Schools slow to respond to racism

Maegan Hopkins was driving with her mother when a classmate motioned from a nearby vehicle and shouted, “Hey, you n—r!”

Dan Bates / The Herald

Monroe High School seniors (from left) Megan Austin, Anna Wolff, Sandra Barba, Virgil Brown and Maegan Hopkins are speaking out about racism and diversity at their school.

Were she alone or with friends, Hopkins, who is black, said she would have yelled back. With her mom, she wasn’t sure what to do. She followed her mom’s advice and looked away.

Sandra Barba chokes back tears, her mouth set firmly as she talks about a Hispanic friend who worked extremely hard to learn English and become a U.S. citizen. It was not an easy path. Other boys ridiculed him for his speech and dark skin color.

“He had to deal with so much because he was from somewhere else,” said Barba, who also is of Mexican heritage.

Virgil Brown plays basketball, wears a letterman’s jacket and hangs out with friends much like himself – guys who are well-rounded and good-natured.

Now he’s struggling to understand a small but powerful subculture of his school he never realized existed – a world with nooses, biting insults and unfamiliar slogans. Conversations with classmates have opened his eyes, he said.

“Since I never see it, I think everything is all good,” he said.

These Monroe High School students are grappling with issues of race and respect after reports of racial tensions on their campus, including a white boy expelled for waving a noose at a black classmate.

And they are not the first.

In the last year, Snohomish County communities have seen two cross burnings and vandalism involving racially offensive graffiti.

There’s no way to determine the scope of the problem with any certainty. Schools don’t track whether incidents are race-related. The county prosecutor’s office reports no spike in cases of racial hatred reaching its desks. But the string of recent events has disturbed many people.

“I was born and raised in this community, and I can’t recall a time when I’ve witnessed in my life so many acts of racial violence and taunting in so short a time period,” County Executive Aaron Reardon said.

People in each of the communities involved have responded with workshops, committees and prayer. But even within school districts, efforts can be piecemeal. No one seems sure of how to address the situation in any systematic way.

An attempt to form a countywide task force after a cross burning in Arlington eight months ago showed promise, but fizzled within weeks. Reardon blames the informal nature of the group for the spotty attendance. He said he wants to revive the group after Jan. 1 with a more formal structure that includes appointed members.

One thing many people agreed on after the noose incident in Monroe: More needs to be done – and soon.

Pastor Jason Martin, whose family’s Arlington home was targeted by the cross burning, would like to see more than just talk.

“Are you just saying things to make me feel good?” he asked. ‘I’m a busy man. If you’re going to do something, do it.”

Efforts are isolated

Many schools already have taken steps to address the cultural climate. Policies, committees, student clubs, peer mentorship programs, workshops and activities such as “mix it up” days, when children mix lunch partners in school cafeterias, all have been instituted.

But few go far enough in the eyes of some.

“Leaders tend to minimize the importance of this issue,” said Gary Howard of the Arlington-based Reach Center for Multicultural Education, who has worked with Arlington and the county. “In other words, ‘this is an aberrant action by an individual student and needs to be dealt with discipline.’ “

That’s a mistake, he said, and schools need to take seriously their role as the center of their communities.

In Arlington, for example, while the superintendent and principals have been active, teachers have not been pulled into the process, Howard said.

“This issue calls them to have a serious conversation with all faculty,” Howard said.

There also should be more efforts to hire minority teachers or administrators, “a lunchroom attendant – somebody,” said Martin, the pastor. “Until they do that, it’s just talking.”

School superintendents say they are making strides but should not be the only ones under the microscope. When questions about values pop up, the question of “What are schools doing?” almost inevitably turns up, said Linda Byrnes, superintendent of the Arlington School District.

But “values, particularly – that’s home, that’s the faith community, that’s the merchants and the rest of our world,” she said. “In order to really be able to have this addressed and go away, it has to be a whole community approach.”

In Monroe, multiple efforts are under way, everything from posters to a Communities That Care program to link agencies so they can focus on common goals, such as student safety.

High school students also are getting involved. A leadership group is looking at such things as a week in January highlighting different cultures. Another idea is a wristband people can wear to show support for diversity.

“There’s a long way to go, but we as a community have made a really important start,” said Catherine Collins, one of the parents involved in the effort.

For some in the Hispanic community, the efforts are too little, too late.

Ruth Anderson, a Mexican immigrant and Monroe pastor, for several years helped organize services for Spanish-speaking residents and communitywide Cinco de Mayo festivals. But after her son was suspended from school last year for fighting, she moved to Bothell.

“I have to give up all that to save my son’s future,” said Anderson, who said she complained to school officials about harassment toward her son but did not get a satisfactory response. “They don’t care to learn our culture. They want to think everything is fine,” she said.

School sets a tone

There are many things schools can do to improve the cultural climate, including a districtwide commitment, student involvement and an atmosphere of trust.

Mariner High School in Everett, for example, first addressed racism 20 years ago with a “respect policy.” It was adopted districtwide and is still cited as an example on, a nationwide project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“There wasn’t a big race riot or anything, just a lot of referrals from staff about slurs, and you could just hear it in the hallways – putdowns, just unkind things and words like ‘faggot’ and ‘nigger’ and all that stuff,” said Paula Martin, a retired assistant principal at the school.

Students put the policy into practice. Older students visit freshman and sophomore classrooms to talk about what respecting diversity means. And a peer mediation program has students help classmates work through their problems.

“When students see, ‘Hey, these kids are getting along,’ it really sets the tone,” said counselor Elizabeth Stokes, who started the mediation program.

More recently at Everett High School, counselor Lillian Ortiz-Self started a Latin Image Club to help Hispanic students – especially recent immigrants – solve problems and connect with school activities.

Eva Fuentes, 16, was earning a 0.7 grade-point average before she began helping Ortiz with the club.

“I basically didn’t have a GPA,” said the junior. “This year, my GPA went up to 3.5.”

Fuentes said the club hasn’t solved all her problems. She recalled a white classmate who thought she had a switchblade knife when it was just a metal clip in her hair.

“I think the stereotypes are always going to be there. … But we’ve learned to defend ourselves – to speak up,” Fuentes said.

School leaders often battle a code of silence among students who don’t report what’s going on, Monroe School District Superintendent Bill Prenevost said.

Another roadblock is popular culture, said Jim Tamble, associate principal at Lake Stevens High School. He points to MTV, where “the n-word” is common in rap songs. Students mimic the stars, seeing it as mere slang.

“The word has had kind of a metamorphosis. So we’re fighting that,” he said.

Having a diverse school to begin with helps, students and teachers say.

Josh King, 18, transferred last year from Cascade High School to Mariner High School, where more than one-third of the students are minorities.

“Comparing the two, I would have to say that Mariner is a lot better place,” said King, who is black. “There’s common ground, common respect, and that’s not really an issue you mess with.”

For teacher John Altermott, a diverse student body at North Middle School in Everett means more “teachable moments” where he can help students understand other cultures. The school has a sizable population of Arab, Russian and Ukrainian immigrants.

Last year, for example, a lesson on the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II prompted a discussion about treatment of Arab-Americans in the aftermath the Sept.11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“There were students who were at times fearful for themselves,” Altermott said. His task as a teacher was to help the students see past skin color to “what’s within that individual person and what they bring to the class.”

Solutions take time

Whatever the solutions, adults must be prepared for a long-term commitment, said Barbara Yasui, director of equity and multicultural education in the Marysville School District.

“You can’t say we’re going to have one assembly on acceptance,” she said. “It’s hard work, and it takes a long time.”

Such commitment requires personal conviction.

In Lake Stevens, school leaders took a workshop on how to be “culturally competent.” But the key lesson for participant Rob Manahan was that the solution didn’t hinge on data, statistics or strategies.

“A lot of it is head stuff. OK, we know all the facts. How do I move forward now?” said Manahan, principal of Sunnycrest Elementary School. It’s not with videos and taped lectures. “You have to do it with your heart.”

Students are part of the conversation.

Megan Austin, a Monroe senior, is involved in her school’s student leadership team, which recently formed a Celebrating Diversity group. Students must take personal action when they witness harassment, Austin said. “Don’t just stand by. Say something to the person. … Don’t let it slide.”

The majority of students are respectful of each other, said Anna Wolff, a classmate of Austin’s who is of Korean descent. And that’s one reason she and her friends are hopeful but “realistic.”

“The sad reality is there is that small minority who is cruel and who can’t find a way to get their pride out of the way – that ignorance,” Wolff said. “I don’t think it’s something you can see a change in, like, a month.

“It’s about a community and cultures, and the world outside Monroe.”

Reporter Melissa Slager: 425-339-3465 or mslager@

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