of the NAACP, and Ruth Ralph, whose community involvement would be too broad to mention here but includes the Johnson-Nichols Health Clinic, the League of Women Voters and multiple terms on the Greencastle School Board.

-- And two school board appointees, teacher Amanda Standers and student Dayan Martinez.

City Attorney Laurie Hardwick facilitated the one-hour session also attended by Mayor Bill Dory and at least four members of the public.

A broad resolution concerning the commission’s goals will be introduced and discussed at the group’s next meeting, Hardwick said.

The group also decided to defer its election of a president, vice president and secretary until the next gathering, set for 4 p.m. Tuesday, July 28.

Harvey, who is also a member of the GCSC School Board, suggested that the commission focus on being a community resource.

“Advocate and educate,” he said, noting that he “didn’t want people to get caught up thinking we can make any administration do anything.”

Martinez, who despite his young age of 17 held his own with the group, added that “expanding education in the schools in terms of black history and the history of oppression” should be a goal. He said the way such things are presented now, “young Black kids think it’s all good, then reality hits and (they find out) they’re just as oppressed as anyone else.”

Noting that some funding will be available for the group to help educate and advocate, Hardwick suggested one opportunity might be to enlist pertinent speakers to visit the schools.

Ralph, meanwhile, suggested that the commission “be data-driven” since “nobody in this community thinks we have a problem.”

Quoting a number of expulsions and suspensions of middle school students last year, Ralph said tracking such numbers could be enlightening,”especially suspensions and expulsions,” she added, “that’s pretty scary stuff.”

Harvey noted that while the commission was talking about data, it could possibly look into developing a local survey, perhaps reaching out to those wheelchair bound to determine “how they feel about what they see during their day.”

While “race is in the forefront” of many of the issues, Harvey said he didn’t want to see the commission “get caught in the same hamster wheel” without making progress.

City Attorney Hardwick pointed out that city officials have been working on police policies and standard operating procedures (SOP), including the use of force.

“We don’t have anything that prohibits the use of choke holds,” she noted, “but our folks aren’t trained in that and don’t use it, but we can make it explicit (that they don’t).”

Hardwick, Police Chief Tom Sutherlin and others have met recently with the leadership of the local NAACP to address any issues and concerns.

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