MONROE — Paper in hand, a young Black kid walked up to a microphone.
The first grader was set to speak Monday evening at a Monroe School Board meeting.
“I am kind to all of my friends even when racist things (are) happening,” he read with the help of his mother, Junelle Lewis. “Please help stop this racism.”
The student was one of six Black children and several parents who told the board discrimination and racist slurs persist in the district’s schools months after concerns partially led to the superintendent being put on leave. An independent investigation into Dr. Justin Blasko’s alleged misconduct was completed this month. It has not yet been made public.
Those concerns last year were sparked by an argument at Monroe High School that led to felony hate crime charges against a father. In the wake of that, other Black students reported facing racism in school.
The latest comments came days after school officials wrote to families of two middle schools noting recent incidents of racism. At Hidden River Middle School, an employee was put on administrative leave after “inappropriate and racially insensitive language,” according to the school’s principal and the district’s acting superintendent.
At Park Place Middle School, racist vandalism has increased in bathrooms, the school principal wrote to families. This has included swastikas and “KKK” scrawled on bathroom stalls last week, Monroe police Deputy Chief Ryan Irving told The Daily Herald.
“If a 6-year-old little boy can stand up and tell a room full of adults and plead with them to stop, then those adults have a responsibility to commit to anti-racism,” Melanie Ryan, president of the Monroe Equity Council, told the Herald.
That commitment is about actively working to make a community that is welcoming to all students, she said. It includes teaching students how to combat racism and step in when they see it happening. She added conversations around racism in the district have moved in a promising direction. But action hasn’t yet followed.
“We’re still waiting for that,” Ryan said.
‘It’s been happening and going on for a while’
One by one, elementary, middle and high school students walked to the microphone Monday to tell board members their classmates have called them “monkeys,” the N-word and “massa,” a term referring to what enslaved people would call their owners.
“We don’t need kids that old talking about that kind of stuff because they shouldn’t have to worry about it,” Jeremiah Campbell, the board’s vice president, responded Monday.
One mother said she gets calls about racism on campus from her son’s principal every week. A Monroe High School student said it has been going on for years.
“When non-Black students make fun of Black people it makes me angry and it bothers me,” another student, a sixth grader at Park Place, told board directors. “This didn’t just start happening. It’s been happening and going on for a while.”
“They’ve also taught me a lesson,” she added. “These words that people have been saying to us in a bad way have taught me to stick up for my heritage, where I come from and my ancestors. They have also taught me to be a strong Black girl.”
This student and others implored the district to do more to stop the ongoing racism they experience in school. One girl in high school said students of color don’t always report the racism they face because they don’t think there will be any consequences. This tracks with the survey findings of the student-led Monroe Inclusion Collective, which found a majority of respondents experienced racism in the district. Most of those students didn’t report it to school leaders, citing a lack of trust in staff and not enough representation in leadership. Those who did report incidents often said they felt unsafe after doing so.
In a statement, the acting superintendent, Kim Whitworth, called the comments “heartbreaking.” Next year, the district plans to provide “Cultural Competency Diversity Equity and Inclusion” training for staff, she noted.
“Together, we are going to have to not only change behaviors, but we are also going to have to change hearts,” she said. “And we are going to have to protect our most vulnerable students while we are growing and changing.”
The students speaking Monday called for stronger discipline for students who commit racist acts.
“Black students are not supported by the staff in this district,” another Park Place student said. “Student offenders are practically given a slap on the wrist at Park Place. The district needs to reconstruct the policies and procedures around racism, harassment and bullying. There should be a zero tolerance policy and offenders should be held accountable for their actions the first time.”
The students’ comments Monday were followed by a staff presentation showing school discipline disproportionately hits Black and Latino students in Monroe.