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A new reckoning over racism in St. Louis area schools

A new reckoning over racism in St. Louis area schools

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COTTLEVILLE — A crowd of 2,500 filled a town hall meeting in the Francis Howell School District in July 2013, most of them to protest the arrival of transfer students from unaccredited Normandy schools.

Seven summers later, nearly as many community members marched 3 miles recently in support of Black students and calling for changes to the district’s curriculum, hiring practices and discipline policies they say discriminate against people of color.

Not enough happened in the years between to fight racism in the district’s predominantly white schools, said Jani Wilkens, who has been teaching English at Francis Howell North High since 2002.

“The St. Charles community has a lot of growth to do,” said Wilkens, one of the organizers of the Francis Howell School District Black Voices Matter march and rally held June 16. “You become a teacher because you believe that public schools are supposed to be the great equalizing force, and unfortunately they’re not always that.”

School leaders across the region say they have experienced an awakening this summer in response to protests against racism and police brutality following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Suburban districts including Clayton, Kirkwood, Lindbergh, Parkway, Rockwood and Webster Groves, among others, have been sites of protests, rallies and marches.

Students and alumni are speaking out about discrimination they faced in school, sharing painful memories at the rallies and on social media under hashtags like #blackatrockwood.

Mya Walker, a junior at Francis Howell North, told the crowd at the rally that she’s been told to go back to Africa and has heard classmates use and try to justify the N-word.

“I have good grades. I don’t have a criminal record,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what I do or how good a person I am. I still feel uncomfortable and even unsafe because of the pigment in my cells. It's terrifying what that will make others do."

Administrators say they are listening. They point to the recent marches, rallies and statements of support that were not seen in the past, particularly after Michael Brown was killed by a Ferguson police officer in 2014.

Why now?

“I don’t think there’s any good excuse, especially for those of us who are white,” said John Simpson, superintendent of Webster Groves School District. “I don’t think we can honestly say that anything has changed in terms of what’s happened — the killing of unarmed Black people, the public schools and outcomes and the disparities that exist. Everyone had knowledge of all of that.”

Earlier this month, the district sponsored a Black Lives Matter march and rally at district headquarters.

Ezra Park, a senior at Webster Groves High, told the crowd about the need for change in his schools, including a lack of diversity in school staff and incidents like a recent case of a classmate using a racial slur against another student.

“I and many other students of color have felt discouraged, unsafe and ignored,” Park said, adding, “You never stop feeling this going to school as a Black person in a majority white community.”

Simpson said the idea for the rally came from staff at Edgar Road Elementary including fourth grade teacher Teressa Kindle, who told the crowd about her experience feeling isolated as the only Black nonspecialist teacher at her school her first year. Kindle said she’s often felt like she needed to work twice as hard to prove herself in her career, and said Black staff members in the district need more support.

In just the last semester in Webster Groves, where about 13% of the 4,500 students are Black, residents made racist remarks on a survey about rezoning school boundaries and there were multiple cases of students circulating racist pictures in schools and on social media.

Simpson said the district is working with a consultant and revising the social studies curriculum among other work focused on racial equity.

“I just want my actions and the actions of our district to drown out any words that we share,” he said. “That’s my commitment, that’s what folks are going to see this year.”

Moment or movement?

Harry Harris said his son, a fourth grader, has always been the only Black boy in his classrooms in the Francis Howell School District. Harris was disappointed in the district’s message following Floyd’s death, calling it safe and sanitized.

“I don’t know how you manage to talk about the serious experiences that Black people are having and then not even use the word Black in your statement,” Harris said. “They’re not willing to say ‘We see the experiences that our Black students and families are having and we’re disheartened and we stand by them.’”

Wilkens and other organizers of the Francis Howell rally said they will push the School Board to make changes to curriculum, hiring practices and discipline policies, including the use of isolation rooms, which are disproportionately used with African American students.

Some said they are skeptical that momentum from the rallies will translate to significant change.

“I am afraid that some see this as a moment and not a movement. This must be a movement that brings about sacrifice for some and change for the most marginalized persons in our community and society,” wrote Kelvin Adams, superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools, in a letter to the community.

Catholic conversations

Discussions about racism have also flared up on social media pages of several Catholic girls’ high schools where students and teachers are predominantly white.

Raechel Sevier, Cor Jesu High School class of 2017, said she faced “inexcusable amounts of racism and discrimination” as an African American at the school, including accusations that she didn’t qualify or belong in the school and a teacher’s use of the N-word in class her junior year.

She said students, teachers and staff would confuse her with the only other Black student, and that her emails and letters to the administration and the Archdiocese were ignored.

Sevier said she is hopeful that the school can be more inclusive, but disappointed by the missing phrase “Black Lives Matter” in the school’s messages.

“Their unwillingness to say Black Lives Matter because they view it as a political organization speaks volumes since at its core it is a movement that protests racism, discrimination and police brutality. They value donors who do not agree with Black Lives Matter over Black lives,” Sevier said.

Sr. Mary Grace Walsh, incoming president at Cor Jesu, said she is arriving “ready to listen and ready to act.”

“There is no question that for us, Black lives do matter,” Walsh said. “The thing here is we don’t want to align ourselves with the movement. We have to show that Black lives matter by our actions.”

In a letter to the Cor Jesu community earlier this month, interim president Sr. Veronica Beato apologized for the “painful experiences” of some students and alumni and for the failures of the school to make diversity and equity a priority.

“Like many people and institutions in the country right now, we feel as though we are at a pivotal moment of waking up — of truly opening our eyes, ears and hearts to the very real trauma and wounds of people of color in our community and to the very real ways in which Cor Jesu has explicitly or implicitly contributed to those wounds,” Beato wrote.

At Nerinx Hall, alumni said they were discouraged from holding an assembly in 2014 after Michael Brown’s death and recounted the use of racial slurs by classmates. The school’s response to George Floyd’s death was met with praise but also calls for further anti-racist action.

“We wanted to use the platform that we had to say what we believed as a community, owning the mistakes of the past, even very recently,” said Katie O’Sullivan, director of communications.

Administrators will spend the summer working to increase the school’s population of Black students — now 5% — in part by funding scholarships for students of color, and reviewing curriculum and policies, O’Sullivan said.

“This is a shift in our country. It is too late, but it seems to be a moment in history where minds are being changed,” she said. “As a school responsible for educating the next generation of young women, we feel strongly that we want to be a part of that change.”

Erin Heffernan of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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