Arlington confronts racism

The focus in Arlington is shifting after the arrest Saturday of two teenagers accused of burning a cross in a black family’s lawn last week.

Now that the weekend’s community vigils and speeches are over, the question remains, what more needs to be done.

The answer, according to various people in town, involves everybody.

Marian Harrison, a former librarian in the Arlington School District and local historian, said she hopes the district and city officials start with a public forum to talk about the problems. She said the forum should not have a set agenda or any lecturers.

"Too many times, the parents are not invited in to talk about the problems," Harrison said. "I really think the community needs the dialogue."

In 1971, Harrison’s daughter, Jamaica Filgo, was the third black graduate of Arlington High School, behind her aunt and her older brother. (She was known then as Janell Harrison but took the stage name Jamaica during her singing career. Filgo is her married name.)

Filgo said the school district should create a staff position called a "diversity officer" to whom students could report racial incidents directly and confidentially, if necessary.

The diversity officer should be in addition to the full-time police officer who already works at the high school, because some students might not feel as comfortable relating to an officer, she said.

"This person needs to be a counselor well-versed in racial issues," Filgo said.

Part of a plan the school district is developing focuses on making it easier for students to report incidents, said Catherine Russell, district spokeswoman.

"The action plan has three R’s — report, respond and resources," Russell said.

Arlington High School principal Bob Penny said officials are asking students to be more vigilant in reporting incidents of harassment, intimidation and bullying on campus.

"If you see it, what are you going to do with it," Penny said. "Are you just looking at it and walking away, thinking it’s not my deal? We’re now encouraging kids to report these things to a staff member or administrator, and if they feel comfortable enough to step into the situation and say that is wrong.

"We, as a district, just put that message out to the students, that it has to be an ongoing thing we’re going to have to do," he added. "This is not the first time they have gotten that message, and it should not be the last."

The response will involve training people to speak out when somebody makes a racist comment, Russell said.

And the district will determine what information resources and groups are already available and then make better use of them in the schools.

Marian Harrison said one group she volunteers with, the Snohomish County Health and Safety Network, is a good example. The group helps communities assess what it has to offer kids, which also helps pinpoint the needs.

Jessica Billdt, an Arlington High senior, said the message is getting across for many students. She thinks the majority of students can put enough pressure on those who promote racism that it could silence the offenders.

"A lot of people are being more positive and vocal about (being tolerant)," Billdt said. "If (the offenders) see that everyone disagrees with them, maybe they’ll start thinking, ‘I should shut up.’"

In the past, whites and minorities talked back and forth about "kicking their butts" because of their race, Billdt said.

"Now, it’s more like, ‘I don’t like them’ because they’re this or that," she said. "Hopefully one day they won’t even talk about that anymore."

Students come to school with "training" from their parents in terms of what’s right and wrong, Penny said. For the most part, he said, that leaves students believing that racism is wrong.

"But there are a lot of people out there who have intolerance for lots of other people," he said. "When kids come to school, they already have that training, and we have to try to teach them. You hope kids are listening and open to it, but, evidently, some people didn’t listen.

"We have to find out: Where did those values come from? Where are they being reinforced?" he said.

Billdt said she believes that the community’s reaction to the cross-burning will leave a lasting impression.

Last year, when a gym wall at the old Arlington High School campus was spray-painted with racial epithets, students put up one large poster denouncing the act, she said. Students talked about racism for only about a day, she said.

"This year, there were so many signs and posters, and the big rally happened — it was much better," Billdt said, saying the public outcry clearly put the racists in the minority. "Nobody wants to be known as somebody who everyone hates."

The key will be how much the community steps forward to volunteer their time, instead of just asking the school district or police to handle it, Filgo said.

"This is terrorism, that’s what it is," Filgo said. "We don’t need someone terrorizing the Arlington community."

Reporter Scott Morris: 425-339-3292 or smorris@heraldnet.com. Reporter Victor Balta: 425-339-3455 or vbalta@heraldnet.com.

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