For months now, Delaware teenagers have been speaking out about racism in their schools. Part of a wider regional trend that can be traced back to Black students on Philadelphia’s Main Line, these students come from charter schools, private schools, vo-tech and publics.
At first, these groups were anonymous, running Instagram accounts that called out unequal treatment, racial incidents that were swept under the rug by administrators trying to protect school reputations, internal segregation and other examples of systemic and interpersonal racism.
Now, more and more Delaware high school students are standing up without a cloak of anonymity.
When racism came up at Red Clay Consolidated School District’s official town hall earlier in the summer, a Conrad Schools of Science student named Nathan Cho decided it was time to take action.
“I thought it was horrendous they way they treated talking about students and racial issues,” he said. “It felt very like they tiptoed around the issues instead of actually addressing them. The white adults were like, ‘Oh my gosh we’re so sorry,’ but they didn’t really talk about any solutions. And they didn’t even let us, the students going through these issues, speak.”
Nathan started messaging friends — mostly classmates at Concord — and said he was thinking about doing a student-run town hall, if anyone was interested in organizing it.
A small group formed and divvied up the remaining schools in the district for outreach. The Red Clay Student Town Hall became a reality on August 30.
The main focus of the event: Amplification of the student voice. Turning the previous town hall on its head, students had the opportunity to speak at this virtual gathering, and administrators and parents would only be allowed to listen.
It’s a pretty shocking shift. As with the August 3 New Castle County Vo-Tech School District’s NCCVT Speaks-led virtual town hall, students presented their demands for equitable education in their district. While adults did speak near the end of the events, it was only after the students spoke that they were given the floor by students.
The Red Clay student-run town hall kicked off with a powerful spoken word piece on Blackness by a student named Siani, followed by two essays read by an undocumented student who asked to remain anonymous. The student talked about a broken immigration system, being discouraged from taking advanced classes and applying to university, enduring jokes about “the wall” and a complete lack of Mexican and Mexican American history in school.
“There’s so many myths around what undocumented students can or cannot do, what they are and what they aren’t and we need to do better. Not just because us, undocumented students, need to go to college but because my peers would be better and more empathetic human beings if we were understood,” the student said in an essay.
The testimonials that followed had a few prevalent themes:
- Students endure or witness racist speech in the halls in front of teachers who do nothing, even after students report the incidents to higher-ups
- Armed School Resource Officers (SRO) make students, especially Black and undocumented students, feel unsafe. Multiple students asked who SROs were protecting, and one Black student spoke of being singled out of a crowd of white students in a hallway by an SRO
- “College prep” classes are presented to Black and brown students as “good” classes, while not telling them about the predominantly white Advanced Placement classes.
- Black and brown students are not encouraged to apply to college
- American history classes omit non-white historical figures; students want a curriculum that includes, among others, Ruby Bridges, Emmett Till and The Bracero Program — none of which, they say, are taught in the classroom.
In addition, youth activist Josih, who recently marched from Delaware to Washington, DC for the 2020 March on Washington, said that he is part of a group of students demanding that Governor John Carney does not reopen schools prematurely (Red Clay is all-online until January, when it will be reassessed). Reopening schools in January, he said, would be “heretical and unacceptable.” Students plan a sit-in if the physical schools are to open in January.
Student demands for the Red Clay administration include ensuring that all students have access to advanced courses, holding students and teachers accountable for racist actions, 2-3 student representatives from each high school on the district diversity committee and a student representative on the school board. They are asking that the administration responds within 30 days.
“We don’t want change that’s like, ‘Oh, I’ll re-examine myself and try not to be racist in the future,” Nathan said in an interview before the town hall. “What are you going to do policy-wise? What are you going to do physically that we can see, that we can read, that we can feel that is going to make changes in our district?”
On Wednesday, September 2, NCCVT Speaks and the Delaware Minority Student Coalition will hold a discussion between state legislators, community leaders and student leaders on equitable education in the State of Delaware. For more information on this event, see the NCCVT Speaks Instagram.-30-
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