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Seria Chatters brings a lifetime of experiences to her role as SCASD’s first director of diversity and inclusivity

by on August 31, 2018 3:05 PM

Dr. Seria Chatters began her position as State College Area School District’s first director of diversity and inclusivity on August 1. Although the job description is dauntingly wide-ranging, Chatters is excited and confident about her new role, because in many ways she feels she has been preparing for this position her entire life.

“I think it’s important that people understand what diversity means, and that diversity is much more than race,” Chatters says. “A lot of people don’t understand how far and wide diversity reaches, and why it’s necessary within an organization to have someone in place whose job it is to always have that in mind. ... For individuals who do not typically feel as if their voice is part of the conversation, it’s making sure that their voice is being heard, and that they’re being treated equally – not being treated better, but being treated equally.”

Individuals might be considered part of an underrepresented group for many reasons, she says, including race, ethnicity, disability, socioeconomic status, religion, sexual orientation, weight, family status, or even organizational roles within the school district. For example, paraprofessionals, custodial staff, and bus drivers may sometimes feel they are not fairly represented.

Chatters’ own life circumstances have afforded her a firsthand perspective of what many of these underrepresented groups experience.

“I am a woman. I am a person of color. I have a disability. I come from a very diverse background. I’m a military brat so I’ve lived all over,” she says. “I was born legally blind due to albinism, and my mom always had to advocate for us (Chatters’ brother is also visually impaired). ... And because we moved around a lot and I was always the new kid, I was bullied very severely in school. Bullying prevention became a passion for me because I experienced it.”

The new position was created by the school district as a means of implementing the School Climate/Inclusive Excellence Policy it passed in January 2017. According to the job description, the director “is responsible for developing, implementing, and monitoring programs and processes that promote and sustain diversity, inclusion, and respect, and achieve the district’s strategic goals and objectives related to diversity and inclusion.”

More specifically, the role includes being an advocate for parents, students, teachers, and staff members in underrepresented groups; helping all schools adhere to the same “restorative practices” method of discipline – a more positive, less-punitive disciplinary method that has been found to support diversity and equity initiatives; strengthening the district’s biased-based bullying prevention programs; providing professional development to teachers on topics of diversity and inclusion; working with the elementary and secondary directors of curriculum to integrate diversity into the curriculum; consulting with human resources; and community outreach.

A licensed professional counselor and mental health counselor, Chatters started her career as a school counselor in the early 2000s, working in poor school districts in Hillsborough County, Florida.

“I really loved the work, but the kids were very high-need with low resources. So, one of the things I did was I started a dance team at the middle school where I was working. ... I started it because I found that extracurricular activities can really impact students’ motivation and drive to keep their grades up,” she says. “That kind of work got me more and more involved as a school counselor in the kids’ lives, because then I would be with the kids after school, I would meet their families when their parents picked them up, and I started to recognize things that were going on, like bullying that I wasn’t aware of.”

This experience led her to start doing professional development within the school and the district to educate teachers about bias-based bullying, which she defines as bullying based on anything that makes an individual stand out as being different. She continued to volunteer at the school even after she left her job in order to pursue her doctorate full-time at the University of South Florida. While there, she also began training sophomore education majors about bias-based bullying.

After graduating with her Ph.D. in 2012, she took a job at Zayed University in Dubai, where she moved with her entire family, including her husband, their two children (the couple now has three), and her parents.

“While I was in Dubai, there were a couple of high-profile news stories that came out about kids being hospitalized due to bullying on school playgrounds,” she says. “So I started doing professional development at my kids’ school, and I actually had a regular spot on a radio station over there, where I would come in and talk about bullying and research, and ways that teachers could help kids.”

In 2013, Chatters accepted a job as an assistant professor of education (counselor education) in Penn State's Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education, where she also served as the coordinator of clinical mental health counseling in schools and communities. Almost immediately upon her arrival, SCASD started asking her to consult on mental health issues and universal behavioral screenings, soon bringing her in to assist with underrepresented students and provide professional development as well.

Her consulting work with the school district left her with a favorable impression of the SCASD community.

“State College [Area School District] has done a lot of things that are really progressive,” she says. “The district is always trying to get in front of issues, rather than trying to catch up from behind.”

Although she was on track for tenure at Penn State, when the SCASD position opened up, she says she knew it was the right fit for her.

“When this position came available, it felt like, ‘This is what I’ve been doing for a very long time,’” Chatters says. “So I spoke to my dean (David Monk) and told him I was interested in applying, and I could not have wished for a better response. He was extremely supportive, but he wanted to hold onto me in some way, shape, or form, so he and Bob [O’Donnell, SCASD superintendent] worked together to come up with this mix that I really like.”

The “mix” she refers to is that she will continue working with the clinical mental health counseling interns at Penn State, many of whom do their internships in SCASD schools.

“This felt like a really big opportunity to work to bring the school district and Penn State’s College of Education together,” she says. “Also, I am the research liaison between the university and the district, so I’ll be working on finding ways to match individuals within the district that are having specific issues with the professors at the university who are researching those issues, and bringing them together.”

With the broad range of responsibilities the new position entails, Chatters realizes she can’t go it alone. She will be taking over the existing district-level Inclusive Excellence Committee, and hopes that it will serve as a working group to help her identify needs and implement initiatives within the school district. She also is looking for equity and inclusion advocates from each of the schools in the district to form a new committee.

“I think part of equity is understanding that my voice cannot be the only voice. I need people around me who will remind me of what their perspective is. I’m really open to feedback and criticism, and I think that’s really important when you’re in a position like this – that your ears are always open. ... I really don’t want to be seen as the ‘diversity cop.’”

Chatters plans to spend much of her first year simply observing and getting to know the district.

“I already have started scheduling visits to every elementary school,” she says. “I want to go to recess and see how the kids play together. I want to see the kids sit together and interact in the lunchroom. I want to sit in classrooms with teachers and see how they teach. I want to walk the halls when all the students are in the halls. I will be walking into bathrooms, for example, seeing what’s going on in the bathrooms during class change times – because that’s where bullying happens.”

She also wants to be accessible to students and parents, and encourages members of the community to reach out to her.

Ultimately, Chatters is ready to get started on what she views as a dream job.

“I couldn’t be happier,” she says. “It’s going to be a lot of work, but I feel like my life has been building up to this. It feels like a culmination of my life’s work.”

 

Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.

 

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