When a group of students circulates a petition among schoolmates to bring back slavery — which is what happened at Park Hill South High School in Riverside last week — that signals a problem way beyond what kids are not learning in their classrooms. And it proves that noisy protesting parents who want the educational system to ignore the ugly parts of American history are in serious denial about our complicated reality.
Racial insensitivity at that level is a problem that needs to be fought not just in the schools, but throughout the community. Park Hill South Principal Kerrie Herren obviously gets that. He said his school is experiencing racism in the same way the wider community is grappling with it.
But what will be done about it? It is not enough only to say that bigotry won’t be tolerated.
The school not being fully transparent about what happened, and not revealing how many students were involved or exactly what discipline will be meted out, does nothing to help students, parents or the community understand that racial discrimination and harassment will be met with serious consequences — if indeed that is the case.
If Park Hill wants the community’s help to work through to the other side of racism — harmony and unity — then those among us who want change need to know what the problem looks like so we can all get busy trying to tackle it. And that’s absolutely what needs to happen.
District officials maintain it was a small group of students involved in the creation and signing of the online petition, and the culprits’ identities are known. But student privacy law prohibits the school from being any more specific about whether it involved a handful, a dozen or more. According to the student handbook, the students involved could get anything from a talking to, to expulsion. Sure, consequences can be a deterrent, but kids kicked out of school don’t get the chance to learn why their actions were repulsive and harmful to their learning community. They need a deeper lesson that can’t be served with punishment.
Circulating the petition is more than hurtful to their schoolmates — it’s scary. Either these students have no idea what chattel slavery in this country looked like, or they do and therefore lack any understanding of basic sensitivity to their fellow humans.
In either case, education is in order. And that can’t just come from teachers. Parents and the larger community must play a role here, too.
‘Critical race theory’ protests ignore historical reality
Since 2015, the district — where about 66% of the students are white — has been training teachers and staff in cultural competency and “to create classrooms that are culturally responsive so that all students feel safe,” said Nicole Kirby, Park Hill’s spokeswoman.
The district hired a director of access, inclusion and family engagement, Terri Deayon, to guide teachers in implementing the lessons learned. This week, Deayon has been talking with parents and students upset about the incident — and learning that it is not an isolated one.
Deayon admits that she’s troubled knowing that despite all the work the district has done and continues to do to make sure teachers are educated in equity, inclusion and cultural competency, students are not getting it. “Somewhere, we’re missing something,” she said.
She said she knows from talking to students that “they are ready to have these courageous conversations” about such issues as slavery and the overall history of race in this country and its impact on American culture. “But we have parents who don’t believe that should be happening in classrooms.”
Parents with a similar viewpoint have been showing up at school board meetings around the country, objecting to teaching the truth about race in the classroom. They claim schools are indoctrinating young minds with so-called “critical race theory” — an obscure academic concept that zero real-life school curricula are based on — teaching them that the United States is an evil and unjust place.
That’s a lie, but it’s politically potent in this moment. The truth is that slavery is an inextricable, tragic part of the American story. Human beings bought and sold other human beings in Missouri just generations ago. Slaves helped build the White House. The great-grandparents of some Americans alive today were enslaved.
If students are not taught the full picture of this history in school — coupled with a dose of empathy, equity and human kindness — then where are they to learn it? The petition is a good indication that too many students are not learning those lessons at home. Meanwhile, all around them in social media and face to face, they hear conversations about race — some of them true and others not. So how are they to know the difference?
Parents should want their children to know the truth about America’s historical struggles with equality, if only to prevent racist behavior resulting from ignorance. And the community needs to find ways to work with the schools to help foster a spirit of unity. The attitudes displayed at Park Hill South are, as Herren said, a reflection of the broader community.
Yes, sometimes it does take a village. This is one of those times. And Deayon says the district would welcome community support to bring more lessons about culture and race into classrooms. Parents need to decide they want to live and raise their children around kind people who respect and support one another. And then get busy helping to create it.
The time is now, and your children are the perfect reason.