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During the first week of October, Brooklyn Edwards was in the school gymnasium during her lunch period when she said a classmate took a piece of cotton out of his pocket, tossed it on the ground and told her to pick it.
Brooklyn, 15, described the incident a month later at the Johnston County, North Carolina, school board meeting. She said she’d dealt with racist bullying frequently as a Black student at Princeton Middle/High School, in a majority-white small town southeast of Raleigh. Classmates called her racial slurs, she said, including in front of teachers who failed to react. One classmate suggested she kill herself, so she might be reborn as a white girl, Brooklyn said.
“It’s bad enough we have to deal with racism in the real world. We shouldn’t have to deal with it in school,” she told the school board, pleading with them to investigate racial harassment in the district. “I’m speaking up for the ones that are too scared to speak up for themselves.”
After sharing her experiences at the board meeting, “I felt relieved and glad they finally knew what was going on,” Brooklyn said in a recent interview, “but I had a lot of doubt they were going to do anything.”
Kaiulani Moses, Brooklyn’s mother, said it was disheartening to see the Johnston County school board focused on a different issue this fall: ensuring that critical race theory, an academic concept that examines how racism is perpetuated through policies and institutions, is not taught in schools. She believes that sent the wrong message to students who bullied their classmates and the teachers and administrators tasked with ensuring safety.
“It has made these children and some personnel and administrators at this school feel protected,” Moses said. The district is one of hundreds nationwide where some parents and conservative activists demanded that schools block classroom discussions of “white privilege,” cut back on equity training for teachers and stop hiring diversity consultants. The Johnston County Board of Commissioners promised in June to release $7.9 million in school funding if the district banned critical race theory, which administrators said schools did not teach.
In response, the school board enacted a rule in July barring staff members from doing anything to “create division” in the community. Then, in October, the board passed a policy that limits how teachers can talk about race and requires educators to present historical American figures as “innovators and heroes to our culture.”
“It’s all about politics, and our children are having to pay for it.”
kaiulani moses, Mother in North Carolina
After Brooklyn spoke at the board meeting, she said she continued to receive social media messages from classmates calling her racial slurs. Her mother transferred her to a different school in October.
“I shouldn’t have to relocate my children because they refuse to fix this problem,” Moses said. “It’s all about politics, and our children are having to pay for it.”
Moses said she met with the superintendent this month, after weeks of requesting to speak to him, and he said he would look into the harassment. The superintendent declined an interview request. The school district said in a statement that administrators began investigating Brooklyn’s claims in early October but did not share the outcome of that investigation. The statement said no other student has reported current incidents of racism at Princeton Middle/High School.
“Our school board members and school administration will not tolerate racist bullying and harassment of our students,” said Caitlin Furr, a district spokeswoman. “We will continue to investigate reports that are brought to us and to take other steps to make sure our students have a positive school experience.”
This fall, teens in more than a dozen states have staged protests and spoken before school boards about racist bullying and harassment from their peers — sounding alarms over discrimination in some of the same districts and states targeted by conservative activists calling for a ban on anti-racism lessons.
Students have walked out of class over racist remarks by classmates in Connecticut and Massachusetts, racist social media posts by teens in Minnesota and Washington, graffiti with racial slurs found in bathrooms at schools in Michigan and Missouri, and threats against students of color in New York and Ohio.
David Hinojosa, an attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law who spearheads the nonprofit organization’s work on equal educational opportunities, is concerned that the battles are imperiling efforts to achieve racial and gender equity in schools. He cited the widespread actions opposing diversity efforts “that have proliferated across the country,” beginning with former President Donald Trump’s anti-CRT executive order last year and continuing through state efforts to ban books and limit how history is taught.
“When we say it’s not OK to talk about this truthful history,” he said, “there’s going to be a bleedover effect into the behaviors of school teachers, the behaviors of school leaders and the behavior of students.”
The wave of student activism in recent months, he and two other civil rights experts said, shows precisely why schools cannot afford to avoid the topics of race and discrimination.
“What the students are shining a light on is the necessity and urgency of talking honestly about race and reckoning honestly with racism,” said Matthew Delmont, a Dartmouth College history professor who’s studied the civil rights movement. “These student protests are making it painfully clear these are issues schools need to fully address as part of the curriculum.”
‘It is the system itself’
The uprising after George Floyd’s murder last year spurred many educators to incorporate anti-racism lessons. Districts promised to reform their discipline practices, reduce achievement gaps and combat hateful incidents, which had been rising in recent years before the nationwide protests.
The most recent federal data shows the number of schools where at least one racial hate crime occurred more than doubled from 543 in 2016 to 1,276 in 2018. In a report issued last month, the Government Accountability Office estimated that about 1 in 4 students ages 12 to 18 are exposed to racial, homophobic and antisemitic slurs and anti-immigrant rhetoric at school.
“It’s not just the kids — it is the system itself,” said Ava Farah, 15, who is Arab and Latina and helped organize a walkout last month at Bloomfield Hills High School, near Detroit, after racist graffiti was found in campus bathrooms. “The system allows these kids to get away with it, and the government and our schools have to do something to try and take apart that system.”
A representative for the Bloomfield Hills district said administrators held multiple forums in recent weeks to discuss racism, and they are developing an action plan to address incidents of hate and bias in the schools, which will include additional diversity training for staff and students. The graffiti is being investigated by law enforcement with assistance from the state’s assistant attorney general who oversees hate crimes.
Darren Hutchinson, the John Lewis Chair for Civil Rights and Social Justice at Emory University’s law school, said the experiences described by many of the student protesters are not only disheartening, but they raise concerns that school districts may be violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination.
“What they’re experiencing is very real. If students are using the N-word and teachers aren’t responding to that, then the teachers are being complicit in racism, and that’s a very important matter to address,” Hutchinson said. “It sounds like some of those schools — based on the reports I’ve read — are turning a blind eye to the racial harassment students are experiencing.”
The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights is investigating 188 school districts over allegations that they have mishandled racial harassment in violation of Title VI, up from 178 a year ago.
Pushing back against diversity programs
The pushback over diversity and inclusion initiatives ramped up this year, with some parents and conservative activists calling the programs too political and inappropriate for school settings. They raised concerns about state standards on ethnic studies curricula, teachers using lesson plans that labeled certain identities as “oppressive” and staff training materials that discussed forms of white supremacy.
Parents and conservative activists have singled out some administrators and teachers at school board meetings and online, accusing them of using assignments and books to indoctrinate students on racial issues. Some educators have been fired or pushed to resign.
The politically charged atmosphere has prompted concerns among civil rights advocates that some school staff members will be reluctant to take a strong stand on issues involving race.
“White students don’t want to be called oppressors,” Hutchinson said, “but students of color don’t want to be oppressed, and that’s what you’re seeing with these protests.”
In Pennsylvania, students staged multiple demonstrations this fall against a ban imposed by the Central York school board on an anti-racist reading list that a group of students, parents and educators had created last fall as an optional resource for anyone looking to learn more about discrimination.
Students marched, wrote newspaper op-eds and used a petition and an Instagram campaign, successfully pressuring the school board into voting unanimously to reverse the ban. But to student organizers like Edha Gupta, a senior at Central York High School, damage had already been done.
“It is evident to me that diversity and the voices of color in this district do not matter,” Gupta, 17, said at a September board meeting. “I don’t feel welcome here — not anymore.”
Students protesting against racial harassment have been met with mixed responses from administrators. In Tigard, Oregon, a superintendent joined a walkout, while in Rome, Georgia, where state education officials passed a resolution this year calling for limits on what is taught in schools about racial issues or current events, students were suspended for leading a walkout in response to classmates waving a Confederate flag.
Hinojosa worries about the impact on students if they aren’t supported in their fight for an educational experience that’s free of harassment and discrimination.
“We’re putting all of that at risk because CRT has been used as a dog whistle to mean so many different things,” he said.
‘Racism thrives in our hallway’
In Iowa, one of eight states that enacted laws to ban critical race theory or limit how educators can talk about race, a top Republican lawmaker said Nov. 18 that he will propose legislation to ensure school staff members face criminal prosecution if they share books like “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie, which he considers obscene.
That same week, the Black Student Union at West High School in Iowa City organized multiple protests and spoke at school board meetings after social media posts circulated showing white classmates using a racial slur, wearing blackface and threatening to stab Black students in the eyes, according to students and Little Village magazine.
Iowa City rolled out a plan one year ago to increase staff training on issues like microaggressions and white supremacy, evaluate teachers on how well they promote equity and tackle disproportionate rates of suspension for Black students. A national conservative activist group, Parents Defending Education, slammed the initiatives, labeling them as teaching critical race theory and “promoting activism.”
“How are we supposed to live in an environment that continuously disrespects us?”
Maria Kazembe, Iowa City Student
But students of color in Iowa City said these efforts have not done enough to change campus culture. At the protests last month, students described racist encounters with classmates. A Muslim girl said students had yanked her hijab off in the hallway, while a Black student said she had to drop advanced classes to get away from students who called her racial slurs.
“How are we supposed to live in an environment that continuously disrespects us?” asked Maria Kazembe, 18, co-founder of the school’s Black Student Union.
Matthew Degner, the Iowa City schools superintendent, said the students’ experiences were concerning.
“I don’t think there’s anything worse than when you hear a story from a student that’s been subjected to something like that,” he said. “And it causes you to look in the mirror and think, where do we fall in responsibility for that?”
Degner said he believes the district has a solid multiyear plan to address equity and racism, but he acknowledged that students of color feel otherwise.
“If that was sufficient, then we wouldn’t be hearing some of these stories and kids wouldn’t be experiencing this,” he said.
After speaking at school board meetings about racism, Nisreen Elgaali, 17, co-president of the Black Student Union, said she received death threats online, and someone submitted an anonymous tip to the school falsely claiming that the group was planning another protest where students would carry knives and guns.
“The kind of the backlash we’ve been receiving is completely disturbing,” Elgaali said, “but we’re honestly not surprised because the animosity has always been there.”
Degner said the district will deploy two lesson plans for students on the impact of racial bias in the coming weeks.
But Black Student Union members want the district to take a zero tolerance approach to incidents of racism, saying they don’t think much will change until it’s clear that there are severe consequences for students who commit acts of hate.
“Racism thrives in our hallway, and people think that if they do these things that they’re going to be OK, but they shouldn’t be OK — like, we’re not OK after going through all of this,” Kazembe said. “We’re just students trying to go to school, and a lot of us are scared and feel unheard.”