The Stanwood-Camano School District has committed to “retraining and reteaching” its students and staff about appropriate behavior in the wake of two investigations that found students used racial slurs during a football game in November. (Ryan Berry / Herald file)

The Stanwood-Camano School District has committed to “retraining and reteaching” its students and staff about appropriate behavior in the wake of two investigations that found students used racial slurs during a football game in November. (Ryan Berry / Herald file)

Stanwood football game a ‘catalyst’ for deeper anti-racism work

The district has committed to “retraining and reteaching” its students and staff about appropriate behavior.

STANWOOD — In the wake of two investigations that found students used racial slurs at a football game in November, Stanwood-Camano School District leaders are stressing their commitment to equity.

Their plans have received a seal of approval from Stanwood’s predominant group for equity and antiracism.

The work started in December, when Stanwood High School hosted a two-day training for all students to recap the equity, discrimination and bullying policies. It continues in the new year with the formation of a Student-Superintendent Leadership Team, so students can share their personal experiences directly with top school officials.

And almost a dozen more actions are planned through next school year, including frequent listening sessions with students; cultural competency and racial bias training for all students and staff; monthly retraining for staff; and a three-part equity symposium to start the 2023-24 school year.

“My hope is that we have longstanding behaviors and commitments to eliminating racism in our organization,” Superintendent Deborah Rumbaugh said. “And we will always be fine-tuning what that means for the students and the adults in our system. I don’t think we would ever say, ‘We’ve got it. That work is done.’ ”

‘Our unwavering belief’

Following a football game between Stanwood and Lakes high schools on Nov. 4, several Lakes parents, players and coaches posted accounts on social media of hearing racist taunts at the game. One mother said her daughter was called the N-word in the girls’ bathroom. Lakes coaches shared stories of Stanwood fans yelling slurs from the student section and Stanwood players using racist language on the playing field.

The posts spurred hundreds of comments and shares, including replies from people who said they had ties to Stanwood and were not surprised to hear the stories. Some shared their own experiences with racism in the city.

“I hear these stories constantly all the time by students at the school. … Like I told some people from the district when I spoke to them, this is not a one-off. This is just the one that went viral,” said Satin-Deseree Arnett, president of the Stanwood Alliance for Equity, or SAFE.

Independent investigations by the Stanwood and Clover Park school districts both found evidence that students used slurs in the bathroom and in the stands. But the Clover Park investigation indicated racist language was also used on the playing field, a claim the Stanwood report said lacked “sufficient evidence” to confirm.

Both reports will inform Stanwood’s path forward, Rumbaugh said. Instances in which specific students are confirmed to have used slurs will be addressed in accordance with the district’s disciplinary policies.

“We noticed those differences as we initially took a look at the report, and I think what is common between the two is the use of racist language,” Rumbaugh said. “We are really committed to using both of those reports, whether there are similarities or differences between them, to help to teach and train, and to reteach and retrain our students and our staff, around what is expected behavior and what isn’t.”

She added that this is a continuation of the district’s existing equity campaign, which predates the Lakes football game by more than two years.

In 2020, it formed an “equity team” to guide the development of policies and procedures. In 2022, it established an educational equity policy that outlines how to uplift diversity and identify and respond to racism, bias and discrimination.

The new trainings “layer onto” to that, Rumbaugh said. In that way, the work is less focused on the specifics of the football game and more about improving the district’s culture to be more inclusive, welcoming and intolerant of racism.

“It is our unwavering belief that racism, whether that is by the actions of an adult or a student, doesn’t have any place in our district or our community,” Rumbaugh said.

‘Finally they are listening’

Arnett, the SAFE president, serves as a member of the district’s equity committee. She said she’s confident the district’s plan is based on the idea that all of the allegations are reasonable, whether or not there was sufficient evidence to prove them true. That’s in part because some of the training sessions started even before the investigations concluded in December, she said.

Arnett observed the sessions. She said she usually sat among the students, going unnoticed because she is not a well known adult in the schools.

“They weren’t on alert around me, and I’ll tell you just listening to chatter — and I did have to have a couple of conversations with kids — I did hear multiple slur words come out of kids’ mouths during these trainings,” Arnett said. “So it is a problem and it is necessary we do this.”

Most of the students, though, engaged with the discussion, she said. That was especially true for students of color, who shared their stories and “called their administrators out” on times when they felt reports of bullying were mishandled or ignored, Arnett said.

“They felt this sense of empowerment and this sense of being heard,” Arnett said. “Finally, they are listening and we can talk.”

She called the football game a “catalyst” for the rest of the district’s equity work. SAFE played a major role in helping the district create its plan for moving forward. Arnett said it feels like the district’s statements are more than just lip service.

“I feel like (SAFE) is a lot more confident and solid in our relationship with the district,” Arnett said. “We’re not just that token, or not just who they go to when they want to look like they’re doing things equitably in the district. … It’s like they actually care, and we really believe that.”

Arnett said the district also should find ways to celebrate diversity and improve representation, in addition to training and conversations: Students should feel like they belong and see people like them represented in their classroom materials, guest speakers and community celebrations.

It’s something she plans to continue pressing for, she said.

“I’m really proud of our district,” Arnett said. “I’m really proud that it didn’t just get swept under the rug. … They are taking responsibility and they are actually owning up instead of hiding.”

Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.

Mallory Gruben: 425-339-3035;; Twitter: @MalloryGruben.

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