By JohnCarl McGrady, Editor in Chief
Over the last few years, many students at Nantucket High School (NHS) have experienced racism on school grounds, sources both on and off the record confirm, including at least one alleged instance involving a teacher. The culmination of two years of research and investigation, this report highlights the experiences of several minority students and the broader statistics surrounding race at NHS. All of the instances reported occurred before Principal Mandy Vasil and Superintendent Elizabeth Hallett assumed their current positions, and Vasil assured students that under her watch, all students would be treated equally, and she would make changes to address any issues.
“I remember one time in my Sophomore year my teacher and I got into an argument…I was just talking while he was talking, it was something very simple, but he was being very disrespectful, telling me to shut up and I was basically defending myself and saying ‘you can’t tell me that,’ just explaining why I was talking, very calm,” Class of 2020 graduate Rheanna Perrin, a Jamaican, recounted, swiveling slightly in a black office chair. “He was basically saying something like ‘you’re from an aggressive culture, and you shouldn’t jump down my throat,’ that’s the phrase that he used, and I think we know what he meant by that.”
The teacher could not be reached for comment.
“I would have opened an investigation into that,” Vasil said. “I don’t believe that’s how any teacher should talk to a student.” However, Perrin did not report the incident to the administration, because “I felt like no one would do anything about it, I didn’t feel supported so I just didn’t bother to report it.”
She tilted her head back to look at the ceiling. “I’ve experienced racism from other students, and when I reported it they didn’t do anything, so it didn’t feel worth it…they just talked to him, but I didn’t get an apology, and I know he wasn’t suspended or anything. They said there was nothing they could do, and I didn’t get a resolution to that situation.”
Perrin was the only student to report racism from teachers, but most reported some level of racism from students. White students had seen it, and both Black and Hispanic students had experienced racism at NHS.
“I had a class where I was in a group of people, and I was the only Hispanic there, and [the white students] were making fun of me for it, and for not knowing English very well,” remembered Senior Carlos Pena. He did not give the names of the students who had insulted him.
“I think that’s a sad state,” Vasil said. “That’s a problem, and that’s something that should be addressed.” On the other hand, she did add that, “there’s culpability on both sides, you have to look at all sides, and everyone should be held accountable and dealt with.”
Pena hesitated before admitting that “I think [with] racism, the high school is not doing well, because I’ve seen people making fun of others, bullying them, just because of their ethnicity,” but he had “not yet” seen that behaviour punished, which led to him not reporting the racism he experienced firsthand.
Pena, however, had never experienced any racism from the faculty, nor had class of 2020 graduate and former Veritas Spanish editor Daniela Diaz. Not only had teachers been fully equitable to Diaz, but they had also been supportive, and when she talked to her guidance counselor about switching out of a difficult class she was in, “my guidance counselor was really encouraging and talked me up.” She felt that teachers encouraged all students equally.
Despite this, Vasil wasn’t content, and explained that, “If there’s one incident, that’s not good, we need to be here for all our students…that’s our purpose.” She went on to elaborate that “we need to foster a safe learning environment for everyone…no student should feel like they aren’t safe.”
Perrin had a different experience than Diaz and Pena, possibly signaling a divide between the treatment of Black and Hispanic students. “[Black students] are not represented,” she said, “we are taught we’re not good enough, we’re less than white people and other people in general, so of course we don’t have that confidence, that drive to do what we want to do.”
Another student, who wished to remain anonymous, recalled reporting three separate instances of racism throughout middle and high school. He claimed the school told him there was nothing they could do about the first two instances he reported, and he never heard back about the third. “That was extra disappointing,” he sighed, “cause I thought, that one, it was pretty clear, and it wasn’t…minor.” After that, he says he “stopped caring” and “kind of tuned out.”
On hearing this, Vasil teared up. “When I hear stuff like that, it makes me so sad,” she responded, “It’s important we follow through and make sure all students feel affirmed. We have to get to the root of this.”
These individual experiences play into a pattern described by minority students of reporting incidents with no or limited follow-up and closure while former Principal Dr. John Buckey was still in charge of NHS, and Vasil has been clear that she believes investigating and following up on these issues is critical. Vasil has also said that she would make changes at NHS in order to fight this racism. Among the changes she suggested were teacher training and student education on racial sensitivity, and she emphasized that her door was always open to any member of the NHS community and that she wanted to help with these issues. However, the effectiveness of her policy and positions has not yet been strongly tested. The coronavirus pandemic has dominated since Vasil was named Principal, so students have spent little time in school, meaning there have been far fewer opportunities for them to experience racism while at school and report it to Vasil. The pandemic also means she has not yet had a chance to address some of the other issues she may want to focus on, and her supporters point out that dealing with coronavirus and online learning would be time-consuming even for a longterm Principal, never mind one who just arrived in the district. She has already begun work on multiple initiatives, though, including a social justice group at the school that has been stalled by coronavirus, but Vasil feels is “critical” for the students.
For every student who agreed to talk about their experiences, ten refused or agreed to speak only on the condition that none of their quotes were used and they were never mentioned. Their experiences were wide and varied, but those who spoke off the record pointed to similar trends described by the students who went on the record. One student instrumental in setting up interviews for this article adamantly refused credit, and another student quoted in this article agreed to speak only on a neutral site. This partially explains why the reporting took so long to gather, but not completely. Obtaining information from administration figures also proved a hurdle.
In January 2019, Veritas editor Henry Dupont began to look into racial discrepancies in Advanced Placement (AP) classes, the National Honors Society, and other prestigious groups and awards at NHS. He noted that as a broadcast director in 2018, he had first heard of this potential issue from Caroline Richards, who preceded him. Faced with serious difficulty in obtaining critical information for his reporting from the administration, Dupont graduated before he could complete the article. The article was later finished in early 2020 and published in February of that year.
The article, using statistics from the District Report Card mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act, CollegeBoard, and the Nantucket High School Administration, found that these groups suffered from a racial disparity that was not replicated elsewhere in the state or country. Of the 117 students enrolled in Advanced Placement classes at the Nantucket High School in 2020, 95 or 81.1% were white, compared to 53.7% of the student body. Latino students were greatly under-represented, making up 22.9% of the student body but—according to administration figures acquired in spring 2020—0% of AP classes. Multiple Latino students in AP classes were interviewed for the article, and the administration could not provide an explanation for this issue.
Both Black and Latino students were also underrepresented in the National Honors Society. National Honors Society figures were independently verified by Veritas fact-checkers, but the official AP figures could not be, and questions persist about the validity of the information presented by the administration.
According to statistics taken from CollegeBoard, the company that handles the AP testing, and from the United States Census Bureau, across the state, the difference is smaller. Roughly 4.6% of AP exam takers in Massachusetts were Black, compared to 9% of all students, and around 8.9% were Latinx, just under their percent of the total population, 10.1%
“I’m not surprised,” one teacher said, stressing there was an “impersonal” relationship between faculty and students at NHS, “more than any other school I’ve [seen].”
Buckey didn’t know why this divide existed, but felt “administratively, we’re probably not going to change it.”
“I would disagree with that,” Vasil differed. She thought that the racial discrepancy was a “huge margin” but that there were things the school could do to lessen it. While she didn’t have a theory as to why Nantuket’s racial divide in AP classes was greater than the divides seen across the rest of the state, she thinks that promoting AP classes to minority students and making sure there are good support systems in place to help prepare them for upper-level classes is key. She also suggested one cause could be fear of AP classes, which could be reduced by educating students about their own ability, and the purpose of AP classes, which she sighted as preparing students for college, and not necessarily scoring high on the AP exams.
“We have to look at the family dynamic, too,” Vasil argued. “If there’s no family experience with college, sometimes the kids aren’t encouraged…it’s about educating families, and not just students.”
Several students and teachers suggested causes such as Nantucket’s high immigrant population, language barriers, tight social cliques, and culture.
High school senior and National Honors Society member Brian Nolasco-Ramirez, who has taken several AP classes, suggested that Latino students form cliques, “they don’t want to reach outside of,” and Diaz, who also took AP classes, also argued that culture had an impact, and that “I believe there are very few numbers of Latinx students enrolled in AP classes because they’ve created this mindset of them not being fully capable of taking such courses.”
Hallet, Vasil, and Buckey all stressed the importance of open enrollment, a policy that Nantucket High School has adopted in recent years allowing students to decide to take AP Classes without teacher recommendation, even if they aren’t getting a certain grade in a prerequisite class. While they understood why the policy could be frustrating for some teachers, they thought it would help to narrow this gap quicker, with Hallett saying she believed “every school in the country,” should adopt the policy. If it’s going to have this effect, though, it’s taking a while; NHS adopted open enrollment a decade ago.
Racial divides extend beyond just representation in AP Classes and prestigious groups. The Report Card also showed that minority students were under-represented in art classes and more likely to be chronically absent. The faculty is also not representative of the student body: at present, there are only two Black faculty members at NHS, and only two Hispanic faculty members, not counting the janitorial staff.
“Absolutely it’s a problem,” Vasil said, “we need to put something into action immediately.”
The student who opted to remain anonymous was skeptical. “We’ll see.” He shrugged. “I’d like to believe her, but I don’t. Every white [official] the school or the town brings in promises change and acts concerned, but nothing changes.”