At a table in the principal’s office, Olathe North High School junior Irene Gatimi recalled an evening last month when she showed up at another school’s dance in a black dress.
A young white male she didn’t know commented that the shade of the dress matched Irene’s skin. “It’s hard to see the difference,” he said.
The daughter of Kenyan immigrants, Irene challenged him: “I feel I’m beautiful tonight and you are not going to make me feel any other way.”
The exchange was firm but civil. The offender walked on, quiet yet unapologetic. And Irene enjoyed the rest of the evening.
And there in the school office, principal Jason Herman smiled.
“You handled that perfectly,” Herman said in an hour-long conversation with Irene and three other student leaders.
Years ago, pupils might have been told to walk away from such language. Some might even report it to an adult. But with racially charged incidents making news across the nation this school year, Herman said, “I expect students here to speak up and say, ‘No, that’s not OK.”
Just as civil discord, in-your-face political points and social-media outbursts have cleaved adult society, so too are they splintering some high school campuses. Increasingly, area teens and their parents are demanding schools take action against students spouting bigoted views.
From girls at St. Teresa’s Academy posing with beer pong cups arranged as a swastika, to a Blue Springs student scrawling a racial slur on a black classmate’s paper, to students hurling objects and trash talk at gay, lesbian and transgender youth at an Olathe homecoming parade, the images seem to be popping frequently.
“There are a lot of people who are sick and tired of this hate and intolerance,” said Cassandra Peters, mother of an Olathe Northwest High School student targeted with derogatory comments during the Sept. 21 parade — where some teens reportedly shouted, “Make Olathe Northwest straight again.”
Days after the incident, Peters took it upon herself to organize a community rally across from the school. More than 100 people showed up to hold signs and wave rainbow flags.
“I did not feel the school was handling this in the way that it should or with the speed that it should,” Peters said. “The whole community needs to stand up.”
At Lawrence High School last month, students sat down — staging a daylong sit-in to demand action against football and baseball players who had made transphobic comments in a group chat.
“We felt like LHS was valuing their players over their minority students,” said sophomore Elliot Bradley, who participated in the sit-in. “We needed to be responded to. ... We needed to know someone understands.”
Some area school districts are responding in ways beyond the perfunctory we take these matters seriously statements.
Just this month, Mark Bedell, superintendent of the Kansas City Public Schools, launched a long-discussed mentorship program, promising an adult mentor to students who want someone to guide them through struggles that can obstruct academic success.
Bedell said the mentors have been trained to have conversations that “honor each others’ differences,” an aspect of school culture that administrators sometimes hesitate to address.
Ethnic and religious intolerance may be gaining traction among teens, Bedell said, “because we don’t talk to them about oppressed and marginalized people. We act as if it doesn’t exist.”
To just say that bigotry and bullying have no place in American society — a golden rule that schools have been reciting for years — doesn’t make intolerance vanish.
And “intolerance” itself is a subjective term: A young person’s belief in “America First” or support for stricter enforcement of immigration laws can’t be summarily censored at school, said Kelli Hopkins, an attorney with the Missouri School Board Association.
“Students like any other citizens have a constitutional right to free speech,” Hopkins said.
She said students can be disciplined, however, “when their speech spills into the classroom and becomes disruptive to the education process.” The discipline needs to fit the student action, addressing the level of disruption and not the content of the student’s speech, she said.
A climate of blunt talk
Some educators and civil-rights groups are calling it the “Trump effect.”
Their argument is that teens today, at least as described in anecdotal news reports, are more prone than ever to spout off verbally or post online biases about race, religion and gender since voters elected a blunt, Twitter-chatty president in Donald Trump.
Within weeks of the 2016 general election, groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the digital media company BuzzFeed issued reports based on unscientific, online surveys that suggested an uptick in bullying and intolerance at K-12 schools.
“It’s a daily occurrence that (children) hear this language,” Dorothy Espelage, a University of Florida professor of education psychology, told BuzzFeed. “They’re just parroting back what they hear” from adults.
Similar concerns were put forth by thousands of teachers, counselors, administrators and other school staff workers responding to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Project.
Ninety percent reportedly responded online that “school climate has been negatively affected” by the divisive election. Four out of 10 said their schools lacked action plans to deal with incidents of hate and bias.
In a December 2016 report, “After Election Day: The Trump Effect,” the law center cited more than 2,500 “negative incidents” of student bigotry and harassment that the group said could be tied to the rhetoric of the presidential campaign.
The Kansas City region has seen episodes of its own, triggering a variety of responses from school officials and communities demanding disciplinary action:
▪ Several alumnae of St. Teresa’s Academy have told news media that they’re dissatisfied with the school’s muted reaction to students at an off-campus “Girls Night” posing in social-media pictures with the drinking cups arranged in a swastika.
The students reportedly received an in-school suspension called a “reflection day,” a penalty the school would not confirm.
In a written statement to parents, St. Teresa’s said “it undertook an internal, as well as external investigation” with the help of the Kansas City Police Department to administer undisclosed disciplinary measures.
“Because of privacy and legal issues we are unable to report every detail,” the school said.
▪ The student sit-in at Lawrence High followed an online chat among students that devolved into an ugly back-and-forth about transgender youth, said members of the school’s Total Equality Alliance who participated in the demonstration.
Organizer Etana Parks told The Star that some in the group chat began outing transgender students, calling them by “dead” names given at birth that do not reflect the gender with which they now identify.
“This was the start of trans people feeling unsafe and uncomfortable,” Parks said.
To school administrators, “we made a list of demands that we felt were negotiable,” said Parks. The group pressed for suspensions and mandatory LGBTQ education classes for students who had posted the most derogatory remarks.
The Lawrence district did issue a statement:
“Student safety has always been Lawrence High’s highest priority. Our school is a family that values the open exchange of ideas and appreciates the uniqueness of each student and staff member. When there are concerns raised about student safety, bullying, discrimination or harassment. we take those concerns seriously. ... If you have a safety concern, we need to know about it.”
▪ In Salina, Kan., some parents have voiced outrage and school officials have struggled with how to react to what arguably could be a free-speech issue. A student newspaper’s examination of race issues at Salina Central High School quoted a white football player as saying, “Racism is not a big deal” and “black people only make it a big deal because they are still upset about slavery. ... People should get over it so we can move on.”
Superintendent Jim Hardy told the Salina Journal the episode might present opportunities for students who feel alienated to speak up.
“Sometimes the most painful experiences are the best opportunities,” he said. “This could be an opportunity for us to really talk (so) there’s no doubt in our being that that kind of behavior and that kind of disrespect is not acceptable in our school.”
▪ The Blue Springs school district sought help from the U.S. Department of Justice after a biracial student at South High last year found the N-word scrawled across a class paper she’d left unattended. Black students at the school reported that white students were referring to a frequent gathering spot for them as Africa.
The Justice Department introduced a program called SPIRIT — Student Problem Identification and Resolution of Issues Together.
In a three-day event, SPIRIT called on members of the community, parents, police and clergy to serve as facilitators working with groups of like-minded students speaking about prejudices, anxieties and cultural misconceptions.
Students then were put into groups in which those of different backgrounds and viewpoints hashed out their issues, made pledges of respect and kindness, and came up with programs to spread that understanding throughout their school.
“This is a student-led effort,” said Katie Woolf, district spokeswoman.
Blue Springs Assistant Superintendent Dave Adams said schools have to listen to their students before acting. The key is to compel students to confront and understand their differences rather than disregard them.
“We are all responsible, all in this together to make schools better, our communities better,” Adams said.
He added, though, that “ultimately our goal is to educate. And, yes, this issue now puts a whole lot more on the plate of educators.”
When Herman took the reins as principal at Olathe North during that politically tumultuous fall of 2016, instilling a culture of ethnic harmony wasn’t high on his to-do list.
A month after the election, no issue was more important, he said.
Herman wrote a letter to parents in early December alerting them to “several incidents in which students were harassed based on their race and/or ethnicity,” mostly through social media and text exchanges. He urged families to “please speak to your child tonight” about respect “our intolerance for any type of harassment.”
That conversation continues today.
A Sept. 15 school assembly celebrating “Kindness and Acceptance” featured dance, performance art and poetry of student groups across the spectrum.
Serving more than 2,000 pupils, the second-largest high school in Kansas also boasts one of the state’s most diverse student populations — 13 percent African-American, 24 percent Hispanic and 45 percent qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches.
The assembly ended with the students unfurling the flags of 80 nations.
“Olathe North always has prided itself on diversity ... but we can still struggle with issues of racism,” acknowledged Herman.
In early 2017, Herman invited representatives of the city’s Human Relations Commission, El Centro of Kansas City and the Kansas State University diversity recruitment office, among others, to form the Olathe North Social Justice Council.
Now Herman is encouraging students to join the discussion — respectfully, without shouting.
Four students showed up in his office on an in-service day off to speak with The Star.
“I do feel that people in general have gotten more bold pushing forth a certain agenda,” said senior Kevin Mboma, an African American active in several student groups, including a diversity council and a club engaged in Korean arts.
Is Trump to blame? Mboma hesitated, noting that last year’s elections at all levels underscored how divided everything’s become. “Some of Trump’s followers might feel enboldened now” that he is president, Mboma allowed.
“Some people are acting as if it’s a new thing” when, in fact, many of Mboma’s peers are of the age to just be encountering intolerant views that have forever existed in society, he said.
“Those facing it know that racism never did go away.”