MONROE — An incident Wednesday at Monroe High School has sparked a discussion about racism — and a hate crime investigation.
Video circulated on social media shows a white student repeatedly saying a racial slur in a confrontation with a Black student in the school parking lot. At one point, the white student hits the Black student in the head with a plastic water bottle.
Another student worked to defuse the situation, the video shows. The confrontation was “relatively brief,” Monroe police Cmdr. Paul Ryan said, adding that the school resource officer there also stepped in.
The encounter happened just before lunchtime, Ryan said.
In a letter to families Wednesday evening, Monroe High principal Brett Wille noted the school is working with police on their investigation.
“The safety of every person at Monroe High School is our top priority,” Wille wrote in the letter. “This includes physical, social, and emotional safety. We will strive to do everything in our power to make certain that each student we serve feels safe physically, socially, emotionally and free from racial or any other forms of discrimination.”
Monroe School Board member Jeremiah Campbell said he had a “visceral knot in my stomach” over the incident.
“I am horrified that any student would have to deal with any level of racism,” he said.
He added: “To say things like that — I have no words.”
The high school held an assembly Friday morning to discuss racial sensitivity. One assembly, however, won’t solve the school’s issues, Wille noted in his letter.
The principal also wrote that the school has two teams working to build a more welcoming culture there. He argued that work needs to be accelerated in light of this most recent episode.
“It is apparent that our efforts to date have not extinguished these situations,” district Superintendent Justin Blasko wrote in a statement Friday afternoon, “and the event that occurred this week serves as a stark reminder of our duty and moral obligation to refocus our efforts, revise our strategies, and recommit ourselves to ensuring all of our students, families, and neighbors are welcome, safe, and feel like they belong to our school community.”
Racism has been an ongoing issue in Monroe schools. A survey conducted by the student-led Monroe Inclusion Collective found that, out of 89 respondents, over 57% had experienced racism in the district. Similar amounts reported experiencing anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination or sexism.
Those incidents were most likely to occur outside the classroom but on school grounds, as is the case with the most recent episode. And almost 82% of respondents said they did not report their experiences to school leadership. Their reasons included not trusting staff and a lack of representation among leadership.
Of those that did report racism or other discrimination, again nearly 82% said they didn’t feel safe after doing so.
“All of those students and their families have continually expressed ongoing issues of bullying and harassment and various types of incidences that just haven’t been adequately addressed by the district,” said Melanie Ryan, president of the Monroe Equity Council.
Students presented the survey’s findings to the School Board at a January meeting.
“What will ultimately decide whether we progress or not is going to likely be the students themselves,” Ryan said. “The students will have a powerful ability to put pressure within this system to say we don’t accept this anymore.”
Last June, a School Board member resigned after a video surfaced of his daughter using a racial slur. Later that month, in the wake of racial justice protests following the police killing of George Floyd, the district posted a statement stating its commitment to anti-racism.
“Whatever it takes, we are committed to continuing the work to grow our school and community’s understanding of the lived experiences of our students,” the June 15, 2020, statement reads. “We are committed to understanding our biases and how those impact the lives of our students and our work. We are committed to being anti-racist.”
And like elsewhere, paranoia over critical race theory played a central role in Monroe School Board races this month. The concept holds that racism is embedded in the nation’s institutions. Critics argue it paints all white people as racist.
Last year, about a third of Monroe High’s 1,600 students were people of color, according to data from the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Less than 1% of students were Black. However, Black students there were disproportionately likely to face disciplinary action in the 2019-20 school year, OSPI data shows.
Just south of Monroe, more than 100 students at Cedarcrest High School in Duvall walked out of class last week over what they considered a weak response to a racist photo shared by a student on social media.