ARLINGTON — School officials have promised to better communicate with families after last month’s Martin Luther King Jr. assembly at Arlington High School sparked concerns.
The assembly was planned by students and took place Jan. 20, four days after the holiday honoring the civil rights leader. Three students and two staff members spoke. One student performed a rap, Principal Christine Hinojosa said.
Two of the students talked about being part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. Some students and parents felt that was inappropriate.
At the Jan. 23 Arlington School Board meeting, at least 14 people spoke out, according to the meeting minutes and sign-in sheet. Six people voiced concerns about the assembly, the lack of notice and how students who walked out say they were treated. Eight people said they supported the assembly. The newspaper attempted to contact each of the speakers by telephone at the number they listed on the sign-in sheet.
Several students reportedly left the assembly. Hinojosa and a teacher who was there said the students left quietly and between speakers. Students are allowed to opt out of assemblies and go to the library, the office or other areas to study, Hinojosa said.
Gregory Jackson, whose 17-year-old son rapped at the assembly about being a young black man, said he doesn’t think it was the right platform for transgender or gay students. He wishes the focus had stayed on MLK Day.
Jackson, 60, remembers water fountains that were labeled “whites” or “colored,” and doctors’ offices where white people had nice magazines and black people didn’t have decent seats.
“What does it mean to celebrate a man like Martin Luther King? You can’t fit everything into that arena,” he said. “I’ve seen so much in this world, and it really burns my grits when people try to equate with the struggle of this dark skin. It doesn’t compare.”
Butch Diemer felt a discussion of gender identity was “cloaked under the Martin Luther King celebration.” His teenage daughter told him she couldn’t have left without being judged.
He wishes he’d known more about the assembly.
“I need to know so that I can talk to my child in what I believe is an appropriate manner,” he said. “They took that choice from me.”
Rich Bovard’s son walked out of the assembly. The 16-year-old told his dad that he felt belittled by teachers who confronted him afterward. Bovard was frustrated by his son’s experience.
“I don’t want to pick a side against people, but I will pick a side about what should and shouldn’t be allowed in our schools,” he said.
People also came to the meeting to support the students, including those who spoke and planned the assembly.
Dennis Irwin said King’s message was about equality and inclusion. It’s important to Irwin that his children grow up in a community where diversity is celebrated.
Larry Delaney is the father of an Arlington freshman and a teacher at Lakewood High. He decided to go to the board meeting after seeing comments on social media. People seemed to be trying to define who should be included in King’s vision, he said. He doesn’t think King would exclude anyone. He suspects the situation in Arlington escalated when adults got involved. The students could have sorted it out on their own, he said.
Amanda Martian, 16 and a senior at the high school, said she loved the assembly and was proud of her school.
“It was important for people to speak their personal stories that related to everything that Martin Luther King fought for,” she said. “I think a lot of people kind of missed the point.”
Amanda’s mom, Faith Martian, stressed the importance of kindness and respect. She understands parents’ desire for more information.
“Basically, what was decided is that the school needs to have more transparency about what will be in assemblies and what students will be hearing,” she said.
Frank Stallons teaches at Arlington High and was proud of the students involved in the assembly. He also was proud that students who opted to leave did so between presentations.
Anne Wendt’s 17-year-old son was at the assembly. Her son stayed but some friends chose to leave.
“He was a little bit uncomfortable,” she said. “I told him that’s how we grow. If you’re always the same and you’re never uncomfortable, you never learn and you never grow.”
Wendt admires the courage of the students who spoke at the assembly, she said.
Superintendent Chrys Sweeting sent a letter to families Jan. 27. The letter talks about the district’s plans to address concerns that were raised during the school board meeting. They include: increasing communication about school-wide programs; clarifying social media policies; talking with students who planned the assembly; investigating accusations of harassment, intimidation or bullying; and addressing concerns about how students who left the assembly were treated.
In a February newsletter, there was a brief explanation of the next assembly. The letter said the planned speaker is “a division one basketball player who did not let his disability define him.”
“I think everybody is ready to just move forward and treat this as a learning experience,” said Hinojosa, the principal.
The Arlington School Board usually meets at 6 p.m. the second and fourth Mondays of each month. Meetings are open to the public.
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.