By JohnCarl McGrady, Editor in Chief
Part one can be found here.
Nantucket High School (NHS) administration has begun to roll out a multi-layered plan to combat racism on school grounds and attempt to foster an anti-racist community, even as students continue to come forward with experiences of racism on school grounds from both other students and faculty. This anti-racism plan has many components, including listening sessions and curricular changes. While some congratulate the administration for its efforts, other students and faculty remain skeptical that those efforts will have a major impact on the underlying problems, and argue they don’t go far enough.
The first two listening sessions implemented by the school were held on February 2nd and March 9th. These sessions were facilitated by Melissa Patrick, an anti-racism professional who specializes in equity, inclusion and diversity and founded the non-profit Equity and Expectations, and Leslieanne Brannigan, an NHS history teacher and the advisor of the National Honors Society. Nothing shared in the context of the group can be or has been shared outside of the group by anyone affiliated with Veritas, because of the group’s confidentiality, but Patrick “was very much impressed,” by the students.
The purpose of the listening sessions, according to Brannigan, is to be a student-centred group that will allow students to share concerns and experiences in a safe space. Patrick echoed this, as did High School Principal Mandy Vasil, and they also agreed with Brannigan that “the second objective is helping to facilitate conversations with adults…so we are able to respond appropriately.”
However, Brannigan was not wholly positive, and noticed a sense of discouragement “that was a little heartbreaking,” and that many of the students who spoke at the session had tried to bring these problems up before without success.
Patrick cited a survey sent out to students after the listening session that found 100% of respondents believed that such a group was needed, although this survey suffered from serious voluntary response bias, as people who did not believe the group was needed would have been unlikely to respond to the survey—or even open the email containing it. However, many students do think anti-racism should be prioritized by the school, and in the wake of an exclusive report published by Veritas in February exposing racism in the school system, several students have come forward with disturbing anecdotes of their own. One anonymous Senior witnessed a classmate calling an East Asian student “ching chong” and “making fun of her native language to her face.” Another had been referred to as a “sp*c” while on school grounds by another student.
Fernando Young, a Harvard student and Costa Rican immigrant who graduated from NHS in 2017, described several instances in which he had been the target of racism in his time at NHS, including one where he told his Chemistry teacher, who no longer works for NHS, that he wanted to attend Harvard. “The teacher scoffed at me,” he said, “and told me my science writing was the worst she had ever seen. She said ‘you’d be lucky to get into a state school.’”
Young also detailed two instances involving a current NHS teacher. In Fall of 2016, Young was staying after school to work on homework with a few friends, and they began to talk about people who looked trustworthy. According to Young, the teacher turned to a white female student and told her, “Your face is trustworthy, I feel like I could tell my life secrets to you,” before turning to Young and saying, “and Fernando, when I look at you, all I can think is ‘hola.’”
“I told him, [teacher’s name], that’s not okay to say, but he just laughed it off,” Young remembered. “It wasn’t the first time he made questionable jokes and laughed it off…but this was particularly offensive because it was about my skin colour and ethnicity.”
Shae Albertson, an NHS student who graduated in 2017, was present for this incident and confirmed the account in full.
Another time, Young and his study group were discussing an upcoming trip to Costa Rica, where Young is from, and the teacher, who had been to Costa Rica when they were younger, allegedly reminisced that, “when I was down there, I had to have a stick to swat away the ladies, keep them off with a broom.”
“I told him ‘my mother is from Costa Rica…that’s really not okay to say,’” Young explained, “but he just said ‘What can I say? It’s the truth.’” Young has never taken a class in the discipline that teacher teaches since then, and credits the teacher’s racist remarks for this. Young never reported any of these instances, for fear he would face repercussions in the scholarship process. Despite the actions of some teachers, Young repeatedly emphasized that he had “fantastic relationships” with many others, some of which have become “real friendships.” Another student, currently a Senior at NHS, alleged that the same teacher had made racist remarks directed at them as well.
It is not only students who have experienced racism at NHS. NHS science teacher Jonelle Gurley, one of only four Black or Latinx educators employed at NHS, revealed that she has perceived micro-aggressions from other faculty, but was not comfortable elaborating, for employment reasons.
Vasil stressed that “a school should be a safe place for anyone. There’s not room for racism, there’s no room for any ill-behaviour of any kind,” and repeatedly emphasized that anyone should be comfortable talking to her and sharing their experiences. But not everyone feels that they can do so, including Gurley, who admitted “I don’t currently feel fully comfortable sharing positions that advocate for the best outcome for all students. Even though my job is to advocate for every single child who walks into this building, I don’t currently feel fully comfortable doing that…there is an underlying concern that I’m not free to do that.”
Vasil has suggested that the listening sessions could be a way for students who might want a safer place to share their experiences to do so, and that “if there are [instances of racism at NHS]—and I’m saying if, because I hope we’re going to get past having racial issues among students, and even between students and teachers—but if there are, this should be a safe place where they can talk and say, this is what happened, and then we can follow up and do something to correct it…because I think that’s important.”
She also wanted to clarify a quote she gave in the previously mentioned report. In the report, Carlos Pena described an incident in which a group of white students were racist towards him, and after hearing the anecdote, Vasil said that it was a “sad state,” and that it needed to be addressed. Specifying how she would do this, she explained that she would follow up and investigate, and that “there’s culpability on both sides, you have to look at all sides, and everyone should be held accountable and dealt with.”
After some community members expressed concern that the quote might have been intended to mean that culpability fell on both Pena and the students who had been racist to him, Vasil felt it is important to state that this was not the case, and she had not intended to place blame on Pena or other minority students in any way. Though she could not remember how she had intended the quote, she was clear that “the last thing I would want students to think is that they can’t come to the office about an uncomfortable situation or something they need to report…I want to make sure they feel comfortable doing that,” and “I know people are still learning me and who I am, I would absolutely welcome people coming in and sitting down and wanting to have a conversation.”
Both Patrick and Brannigan believe that Vasil, and Superintendent Elizabeth Hallett, are committed to fighting racism in the school, with Brannigan pointing out that the administration is allocating significant resources to combating this issue.
In contrast to Brannigan and Patrick, one anonymous student, who previously said “every white [official] the school or the town brings in promises change and acts concerned, but nothing changes,” still holds that view, despite all of the plans Vasil has put in place. “It’s a show,” he claims, “it’s all optics. Once people quiet down and look away, it stops. None of this is the systemic change we need.”
The listening sessions are only one part of this larger picture Patrick and Brannigan see as a sign of commitment, and the anonymous student dismisses. Brannigan is participating in an optional faculty education program about decolonizing the curriculum, and Vasil suggested that a recent policy change that will have teachers recommending students for AP and Honors classes if the teachers have faith the students will do well in those classes is partially motivated by a desire to help empower minority students to take challenging classes. These recommendations will not be mandated, and won’t interfere with the school’s long-standing open enrollment program, but proponents argue they will encourage and push students who might otherwise not consider taking AP classes.
NHS is also partnering with Lasell University, which received a grant to help certain underprivileged groups pursue higher education, to offer dual-enrollment to students who meet the criteria laid out by the grant. These students will take classes for college credit, which may be transferable to the colleges they attend when they graduate. Vasil sees this as a way for students who wouldn’t consider AP classes, or maybe even college, to safely take a more difficult class, and hopes it will encourage students to reach their potential.
Many people have also suggested professional development as a way for NHS to combat racism, especially racism from teachers. Patrick, for example, is certain that “engaging in professional development would be helpful,” for NHS, but Vasil did not mention any concrete plans for mandatory professional development at present.
On the other hand, Gurley worries that, though professional development “is always a great idea,” in her experience “it’s not always a solution. If some things are indoctrinated into your core values, there’s no amount of [professional development] that can fix that.”
Brannigan also doesn’t believe professional development alone will solve the problem, because “until the power transitions to the student voices, I don’t think adults alone are going to change the issue.” According to Brannigan, the student voice needs to be stronger, and she implores students that “the time is now” for those who want to be heard.